Return Of The Intern
Hawaii Attorney General Doug Chin rattles off names of past Hawaii attorneys general with admiration: “Margery Bronster, Mark Bennett, David Louie.”
Then, with uncharacteristic candor, he adds, “For the stars to align for me to get this job, there’s a lot of luck involved. I don’t think I was the first choice.”
For the record, Gov. David Ige says, “We interviewed many qualified candidates, and Doug was clearly the best choice.”
Humility defines Chin, whether he’s in charge or an intern. His history in the AG’s office runs as deep as the roots of the banyan tree his desk overlooks. His law career began in the same building in 1993, when the eager University of Hawaii law student was selected as an intern.
“Although he was only a first-year law student, we selected him because he was energetic, articulate and a good writer,” explains Deputy Attorney General Rod Tam, member of the intern selection committee. “Now it’s kind of funny that he ends up being our boss. But he hasn’t changed a bit — he’s the same humble person today that I remember him being back in 1993.”
One thing that has changed: demand for his expertise.
“I find I’m in an extraordinary number of meetings, averaging six to 10 a day,” says Chin before running through a “routine” day: “Meet with the governor to talk about difficult decisions, run through bills to point out any concerns with legislators, work with the Department of Health to make sure, with medical marijuana dispensaries going live, that goes well.”
Chin starts every day the same way: with daddy duty. He wakes up his two children, fixes breakfast and then drops them off at school. Once at the office, he is greeted by piles of paperwork — bills requiring review cram counter space in the hallway leading to the AG’s office. And it never ends. As MidWeek went to press Friday, Senate President Ronald D. Kouchi, on behalf of a majority of state
senators, had requested Chin provide a formal opinion regarding Ige’s authority to appoint an interim commissioner to the Public Utilities Commission. Given the important pending dockets before the PUC, including a decision on NextERA’s bid to buy Hawaiian Electric, a formal opinion was requested to be issued in a timely manner.
In contrast to the piles of paper , his workspace is minimalist with a handful of mementos. There’s a baby photo of his now-teenage daughter “to remind me that there’s a reason why we’re doing what we’re doing,” explains Chin. “When I interviewed for the prosecutor’s office the day after my daughter was born, I was realizing this was not really about me trying to make money anymore. It’s about trying to be a good example.”
Something then-prosecutor Peter Carlisle said during the interview stuck with him.
“I remember him always saying,” Chin says, “‘You may not get the financial luxury in life, but you get the moral luxury knowing at the end of the day you did something that really helped people.'”
Next to family photos, you’ll find keepsakes from his public service, including a name plaque from his time as managing director of the City and County of Honolulu under Carlisle. The former mayor says he immediately thought of Chin for that role because he’s “smart, organized and articulate, with a moral compass that would leave him unscathed in the depths of purgatory.”
A front-page headline near Chin’s desk stands witness to his high-profile case wins. When it’s pointed out that he’ll soon have a MidWeek cover story to go next to it, he takes the media interest in stride as part of his job rather than recognition for a job well done.
Chin considered becoming a journalist while an undergraduate at Stanford University, but the television show Law and Order steered him into law. In his words, it was a fascination with “what I saw on TV, being in the courtroom, talking to juries, being able to connect and convince them. However, they always solve the case in one hour. Most cases take two to three years.”
Chin won the “Top Gun” award at the prosecutor’s office for most wins in a year.
“I won the most jury trials, but winning isn’t the only thing,” he reflects. “Often, what we’re trying to do is accomplish a greater goal to move forward.”
He cites a $16 million settlement with Matson for the 2013 molasses spill as an example.
“People didn’t know how to value something because it killed fish and coral,” he says. “My concern was we could litigate this for 12-15 years before people of Hawaii could see their money.”
The AG took his training role at the Punahou Carnival scrips booth equally seriously, jokingly warning everyone, “Better make sure nobody steals money here. It would look really bad and I’ll come after you.”
Outside the office, the son of Chinese immigrants sings a cappella at church: “They passed that on to me, but they said, ‘Make sure you have a real job.'”
His real job isn’t something he saw himself doing. While his mom and dad worked at the same place for 40 years, his career shifts with the political tide. One year into the job and one week shy of his 50th birthday, Chin will celebrate by river rafting with his family in Idaho, then return home to watch his new favorite show — a production of Mamma Mia! at Diamond Head Theatre featuring his daughter.
You get the sense that Doug Chin’s birthday wish already has come true.