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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Wednesday, August 27, 2003

Democrats must regroup

By David Shapiro

Nine months after losing the governorship for the first time in 40 years, Hawai'i Democrats have made little progress toward rebuilding their party and reuniting the feuding factions that led to their humiliating defeat.

No clear leadership has emerged to point the party's path back to power. Republican Gov. Linda Lingle easily outsmarts Democrats in the Legislature, repeatedly beating them to the punch in getting out a cohesive message to the voting public.

Perhaps the most telling sign of the moribund state of Democratic politics is that no candidate has stepped forward as a credible challenger to Lingle for governor in 2006.

The less Lingle has to worry about her own re-election, the more she can concentrate on extending Republican power by attacking the control Democrats still hold in the Legislature.

The key battleground in next year's election will be an all-out push by the governor to regain the three House seats Republicans need to make Lingle's vetoes immune to Democratic override.

The 2002 election exposed deep divisions between old-guard and "new" Democrats, liberals and moderates, private-sector unions and public workers, Neighbor Island Democrats and urbanites.

With the factional disputes unresolved, the Democrats lack a center around which to rally the faithful, many of whom threw up their hands and voted for Lingle in 2002.

The 2002 election tarnished the Democrats' top names, such as Mazie Hirono, Jeremy Harris and Matt Matsunaga, and there's no sign of a younger generation of candidates coming up behind them from a Legislature bereft of quality leadership.

The only Democrat to emerge from the 2002 election stronger than he went in was U.S. Rep. Ed Case, a party maverick who narrowly lost the Democratic nomination for governor to Hirono, and then came back to demolish a large field in the special election to fill the late Patsy Mink's seat in Congress.

Many Democratic elders thought Case would have given Lingle a tougher fight than Hirono did last year. They make no secret that they want him to come back from Washington to take up the battle in 2006.

But it could be a tough sell to get Case to play. He enjoys serving in Congress and has a safe seat. He's a top candidate for the Senate when one of Hawai'i's 78-year-old senators retires, and he's young enough to amass major power in Washington.

Before giving that up to make a risky run for governor against an entrenched incumbent, Case would demand no primary election opposition and assurances of absolute and enthusiastic backing of a united Democratic Party.

It's doubtful the contentious Democrats could deliver that. Many in the party don't like Case's independent tendencies, and labor regards him with as much suspicion as it does Lingle.

With Case a questionable starter, some Democratic elders talk of trying to entice retired Gen. Eric Shinseki into the race for governor.

Shinseki certainly has attractive credentials. A Kaua'i native and the first Asian American to earn four stars, he served as Army chief of staff before his retirement earlier this year.

But Shinseki hasn't been a visible figure in Hawai'i during his 38-year Army career, and little is known about his views on local issues. Many respected military leaders, such as Secretary of State Colin Powell, have simply lacked the stomach for the obtuse world of elective politics.

Even if somebody like Shinseki saves the day, Democrats should be very worried that they're failing to produce quality candidates from the ranks — and must resort to desperate measures to fill top ballot spots.

David Shapiro can be reached at dave@volcanicash.net.