Hawaii Governor Nears Anniversary of 'New Look' Leadership
By Rita Beamish, Special to Stateline
HONOLULU -- When Hawaii voters demanded change after forty years of Democratic rule, they went all the way, electing as governor the first woman, first Jewish person and first Republican since Hawaii's early statehood days.
True, Hawaii's embrace of Gov. Linda Lingle was seen to be as much a rejection of Democratic stodginess and scandals as an endorsement of her agenda. And it was probably predictable that one year later the grand-scale change she promised would still be elusive: Schools are still in trouble, illicit use of the drug "ice" is rampant, the tourist economy is struggling to diversify.
When she tried to crack down on legislative use of "Rainy Day" funds for social programs -- part of a larger tug of war with the Democratic-controlled Legislature -- Lingle was slapped with a rare special session where lawmakers overrode her vetoes.
But in her methodical, disciplined, determined style, observers say, Lingle has spent her first year laying the foundation for what could be dramatic political and policy changes to come.
"She's an excellent player. She's working as a very strong-leadership type governor. She's a good organizer," said Ira Rohter, a University of Hawaii political science professor. Lingle kept a tight rein on spending, and Rohter cited her high-profile summit on the crystal methamphetamine ("ice") epidemic, along with her new task force on education, as bully-pulpit endeavors that will likely produce solid policy initiatives.
Lingle also is renowned for her political and public relations skills in a state where a modest politician is not an oxymoron. Unmarried, she maintains a brisk public schedule of speeches, school visits, and a weekly call-in radio show. She drags her entire Cabinet to community "talk-story" meetings where residents bend her ear about homeless people, drug dealing, unresponsive police officers and smelly dumps. The sessions are well attended in a state tailor-made for retail politics.
A former Maui County mayor who ran a small newspaper before entering politics, Lingle came to the governor's mansion straight from political street-fighting, having headed the state Republican party after an unsuccessful bid to unseat Gov. Benjamin Cayetano in 1998. She is credited with energizing the moribund party, and continues her cheerleading efforts as governor. When she publicly urged developers to elect their advocates to the Legislature, it was a final straw for the Sierra Club, which accused her of a "radically pro-development agenda."
She keeps a tight inner circle of advisers but maintains a down-to-earth persona, taking morning swims at the YMCA and standing in the popcorn line at the movies. Don Clegg, a pollster and Democratic strategist, rates Lingle's political skills among the best and says Democrats are "scared to death" of her potential. "She's been doing a rational, conservative job," in contrast to the far-right agenda some had predicted, he said.
Lingle favors abortion rights and keeps her distance from the Republicans' national conservative agenda. She has a maverick streak, which was on view when she joined Democrats in enacting insurance parity for mental health care -- her passion spurred by her own mother's mental illness.
She also stunned GOP traditionalists by endorsing a tax hike for an ambitious mass transit project to ease the brutal commute into Honolulu. GOP state Sen. Fred Hemmings staunchly opposes any such tax, but still wasn't about to fault the governor, who finally loosened the Democratic grip on Hawaii.
"She's been able to come in and rein in a government that was growing unchecked and in a haphazard manner," he said.
Lingle, however, has hit plenty of rough patches. She suffered a slow start in filling top positions and feeling her way around the Legislature. Most of her policy proposals were stymied by either budget constraints or the realities of reconciling campaign promises with legislative powers.
Her promise to cut taxes on food and medical services never got off the ground, and she tangled with lawmakers over education reform. She ended up cutting even library hours in her drive for fiscal restraint.
Lingle had predicted that her ties to the Republican White House would help her win long-sought sovereignty for the native Hawaiian people a legal status comparable to that enjoyed by American Indians in the Continental United States. She failed to deliver, but her intensive lobbying helped cement her ties with native Hawaiians, a swing voter group.
Dozens of Lingle vetoes did prevail, among them rejection of a long-term care tax. She counts fiscal restraint high on her accomplishment list, which also includes reforms in government procurement and business registration fees, removing a much-hated quarantine for traveling pets, and linking the needy with free, donated medicine.
The list is modest compared to the agenda she laid out as a candidate, but observers anticipate a strong push next legislative session. So far the tone is less contentious than it was between the Legislature and Cayetano. "There has been a little walking on eggshells to see what the relationship will be," said Democratic Sen. Colleen Hanabusa, who is primed to push alternative priorities for the proposed transit tax. "The session to truly measure her by is the upcoming one."
Honolulu-based writer Rita Beamish is a former White House reporter for The Associated Press.