Hawaii Gov. Josh Green faces his biggest test

The state’s second Jewish governor, who shepherded the state through the pandemic, finds himself in the national spotlight after the deadly Maui wildfires

When a wildfire ignited on the Hawaiian island of Maui earlier this month, the state’s governor was thousands of miles away, at a family reunion in Massachusetts. 

Two days later, after the flames were extinguished and the devastation in the town of Lahaina became painfully clear, Gov. Josh Green was back in the Aloha State and standing in front of an object that was by then familiar to all Hawaiians: a whiteboard. 

Green, an emergency room physician who first moved to Hawaii after medical school to work in rural hospitals, stood next to that whiteboard nearly every day of the COVID-19 pandemic, when — as lieutenant governor — he oversaw the state’s response to the public health crisis. 

Now, instead of reciting numbers about the virus case count and mortality rate, he was sharing the growing numbers of fatalities and buildings destroyed by the fires, and telling Maui residents how to access much-needed relief. The official death toll on Tuesday hit 115, but more than 1,000 people remain missing more than two weeks after the fires.    

“This is the first time for me as an executive that I’ve been tasked with something outside my absolute comfort zone,” Green, a Democrat, told The New York Times recently. “Covid was not difficult for me to deal with because I was a health care provider practicing public health.”

He earned the trust of many Hawaiians during the pandemic by taking action early to shut down nonessential travel to the state from the mainland and implementing restrictions that gave Hawaii the second-lowest COVID-19 mortality rate in the nation. Now, the state’s response to the devastating fires in Maui presents an urgent leadership test for Green. Can Green — an outsider from the mainland who is now the face of the state’s politics, and one of the most popular governors in the nation — meet the moment?

At first glance, there’s no obvious throughline in Green’s journey from his hometown of Kingston, N.Y., to Washington Place, the governor’s residence in Honolulu. His family moved to Pittsburgh when he was young, and Green, who is Jewish, attended college at Swarthmore and medical school at Pennsylvania State University. He came to Hawaii’s Big Island in 2000 as a member of the National Health Service Corps and never left.

That’s a common story for people from the mainland who make Hawaii their home, including many of the more than 7,000 Jews who live in the state. Russell Ruderman, a former state senator who served with Green in the legislature, visited Hawaii for a business convention decades ago and fell in love. 

He and Green “bonded a little bit because we were both Jews from Pennsylvania,” Ruderman told Jewish Insider. “Most people in politics here are born and raised, and if you come from somewhere else you kind of have to overcome it.”

Green is not Hawaii’s first Jewish governor. That was Linda Lingle, a Republican, who served as governor from 2002 to 2010. One of the state’s two U.S. senators, Brian Schatz, is also Jewish.

“I think everyone’s proud to have our second Jewish governor in a state [where] a lot of people have never met a Jew,” said Mimi Lind, executive director of Jewish Community Services of Hawaii. 

Green has not made his faith a major part of his political identity. Still, in April he hosted a Passover Seder at the governor’s residence alongside a Chabad rabbi. In the summer of 2021, when anti-vaccine mandate protesters set up shop outside Green’s Honolulu condo, fliers featuring Green’s face and the word “FRAUD” under a banner with Stars of David and the word “JEW” were distributed in the area. (A spokesperson for the governor declined to make him available for an interview.)

For Hawaiian voters, the more relevant aspect of Green’s identity might be that he isn’t from the state — and that he’s white, as opposed to Native Hawaiian.

“I’m always sort of curious how many people in the electorate even know that Josh Green is Jewish. He is talked about as a white governor,” said Colin Moore, a political science professor at the University of Hawaii at Manoa. Green’s wife is Native Hawaiian, and the couple have two children.

President Joe Biden (L), First Lady Jill Biden (R), Hawaii Governor Josh Green (2nd R) and Jaime Green, First Lady of Hawaii, take part in an operational briefing on response and recovery efforts following wildfires in Lahaina, Hawaii on August 21, 2023. (Photo by MANDEL NGAN/AFP via Getty Images)

“Being white and not being from Hawaii does come up in elections all the time,” Moore continued. Only a quarter of Hawaiians are white. 

