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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Wednesday, January 8, 2003

Both parties split wide open

By David Shapiro

The 44-candidate field in Saturday's special election for the late Patsy Mink's congressional seat was mostly an illusion, with only five candidates pulling more than 1 percent of the vote.

But it was symbolic of a new era of political competition and independence that is opening up Hawai'i elections in unprecedented ways.

The 40-year political monopoly held by the plantation and labor wing of the Democratic Party is over after the runaway victories of Republican Linda Lingle for governor and independent Democrat Ed Case for Congress.

The new order will feature more competition between and within the parties, as a logjam of candidates battles to return to power, move up to higher office or simply get in the game. With few offices open to their ambitions, they'll have no choice but to compete against each other.

The sweeping success of Lingle and Case against walls of union opposition will inspire more candidates in major races to assert their independence.

Democrats have always been a "wait-your-turn" party, with newcomers and ambitious veterans discouraged from challenging entrenched Democratic incumbents. Many Democrats now believe this inbreeding caused a degradation of the Democratic gene pool that left the party unable to field a competitive candidate for governor in 2002.

Democrats no longer will be so willing to wait their turn, with a packed roster of frustrated luminaries determined to regain and enhance their power — John Waihee, Jeremy Harris, Mazie Hirono, Robert Bunda, Colleen Hanabusa, Matt Matsunaga, Mufi Hannemann, Duke Bainum, Clayton Hee.

Hannemann, Bainum, Hirono and possibly a Democratic City Council member or two likely will converge on the 2004 Honolulu mayor's race. If a U.S. Senate seat opens, Case and fellow U.S. Rep. Neil Abercrombie may be joined in the contest by Waihee, Harris or Hirono.

Hanabusa, Matsunaga and Hee are eager for new opportunities and may be tempted to challenge Case and Abercrombie for congressional seats that previously have been little contested in the Democratic primary.

With the Democratic field so crowded, more newcomers seeking a way in may decide their best chance is with the Republicans. That is, after all, exactly the calculation Lingle made when she chose a party for her first run for the Maui County Council.

Republicans, however, have their own divisions and have yet to prove that they are a viable party in Hawai'i and not just a Cult of Lingle.

The GOP showing in the special congressional election was embarrassingly dismal, with the party's top candidate finishing a very distant fourth behind Democrats Case, Matsunaga and Hanabusa.

If you combined the votes of the 10 leading Republican candidates, who included seven current or former officeholders, it wouldn't have been nearly enough for even second place.

The Republicans split evenly between the party's moderate wing represented by state Rep. Barbara Marumoto and the Republican right represented by former Rep. Bob McDermott.

It's a good bet that a sizable chunk of Republican voters crossed party lines and voted for Case, as Lingle and the state party sat on their hands.

McDermott was furious that Lingle refused to back him in either the special election or the general election when he was running against the deceased Mink.

"(Lingle wouldn't pay attention to me) even if I was on fire," he groused before the election. "I was never one to worship at her altar; consequently, I'm paying the price."

If the new governor wants to build a real two-party system around her own appeal, she must heal these divisions and position the GOP to compete credibly for all major offices.

David Shapiro can be reached by e-mail at dave@volcanicash.net.