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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Sunday, December 7, 2003

Democrats to lend public ear

By Lynda Arakawa
Advertiser Capitol Bureau

More than ever, politicians are making extra efforts to show they not only are working hard, but are available to the public.

And they are listening.

Gov. Linda Lingle, the first Republican governor in 40 years, launched a series of "talk-story" sessions last summer to hear concerns from communities statewide. She also created a committee that has toured the state to discuss education reform.

Now House Democrats are joining the school cafeteria circuit with their own series of sessions titled "Lawmakers Listen," featuring key House committee heads such as Finance Chairman Dwight Takamine and Education Chairman Roy Takumi.

While Lingle and the Democrats say there is no agenda beyond listening to community concerns, observers note that political strategy also is at play.

"They're obviously trying to win the hearts and minds of the people," said Hawai'i Pacific University political science professor Gregory Gaydos. "And for their ideas and perhaps for their party."

To be fair, it's common for lawmakers to hold and attend community meetings in their neighborhoods to hear constituents' concerns. Some also have held community meetings on specific issues, such as crystal methamphetamine and child welfare.

House 'listening' sessions

• The next House "listening" session will be held at 5 p.m. Tuesday in the King Kaumuali'i Elementary School cafeteria in Lihu'e, Kaua'i.

• Lawmakers who plan to attend include Finance Chairman Dwight Takamine, Finance Vice Chairwoman Bertha Kawakami, Education Chairman Roy Takumi, Higher Education Chairman Mark Takai, Energy and Environmental Protection Chairwoman Hermina Morita, and Water, Land Use and Hawaiian Affairs Chairman Ezra Kanoho.

• Other sessions have yet to be scheduled.

But this is the first time key House committee leaders are touring the state together. And while House Speaker Calvin Say says the motivation is not political, it seems politically necessary for House

Democrats to get their message out in an election year in which they surely will be targeted by Lingle and the GOP.

The meetings, which began last week and are to continue during the legislative session, demonstrate a recognition that Democrats need to make their own public rounds to perhaps blunt Lingle's efforts, Gaydos said.

"I think it's a response to her," he said. "They're watching her and they say, 'Hey we can't have her make inroads here, we gotta go out and talk to people too.'"

Say, D-20th (St. Louis Heights, Palolo, Wilhelmina Rise), said the sessions have no relationship to Lingle's talk-story sessions, but "it's basically to go back and listen to the communities." He said the idea was prompted in part by a recent study that found the public feels disconnected from government.

"People are saying that we've lost contact with the community, and this is one way to try and go back," Say said.

"What's interesting about it is that it's not just the elected officials from that particular community or area. You're having chairs who are determining the fate of bills or legislation," he said. "They're responding to the questions of what is happening in the state of Hawai'i."

Say said he also wants to educate the public about the legislative process.

Don Clegg, a political consultant who polled for Democratic candidates last year, said such meetings can give politicians a better sense of what's important to constituents.

"It's one thing to read a letter; it's another thing to be face to face with somebody, and you can tell how deep their feelings are about the issue," he said.

Clegg said the public generally thinks of the Legislature as an "old boys" club.

"They're seeing that their image is very bad — it's always been very bad," he said. "And they see that Lingle is making quite an impression going around and being available. Whether it makes any difference, we'll have yet to see, but ... they recognize that they need a little PR themselves."

House Minority Leader Galen Fox, R-23rd (Waikiki, Ala Moana, Kaka'ako), said the meetings are "a reflection of the fact that we're in a different world now, that the governor is not of the same party as the majority in the Legislature."

"I think they relied on (former Democratic Gov. Ben Cayetano) to get out the basic message, and now that the governor is a Republican I guess they feel some need to get out their version of events," he said.

Regardless of the message, just being available can make a good impression on voters.

Clegg recalled conducting earlier surveys and being mystified that people kept electing representatives whose beliefs did not match their own.

"And in reviewing it, what I found was those particular legislators who were getting elected were mostly the ones who spent their off-Legislature times going around meeting their constituents," he said. "They were available. If there was a problem, it didn't matter what the problem was, you were their therapist to them."

But Clegg noted that such public appearances can be a double-edged sword, and that politicians who stand before constituents need to make good on their promises.

"No human being alive as a politician can produce everything they promise, because politicians are apt to promise everything," he said. "But they've got to come through with enough that makes people feel it was worthwhile."

Reach Lynda Arakawa at larakawa@honoluluadvertiser.com or at 525-8070.