Hawai‘i’s Black Swan Event

Hawai‘i’s Black Swan Event

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An Island Reality: All Paths Lead to the Governor’s Office

Black Swan by Marko Knuutila

Tom Coffman
Commentary
Special to The Hawai‘i Herald

In 2007, a writer named N.N. Taleb published a book called “The Black Swan Event.” It was about events “outside the realm of regular expectations because nothing in the past can convincingly point to its possibility.” Following a Black Swan event, “human nature makes us concoct explanations for its occurrence after the fact, making it explainable and predictable.”

The theory of the unheralded Black Swan originally was associated with the unraveling of the Soviet Union and 9/11. But as the words have entered our vocabulary, we might say the 2014 primary election for governor of Hawai‘i is a Black Swan. No one predicted the outcome, but we are compelled to make it “explainable and predictable after the fact.”

As 2014 dawned, everyone “in the know” knew that sitting governors are re-elected, that Hawai‘i’s economy was doing well, that the state administration had not suffered a significant scandal and that Neil Abercrombie was an accomplished campaigner. If you were assigned to oppose Abercrombie in the classroom speech contest, you might hope to be saved by the school bell. Last but not least, his $5 million campaign fund was certain to paper over whatever unpopularity he was experiencing.

As everyone now repeats with a nod, David Ige was a little-known figure. Weirdly, Ige is still best known today by that description — “little-known.” In his 29 years of public service, he was never forced to organize and conduct a campaign, not even at the legislative level. He mainly knew how to talk about the state budget. He did not have the central knack of higher-level political candidates, which is to weave strands from here and there into a story about why he or she should be elected. Nor did he have the money to buy the production of such a story in paid media. In fact, he had almost no paid media of any kind, and what he did have was forgettable.

Abercrombie began the year with a substantial lead in the polls, but Ige did better than expected. Immediately, political watchers assumed that Abercrombie’s advantages would soon kick in.

Contrary to expectation, the gap between Abercrombie and Ige shrank. Then it closed. Nonetheless, the expectation of an Abercrombie victory continued virtually unabated until just before the primary election, when the most widely published poll gave Ige an 18 percent lead. Finally, it seemed that Ige might do the unthinkable. Maybe he would actually eek out a win, but, of course, not by such a wide margin. When Hurricane Iselle hit just before the election, various broadcasters hinted that with a crisis of nature to battle, Abercrombie might actually avoid defeat.

Instead, Ige won not merely by the poll margin but by twice that margin. The difference of 36 percent, we were told by political scientists, dealt Abercrombie the worst loss by an incumbent governor in a primary election in U.S. history.

It is interesting to reflect that if David Ige had not made his lonely decision, we would not have known that a large majority of primary voters thought something was going wrong in the governor’s office. There would have been no parting of the curtains and no Black Swan.

At the risk of trying to make the Black Swan “explainable and predictable after the fact,” I will share two stories that came to me, somewhere in the region between gut and brain.

Foremost was the growing frustration of the former governor, George R. Ariyoshi, with the Abercrombie administration, most particularly the Wild West approach to developing Kaka‘ako. This was coupled with Ariyoshi’s almost mystical belief in grassroots politics. Those with long memories recall that in 1966, Ariyoshi made headlines by casting the vote that tipped the scales against the Maryland Land Law, which was essentially a land redistribution law. Enraged Democrats and various labor unions organized to defeat him in the next election. He responded by talking his way through small group after small group, riding out the storm and returning to the state Senate, from there to emerge as lieutenant governor and then governor. His campaigns became million-dollar affairs, but he continued to promote the virtue of coffee hours as a matter of faith. When he was busy being governor for three terms, he was often represented by his wife Jean, who talked with people from the heart about their outlook on life and about how their families were doing.

One of Ariyoshi’s thousands of acts as governor was to fill a vacant Pearl City House seat by appointing 30-year-old David Ige to it. Last year, when Ige began thinking the unthinkable, he first spoke with Ariyoshi. Defying conventional wisdom, Ariyoshi urged Ige to run for the state’s highest office. He said that if Ige held a lot of coffee hours, he could overcome Abercrombie’s advantages.

To great skepticism, I first heard of the Ige idea from Ariyoshi. I went to two such coffee hours, which were short of spectacular. My main impression is that, as he went forward, Ige, in his modest way, incrementally improved his presentation without ever really developing a narrative about why he should be elected.

The second story goes back to when I was a young political reporter, covering the 1970 contest between John Burns and Tom Gill. I wrote a column describing the far-reaching powers of Hawai‘i’s governorship. I cited the highly centralized structure of Hawai‘i state government, the governor’s control of its many departments and agencies, the governor’s appointive power over the judiciary and the general influence a governor can exert over the Legislature.

In a brief nod to history, I described how the office had descended from the ruling Hawaiian chiefs to kings and queens, to the presidency of the Hawai‘i Republic, to the appointed territorial governors and then to the martial law governors of World War II.

Gov. John A. Burns fixed me in that grave stare and announced that in this instance, I had gotten it right.

From such experiences, I developed a sense of the governorship as the ballast of Island society. We are a small population with a small economy and a fragile environment, bound together by tenuous relationships. The governor is an arbiter. The governor sets a tone. He or she consolidates gains, softens blows and mediates disputes. Metaphorically, all paths lead to the governor’s office.

Such pervasive influence may not be ideal, but it’s what we’ve got. He or she, to serve well, must be a source of equilibrium. Uniquely, among the state of Hawai‘i’s seven elected chief executives, Neil Abercrombie governed in an ongoing state of disequilibrium, which he projected onto public events and public processes.

The unforeseen rejection of his performance was astonishing in its depth and breadth. Many of the post-statehood alliances and movements have been turned upside down in the process. This is not only post-Abercrombie time, but also post-Inouye, post-Burns, post-Gill and post a lot of other things. It is even post-Ariyoshi, but let us remember this 88-year-old for his catalytic challenge to conventional thinking.

Despite such change, it feels as if we have quickly pivoted to politics as usual, not only in the media, but also in the campaigns and in the community conversation. The Black Swan has become explainable and predictable.

My own notion is that, having experienced an abrupt upheaval, we are none too consciously searching for a new equilibrium in the institution of the governorship. When we arrive at this new equilibrium, it will, I think, be with us a long while.

Tom Coffman is an independent researcher, author and documentary producer. His latest book, “How Hawai‘i Changed America,” an in-depth community history of World War II, was published this past summer. In the 1960s and ’70s, Coffman covered state government and politics for Honolulu’s two major dailies, the Honolulu Advertiser and the Honolulu Star-Bulletin. He has also authored several other books of note, including, “Catch a Wave: A Case Study of Hawai‘i Politics”; “The Island Edge of America,” a political history of Hawai‘i; “Nation Within: The Story of America’s Annexation of Hawai‘i”; and “I Respectfully Dissent,” the biography of the late Hawai‘i Supreme Court Justice Edward H. Nakamura.

Photo: Black Swan by Marko Knuutila

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