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Op-Ed: Washington shake up presents Governor Lolo with challenges and opportunities

WASHINGTON, D.C. — As part of the ongoing shakeup of his administration, President Obama’s announcement that he will nominate REI Chief Executive Sally Jewell as his next Interior Secretary is the latest and one of the most important leadership changes with which Governor Lolo will have to contend when he makes his first official gubernatorial visit to Washington at the end of this month.


Building relationships with a whole new set of federal officials is just one more big challenge for the Governor as he launches his  new administration and tackles our local problems.


On the surface, it would appear that the 2012 federal election was a “status quo” contest, with President Obama returning with a Democrat-controlled Senate and a Republican House majority. But while it is true that the President sets overall federal policy, the vast bulk of specific policymaking and execution, and day-to-day relations with territorial governments, is conducted at the cabinet and especially the subcabinet level.


In addition to the secretary of the Interior, there will be several other new cabinet officers in this second term who will be running departments of importance to us including Treasury, State, Defense, Energy, Labor and Transportation. Any changes to tax exemptions for StarKist, for example, involve Treasury; our regional relations — including those with Samoa — involve the State Department; road building and maintenance funds require help from Transportation; and the continuing controversy over our minimum wage rate involves the U.S. Department of Labor. I could go on but you get the point.


The Governor and his directors also will have to deal with the ripple effect that will be caused by the changes at the top.  While we may have only one or at most two non-career appointees in our agencies here, cabinet changes in Washington can affect dozens of lower level officials.  Even without a change of party control, a new secretary quite often will want his own team not only in his immediate office but in the sub-cabinet of deputy secretaries, assistant secretaries and deputy assistant secretaries in his department. They, in turn, have a bevy of non-career staff assistants.


Moreover, new sub-cabinet officials and political staff will not magically appear overnight.  It may be several months before a new cabinet secretary has his or her own team in place, briefed and fully functioning. At Interior, our vital portal into Washington, we already know there will be one important change because Assistant Secretary Tony Babauta resigned effective February 1. A new assistant secretary for insular affairs is not likely until Secretary-designate Jewell has settled into office. The same is true at other departments as well.


So, it is unlikely all the new officials with whom it will be vital for the Governor to establish working relationships will even be in office yet when he makes his visit to Washington to attend the National Governors Association winter meeting and a number of important intergovernmental meetings that are held annually on the sidelines of that meeting to take advantage of the presence of all the island governors in one place at one time.


Because the Obama administration is only one of the two political branches of government, we also must pay great attention to nurturing our relationships with Congress. At the same time the Governor will be building friendships in the Executive Branch he will be establishing new key relationships in the Legislative Branch.


The Hawaii delegation in particular always has been important for us, because we are their closest neighbors, whom they know and understand. Moreover, they have large Samoan constituencies of their own so they have a special sensitivity to our needs.  


However, in the Senate, where we particularly need sympathetic friends because we have no representation there, the retirement of Sen. Akaka and the passing of Sen. Inouye is requiring us to build a whole new network of allies. We have relied greatly on the help of the Hawaii delegation over the years, and have been fortunate to have the same two senators in office for the past two decades — one of them for a half century.  It will take time and energy to get to know their successors and their new staffs.  


Speaking of Energy, we also have a change in the Senate Energy Committee chairmanship; the panel has jurisdiction over insular policy.  Retired Sen. Jeff Bingaman (D-NM) has been replaced by Sen. Ron Wyden (D-OR), whose interest in our issues is largely unknown.  Fortunately, Sen. Wyden has retained Allen Stayman as his lead staff member of insular affairs. Al is a good friend of the islands with years of experience and an understanding of our issues.


The House will be less of a problem because the Natural Resources Committee leadership remains unchanged. Doc Hastings (R-WA) continues as committee chairman while Rep. John Fleming (R-LA) — a physician who once did a Navy tour on Guam — again will head the subcommittee handling insular issues. Del. Kilili Sablan (D-MP) will be the subcommittee’s Ranking Member.


Last week I was invited to attend the Louisiana State Society’s annual Mardi Gras festivities in Washington, took the occasion to renew my acquaintance with Chairman Fleming and reminded him we have a new governor who no doubt will want to make a courtesy call on him when he is in Washington for NGA. The Chairman was very receptive to the idea.


At House Foreign Affairs, Del. Faleomavaega of course will continue as Ranking Democrat on the Asia Pacific subcommittee, but the exciting news is that our own Tulsi Gabbard, the freshman congresswoman from Hawaii, has been selected as third ranking Democrat on that same subcommittee, behind only Eni and one other freshman Democrat from California.  So, just as in the case of Del. Sablan, who is Ranking on Insular after only two terms, you can see from Tulsi’s high placement how quickly a new member can build seniority with the rapid turnover of membership in the House.  


All but a handful of states and one other territory, Puerto Rico, have shifted their gubernatorial elections to the even-numbered years in which we do not also elect the President. It would be a good idea for the Fono to review our election calendar because as long as we continue to be heavily dependent on the federal government, we are handicapped in our dealings with Washington when we elect a new governor at the same time a president is elected.


The governor needs time not only to settle into office with his new administration but also to develop relationships with officials in Washington who are learning their new responsibilities as well. It would an even more daunting task if there had been a concurrent change of party control either in Congress or the White House this year.


Regrettably, because a new Governor has to appoint his cabinet officers and shepherd them through our two-house confirmation process while the Fono is in session in January, invariably he must sacrifice a trip to Washington for the Presidential Inaugural, on which occasion he would have boundless opportunities at Inaugural events to establish relationships at the highest levels of government


So, even with the “status quo” stateside elections, Governor Lolo will have his work cut out for him on his maiden voyage to Washington, with a lot of ground to cover. While it will be his challenge to educate new policymakers, he also has the opportunity to make our case to these leaders who come into their new jobs with fresh perspectives and without preconceived notions. That’s a good thing.