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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Sunday, May 9, 2004

State parties battling for power

By Jerry Burris
Advertiser Editorial Editor

Pity the poor voters.

The fall election remains months away, but already they are being asked to decide who has failed them and who has met their fondest wishes.

The battleground is the state Legislature, which the Democrats continue to control, much to the chagrin of the Republican Party and its most prominent leader, Gov. Linda Lingle.

Lingle had a rough time of it with the Legislature this year.

The majority Democrats shot down many of her ideas (most notably the plan to break up the state school board into seven or more locally elected boards), they tried to strip her of some of her executive powers and they passed cornerstone bills on education and drugs that fall far short of the mark in Lingle's estimation.

The governor is already off on the speaking circuit, outlining in as much detail as she can how the Democrats, in her words, "missed opportunities" and deserve to be sent packing.

Right behind her will be Democratic leaders from both the House and Senate who will take their own show on the road, talking about what they believe were the major successes of the session.

This is about far more than a battle for reputations and bragging rights. It is directly about control or influence over the Legislature and whether Lingle's election will be the start of a GOP "revolution" in the Islands or a mere blip on the political landscape.

Even the most ardent Republican will tell you that GOP dominance of the state Senate is some years off. But there are signs that the House could be vulnerable.

Although the Republicans actually lost a seat or two last time around, their numbers in the 51-member House are substantial. They are 15 strong now; 11 more Republicans and they would control one body of the Legislature.

That would put the GOP in an enviable bargaining position.

Is it possible to boost Republican numbers by 11? Certainly. For starters, Lingle and the state party have been actively recruiting, training and encouraging bright young candidates to run for office this year.

And they now have a recruiting tool of unmatched power previously unavailable to the Republicans: patronage.

This isn't a dirty word. It is simply a fact of political life. If you are the party in control of the executive branch, it is in your best interest to encourage folks to get into public service, to run for office. If they win, great.

If they lose, there is always the possibility of a job in government that will make use of their talents and enthusiasm. The Democrats used this tool to great advantage for decades, and the Republicans would be fools not to follow suit.

The key to getting elected, however, will be whether voters think Republicans or Democrats are best able to deal with the major problems of the day, such as education and drug abuse.

That's why the stakes are so high in this heated debate over the quality of this year's education and drug bills, among others.

It is not about bragging rights. It is about political power.