Sponsored by:

Comment, blog & share photos

Log in | Become a member
The Honolulu Advertiser

Posted on: Thursday, November 4, 2004

Rest of Lingle's term may be rough

Election 2004
Get detailed results from the general election and read about the races and candidates in our Election 2004 special report.

By Derrick DePledge and Gordon Y.K. Pang
Advertiser Capitol Bureau

Gov. Linda Lingle discovered the limits of popularity Tuesday night, suffering significant Republican losses in the state Legislature that could make the next two years of her term difficult unless she works more closely with Democrats.

Gov. Linda Lingle

Democrats picked up five seats in the House of Representatives and kept their majority in the Senate, increasing their ability to set the agenda at the state Capitol and reject the Republican governor's ideas.

While Lingle's approval rating is over 60 percent, the lack of Republican partners in the Legislature could diminish her ability to exert influence on public policy. Democrats, who have often been on the public-relations defensive against Lingle, can now claim that voters gave them a mandate.

"The state is still looking to the Democratic Party for leadership and the Democratic Party is perfectly positioned to exert leadership if they have something substantive to offer," said Tom Coffman, an author and political observer.

Coffman said that given Lingle's overly optimistic goal of taking over the House, the Republicans "didn't just fall on their face, it was really quite a bit of a disaster," he said. "The underlying thing is that she really doesn't have any coattails."

Lingle, who personally campaigned in several House and Senate districts, had asked voters to give her more Republicans in the Legislature after she lost battles with Democrats last session on education reform, drug-abuse prevention and greater surveillance ability for law enforcement. One of her top priorities, breaking the state Department of Education into local school districts with elected boards, has little chance at being revived now unless Democrats completely change course. All five candidate's Lingle endorsed for the state Board of Education also failed, either in the primary or Tuesday.

Lingle did not express disappointment over the losses yesterday, choosing instead to focus on new initiatives for affordable housing, economic development, early childhood education and the University of Hawai'i.

"We'll be focusing on those issues where we think there's broad community support," Lingle said.

House Speaker Calvin Say, D-20th (St. Louis Heights, Palolo, Wilhelmina Rise), said he hoped Democrats and Lingle will find areas where they can work together in the next session. Say has also mentioned affordable housing, while several other Democrats have talked about possibly increasing state money for charter schools, an important issue to Lingle.

"I think we can have a good working relationship with the governor," Say said.

Democrats said Tuesday's vote showed that people recognized the party's accomplishments last session in creating a new student spending formula and community councils at public schools and approving $14.7 million to fight "ice."

But, more broadly, there was a sense of relief among Democrats that voters seemed to return to the party after the disappointment of Lingle's 2002 victory.

The dynamic of the election suddenly changed with little over a week left before the vote when two state polls found that President Bush and Sen. John Kerry were deadlocked in Hawai'i and about 12 percent of voters were undecided. The polls instantly triggered a national response, elevating the stakes for both parties in a way that few had anticipated.

Coffman said the nearly identical polls, in both The Advertiser and the Honolulu Star-Bulletin, "scared the bejeezus out of the Democratic Party and just got everybody really pumping."

Both Democrats and Republicans agreed yesterday that the national exposure, with dueling visits from Vice President Dick Cheney and former Vice President Al Gore and a flood of advertising and media coverage, helped increase voter turnout and contributed to the Democratic victories in the House.

Turnout in Hawai'i reached 66.7 percent, higher than the last presidential election in 2000 and higher than when Lingle won two years ago.

"The presidential race did help our candidates, but the primary factor was that our candidates worked very hard and had a good platform," said House Majority Leader Scott Saiki, D-22nd (McCully, Pawa'a). "I've always felt that Hawai'i voters share Democratic values and sometimes it takes tough elections to make that apparent."

The excitement of the presidential race, and Kerry's victory here, provided some lessons —and possible warnings — for both parties. It showed that the Democrats, when challenged, can still mobilize their base and work with their allies in labor unions like the Hawai'i Government Employees Association to get out the vote. But Bush did well on O'ahu — losing to Kerry by a narrow 51 percent to 48 percent margin — suggesting that the state's population center is much more evenly divided politically than the Neighbor Islands, where Democrats remain stronger.

Democrats took back three House seats from Republicans on the Neighbor Islands and voters there gave Kerry a cushion to carry the state easily.

Democrats also captured House seats in Republican trending East Honolulu and Windward areas and a seat in growing Mililani. Republicans picked off one Democrat in 'Ewa Beach, in a region both parties covet for the future, but were otherwise overwhelmed.

State Rep. David Pendleton, R-49th (Kane'ohe, Maunawili, Enchanted Lake), who lost to Democrat Pono Chong by 123 votes, was already clearing out his Capitol office yesterday morning.

Pendleton, a four-term veteran, said he survived redistricting and Al Gore's sweeping victory in Hawai'i in the last presidential race, but would wait to look at precinct totals before knowing whether the Democrats' blitz for Kerry led to his defeat. He did believe that critical Democratic mailers were a factor, saying that when an opponent makes charges, "a small percentage can believe it and that could be the 123 votes you need."

Brennon Morioka, the Hawai'i Republican Party chairman, said the party is taking some comfort in knowing that many of the races were decided by a few hundred votes. "It could've easily been a very different story today but that's the way elections go."

Morioka also said that Democratic mailers, including some the bipartisan Clean Campaigns Project found had "crossed the line," played a role in GOP losses. He said many of the Republican incumbents targeted by the questionable mailers either lost or were narrowly re-elected.

"It's frustrating to see that kind of deceitful campaigning wins races," Morioka said, adding that while Republican mailers were just as hard-hitting, "we tried playing by the rules and it seems like we may have paid for it."

Josh Wisch, who led the Democrats' House campaigns, said many Republican mailers were misleading or unfair but did not seem to have an effect on the election. He said that many Democrats simply worked harder.

"I think it shows the strength of conviction and work ethic," Wisch said.

Lyla Berg, a Niu Valley educator who beat Rep. Bertha Leong, R-18th (Kahala, 'Aina Haina, Kuli'ou'ou), said she believes that people responded more to personal contacts than the mailers. "I think what makes the difference is people-to-people, walking door-to-door, talking with people and laughing with them, sharing stories about memories of growing up in the neighborhood," Berg said. "There were just so many more positive exchanges than negative."

Reach Derrick DePledge at ddepledge@honoluluadvertiser.com or 525-8070.