THE BLOG
07/12/2010 12:03 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Duke Aiona Interview

Lt. Gov Aiona was the first interview of the day. And kudos to him for sitting down with an unknown Democrat for an hour, and then answering question after question without evading any of them. I think this speaks very well of him. Duke is a very personable and impressive guy, but what really struck me throughout the interview is the thought, depth of knowledge, and intellectual curiosity he exhibited on topic after topic.

So on to the interview. My first question was why does he enter the arena (of running for office).

He had one of the most interesting answers I have ever heard to this question - that people talk about what needs to be done, that we need people to run, "but nobody steps up." He was very passionate about this, that it's the responsibility of people to address issues by running for office. He turned the question on its head to ask why isn't everyone else running (very good question).

I next asked what he is most proud of over the last 8 years.

Duke replied with the Hawaii Clean Energy Initiative. He discussed it in some detail and said that this is a large part of the reason he is running - he wants to keep this on track and moving forward. Duke dove into details on this - this is clearly something he is very passionate about and this will clearly get a lot of his time and attention in office.

What's also interesting is Duke sees this as a much larger issue than electricity generation. He talked about a community at Kaapuni(?) where they have affordable housing that is set up to be sustainable in energy, in food, etc. The level of detail on this effort Duke discussed was amazing - and the total discussion displayed a very nuanced and comprehensive view of minimizing our impact on the environment.

With that Duke transitioned into the need for Hawaii to increase the amount of food it grows locally rather than importing everything. He discussed how the costs of growing locally, especially fertilizer, makes it more expensive to grow here than grow in California and then ship the food here. He doesn't have an answer to this issue, but he at least understands the specifics of the problem. He also spoke honestly about what is doable.

I then asked what he would do over the next 4 years that would surprise everyone.

Duke's answer was - nothing. That 4 years from now people will say that they got exactly what he said they would get. I think this answer comes from his being very open about what he wants to do and what drives him, and as Lt. Gov he has seen day to day how the system operates and as such can see how he will probably execute in office.

Next I asked if he has someone who is his insurgent (someone who challenges him on the fundamentals).

Duke replied that no he doesn't have an insurgent, but that his background is as a judge has taught him to always look at the opposing views on each issue. To get both sides and evaluate each. He talked about how important the process in the legal system - that everyone has a chance to present their case and to have the case fairly evaluated on the merits. This clearly is a core value of Duke's, from his time as a judge, that everyone is fairly heard on an issue.

The next question was where I got the most surprising answer. I asked Duke to name a state program he would end.

His reply was "I can't answer that, I don't have any in mind right now."

My $0.02: This surprised me coming from Colorado where for most Republicans the reply would be "only one?" I think Duke's answer indicates that there may be changes in emphasis with him as Governor, there won't be a significant change in what the state does.

And the natural follow-up was name a program you would add.

This got another answer where Duke's passion was clear - more specialty courts along the lines of the very successful drug courts (which Duke created when he was a judge). He talked about how much better those courts work for both the litigants and society (very true). And that doing this will require effort from both the judiciary and the legislature as it will cost more - but be well worth it.

I next asked what he had done that had hurt him politically. Duke first brought up his stand on Civil Unions and how that has been a negative for some. And that when he first ran his position on abortion had also been an issue. In his discussion of this it was very clear that he is comfortable with where he stands and that's just who he is, not something to be modified for political reasons. But he also said it was important to discuss it in a way that respected everyone.

At this point his campaign manager volunteered that one item in this category is Duke's unwillingness to respond to personal attacks against the administration in kind and instead he chooses to discuss the issues involved. It is interesting that throughout this conversation there was not a single hit at Mufi or Neil.

Next I asked what he was going to do to fix the K-12 schools.

Duke showed me his education proposal and we then dived in to the hard parts. For step one he wants a comprehensive independent audit of the entire system. At present no one knows what is going on inside the Department of Education. For step two he wants to empower the principals to be responsible for their schools. He then made the very good observation that in one sense the changes are easy, but they are also very hard because they constitute a cultural change. Step three is to track student achievement. He did stress that achievement was not the only important thing - but it is one of the very important parts.

Duke then discussed how all of this brings in accountability. And the accountability is what will improve the schools. He also made the observation that he does not want to be picking winners and losers because "ultimately we all have to be winners" to make this work. Duke went on at some length about how to approach the necessary cultural change that is required to effect major improvement.

