Lieutenant Governor Shan Tsutsui Plays an Important Role in Hawai‘i’s Post-Inouye Political Landscape.

April 25, 2013
Susan Halas , The Maui Weekly

It was December 2012 and the elections were over. Maui Democrat Shan Tsutsui was safely ensconced as president of the Hawai’i State Senate, getting ready to start his second term in that leadership post.

But the death of U.S. Sen. Daniel Inouye changed all that.

Inouye’s death on Dec. 17 created a vacancy, and Gov. Neil Abercrombie filled it on Dec. 26 by appointing then Lt. Gov. Brian Schatz for an interim term running through 2014. That in turn created an opening at the lieutenant governor level, and by law, the state Senate president is the first in line to accept or decline the position.

So the day after Christmas, those were the options facing Tsutsui.

“Frankly,” he said, “my first inclination was to say ‘no.’ I thought it was an interesting opportunity, but I wasn’t sure I was interested.”

Learning that he might get a new job, Tsutsui’s first call was to Schatz to find out “what does a lieutenant governor do?” That conversation was positive and influential.

“Schatz said the lieutenant governor has a lot of latitude to work independently and that he had a good working relationship with the governor,” said Tsutsui.

Tsutsui next talked with the governor directly, and that conversation also went well.

“It seemed like he had a strong desire for me to be part of the administration,” said Tsutsui. “He went out of his way to stress ‘youth’ and the opportunity to be part of the next generation.” (Abercrombie is the second oldest governor at 74, and Tsutsui is the second youngest lieutenant governor at 40.)

“That meeting was positive,” he recalled, “but I still intended to say ‘no.'”

So what changed his mind?

“Well,” he said, “the governor can be very persuasive, and I saw it as a way I could make a larger difference.”

Though Schatz’s main focus had been “renewable energy,” Tsutsui wants to be “hands on” and “address multiple issues.”

To be candid, Tsutsui does not always see eye-to-eye with his new boss–on the Public Land Development Corporation (PLDC); Banner Health, a proposed partner for Maui Memorial Medical Center; collective bargaining with Hawai’i’s teachers; and “the list goes on and on.”

Tsutsui thinks more “common sense” needs to come into play, and with it, improved communications.

“That starts with how you treat people who have differing views,” he said.

Tsutsui is also well aware that the governor and lieutenant governor are only paired in the general election–they do not run as a team in the primary. As for whether, as widely rumored, he’s being groomed to run for the top spot himself in six years, he responded, “I can’t think that far ahead.”

“I certainly do intend to run for lieutenant governor in 2014,” he said, even though the race could be financially daunting.

Tsutsui estimated his 2012 Maui state Senate campaign raised and spent about $50,000. But he thinks the upcoming statewide race “could cost a million or more”–at least 20 times the largest amount his group has ever raised.

Fundraising, he confessed, is his “least favorite” part of the electoral process. He’d rather get the policy and legislative work done first.

And he is also not so keen about the “being always on.”

“Basically, it’s a 365 days a year job,” said Tsutsui. “Not much time to lounge around, read a book or do yard work. I might not look it, but I enjoy yard work.”

In some ways, it all comes back to Maui. Tsutsui said he sees his new post as a way he can do more for his home island.

Along those lines, one of his first moves has been to find office space here–and a pretty bare-bones space it is. The new office is part of a room that measures about 20-by-20 feet, with bare walls and a few tables and chairs. It’s tucked away on the lower level of the old courthouse next door to the Wailuku Library.

Though it’s minimal, it provides the lieutenant governor with a place where he can meet with constituents when he’s on-island. He does not see the cost as excessive. He also plans to add video conferencing that can be used by his office, other Maui lawmakers and local citizens who want to testify on legislative matters.

“You shouldn’t have to get on a plane to directly participate in the process,” he said.