Green’s turn to politics came just a few years after he moved to Hawaii. He was elected to the Statehouse in 2004 and the state Senate four years later, eventually rising in the ranks to become majority leader. 

“He was always a great communicator. He was always a great fundraiser,” said Moore. “I always thought he has great instincts.”

Ruderman said he and Green were part of a group of friends in the legislature known as the “Chess Club,” which is not — as it might seem — a reference to their ability to successfully play political 4D-chess. 

“I think that’s a nod to us being kind of nerdy,” Ruderman explained. 

Green was not always seen as a rising political star, but his bid for lieutenant governor in 2018 made his ambitions clear. He narrowly won the primary.

“The only reason to have that job is to run for governor or something else,” said Moore. “It wasn’t really until COVID, and his I think pretty tremendous performance communicating the crisis on his famous whiteboard, that really created his reputation and made him an almost unbeatable candidate for governor.”

Besides his use of the ever-present whiteboard, during the pandemic Green also moonlighted in rural emergency rooms. By the time he ran for governor in 2022, Green was easy to spot at political events: He was the guy wearing medical scrubs. Even now, when he no longer works in hospitals due to ethics laws barring Hawaii governors from other employment opportunities, he still sometimes posts videos from his home where his casual weekend attire appears to be scrubs. It might be a shtick, but whatever he’s doing seems to be working: In July, his approval rating was 64%. 

Now, in the aftermath of the Maui fires, Green’s challenges range from the immediate — coordinating local, state and federal resources to oversee an increasingly desperate and unlikely search for survivors — to the immense, like how to rebuild and who should be part of that process, or who bears responsibility for the fires.

But Green’s COVID-19 playbook does not map perfectly onto this new crisis. David Shapiro, a longtime Hawaii political journalist, criticized Green in a recent column in the Honolulu Star-Advertiser.

“During the COVID-19 pandemic, then-Lt. Gov. Josh Green’s whiteboard briefings on Facebook were popular because he often imparted key factual information,” Shapiro wrote. “His daily briefings in the Lahaina wildfire tragedy get more mixed reviews because he too frequently moves beyond facts and launches into speculation, promises he lacks the power to keep and self-­aggrandizement.”

“The real challenge is going to be three to six months from now, as the frustration grows, as he tries to navigate how to lead the effort, and then also just how to hold parts of the state that clearly failed in their response to the fire accountable,” Moore said.

Before the fire, Green’s biggest concern had been homelessness, a problem that is now exponentially compounded in Lahaina. Earlier this summer, he had vowed to cut some regulations on home development to ramp up construction, a plan that is now on pause. But some Hawaiians fear that he will be too quick to support developers and wealthy out-of-towners who might want to buy up charred lots in Maui. He said last week that he is considering ways to pause or slow down sales of damaged and destroyed properties. 

Then there are the questions of whether state and local officials were too slow to alert Lahaina residents to the fast-spreading fires, and who might be at fault for the blaze. Green has ordered a comprehensive review of the state’s warning systems and its largest utility company, as questions have emerged about the role power lines played in starting the fire.

“The real challenge is going to be three to six months from now, as the frustration grows, as he tries to navigate how to lead the effort, and then also just how to hold parts of the state that clearly failed in their response to the fire accountable,” Moore said.

Joshua Green (D), speaks at the press conference before the Hawaii Tennis Open at Ward Village on December 26, 2019 in Honolulu, Hawaii. (Photo by Darryl Oumi/Getty Images)

Amid the state’s vaccination campaign in 2021, Green offered himself a note of praise: “I’ve become like a part of the family for most of the state,” he told the Washington Post. “I hear that every five minutes out there, when I’m walking around at the grocery store. It appears that I’ve formed a bond with people. Not just the Democratic Party electorate, or the primary electorate, but everybody.”

Will the governor’s tight bond with the people of Hawaii weather the traumatic wildfires? In the 2002 Disney film “Lilo and Stitch,” which takes place in Hawaii, one of the most memorable lines describes Green’s burden: “Ohana means family, and family means nobody is left behind or forgotten.” It will take months to know whether the people of Lahaina will be left behind.

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