My $0.02: The primary responsibility of the state government is education. Duke gets this, sees what needs to be done, and sees how to get there. On the flip side, that doesn't mean it can be done as the educational system (like all systems) will fight cultural change tooth and nail. But step one is a credible effort to change the system and Duke has that.

My next question is one of my favorites because every politician loves the idea. So Duke is elected and on the first day of session the legislative leadership says he can give them one bill and they will immediately pass it - what is the bill.

He did give it some thought. (This is a fun question because, while no legislature would ever provide this to anyone, ever - no politician can resist answering it seriously because it would be such an extraordinary offer.) And he then said the bill to get the educational reforms moving. I'd say this is a good indicator that fixing K-12 comes first for Duke.

I next asked about the job situation, what should the state do both to increase jobs and improve the quality of them.

Duke started off talking about how the economy has been rough and a lot of mom & pop companies have shut down - and with that shutdown every job at that company was lost. He then talked about work to increase the number of film and high-tech jobs in the state. He also talked about the recent legislation where a single bill helped R&D companies but hurt R&D investors - he's like to see the legislature put these issues in separate bills.

He then circled back to education as that is critical to bringing in more high-tech jobs - having more highly educated workers in the workforce. He then talked about the various programs including the STEM programs. Duke is a very big supporter of the robotics competition (me too - I wish they had that when I was in school). Duke also talked about how we need to celebrate science in school as well as we do sports. He brought up the example of a Hawaii school that won the Lexus/Nexus environmental national competition - first in the nation. And yet no big story.

Kudos to Duke - he told the school that they need to have a banner in the gym for this, along with their sports championship..

I brought up Craigslist replacing classified ads everywhere as an example, I asked if we're going through a transformation as significant as the industrial revolution.

Duke does see this as a major transformation, that it does dramatically change the jobs picture, and that education is key to addressing this change.

In line with that I asked what happens when daily newspapers are gone.

Duke talked about how there is already less diversity of opinion with the reduction to one main daily now. He does think we will retain one because there is a demand for journalism. And that it will remain printed because many people want to hold the paper in their hands. He then talked about how he doesn't want to see printed books disappear. He understands the advantages of a Kindle, but he wants to use printed books - this is an emotional connection for him.

He then talked about how his kid's source is Google. So he thinks journalism will continue, but many may not find that as their source. But instead they will use whatever Google puts up first. (I think this is spot on.) He said that with each election facebook and twitter have become more important for the campaign. So he sees this transformation to the web as it impacts him election by election.

Next I asked, 8 years from now after 2 terms, what will people say his big accomplishments were.

Duke started with "he was exactly what he said he would be." And second that "he accomplished what he said he would accomplish." This was an interesting answer in that Duke is looking to be a good steward of the state and to leave it a better place. He's also quite modest for a politician - Duke wants to govern and campaigning for office is a required step to govern. But his love clearly is governing, not campaigning.

And the other question 8 years out - what next.

Duke's first answer was "I don't know." Clearly he has not given it much (any?) thought. But he did say that he has considered teaching at some point in time and so maybe he will become a teacher. (FWIW - I think Duke would be an incredible teacher.)

I then asked, if he loses the election and we're back to a Democratic administration with a Democratic legislature, will the corruption return.

Duke's reply was "that I fear it will." He discussed how the single party control just does not work well and a large part of his campaign is that they do stand for balance. Duke really came alive on this discussion talking about the value in having a robust discussion between opposing viewpoints. He's clearly someone who relishes the clash of ideas in the political sphere. He does think that the voters in Hawaii are more open to Republicans for this balance. It's still an uphill battle, but it's now possible.

So what do you get with Duke Aiona? You've got someone who's got a very good grasp of the major issues in Hawaii - he's clearly a systems nerd. He's also clearly very smart, and more important, has great intellectual curiosity. He's also very personable which is probably the most important attribute in a successful politician.

What's of great interest is letting the candidate talk and seeing where they take the conversation - because that shows their interests. No matter what the question, Duke eventually brough it around to energy/environment or education. Those are his passion, those are why he's running, and those are what will get the most effort and attention from him.

I think he would serve Hawaii very well as Governor. His largest problem is that he's a Republican. That's no longer killer, but he's got a major uphill climb on his hands.

Interview recording: Duke Aiona Interview

Interviews with Neil Abercrombie and Mufi Hannemann