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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Monday, October 31, 2005

Is Lingle just too popular to beat?

By Derrick DePledge
Advertiser Capitol Bureau

When Linda Lingle was elected in 2002 as the first Republican governor in Hawai'i in 40 years, many Democrats thought of it as an aberration, a temporary blemish on a party that has dominated Hawai'i politics since statehood.

But with a little more than a year before Lingle seeks re-election, the governor has approval ratings that rival the state's most powerful Democrat, U.S. Sen. Daniel K. Inouye, and a campaign fundraising target of $6 million that will be almost impossible for Democrats to match. No obvious challenger has surfaced over the past three years and, even if someone were to announce soon, they likely would be considered an underdog.

While Democrats have a solid grip on the state Legislature and the congressional delegation, and voters seem comfortable trusting Democrats with power, the search for a candidate for the state's top political prize has invited questions about the party's vitality at an awkward time.

Democrats are preparing to draft their agenda for the legislative session that starts in January and to test themes that could be used in the fall campaigns. Many agree they need a clear and consistent message to counter Lingle, particularly if they have to defend their support of a wholesale price cap on gasoline and an education-reform law that will reach public schools next summer.

ARE DEMOCRATS VIABLE?

Ideally, Democrats want a candidate who can ignite the party's traditional working-class base but also speak to middle- and upper-income strivers discouraged with traffic, rising housing and energy costs and struggling schools.

"It's quality-of-life and pocketbook issues," said Brickwood Galuteria, the party's chairman. "I still feel the Democratic Party is the party that addresses everyone's needs, not just a few."

"We need to reconnect," said Senate President Robert Bunda, D-22nd (N. Shore, Wahiawa), who, like House Speaker Calvin Say, D-20th (St. Louis, Palolo, Wilhelmina Rise), predicts the session will be about pocketbook worries, much like last session. "The middle class has really been forgotten, in my opinion."

RISKS DEMOCRATS FACE

The issue that may pose the most risk for Democrats is the gas cap, a work-in-progress that has caused anxiety for consumers as gas prices rise and fall. Reports of record oil company profits and suggestions of price gouging nationally after Hurricane Katrina may help temporarily insulate Democrats from a backlash since the cap is a response to claims of profiteering but lawmakers may have no choice but to relax the cap if gas prices remain high.

Democrats will assess the gas cap's performance in a wider discussion of energy policy, such as incentives to increase the use of alternative fuel. Republicans have already proposed a series of tax credits and other incentives to promote alternative energy and Lingle is at work on a package that will include repealing the gas cap and making oil company finances more transparent.

Many Democrats feel the gas cap will probably have limited traction as a political issue either it works and it stays or it does not and they fix it but some are nervous about the potential repercussions of an education reform law they passed over Lingle's opposition in 2004. The law creates a new student spending formula based on student need and new school community councils that will collaborate with principals on budget and curriculum.

The state Board of Education has been slow to adopt the formula, which takes money away from some schools and gives it to others, and finally agreed this month to phase it in cautiously over four years, with schools only gaining or losing 10 percent of formula money in the next school year.

WHERE LINGLE IS STRONG

Lingle had supported the formula but the school board's pace, and questions about whether enough money is being moved from the state Department of Education's central bureaucracy to the schools, has given the governor and her allies another opportunity to criticize the department's and the Democrats' approach to reform as sluggish.

Lingle's idea that the department be broken up into individual school districts with local school boards still has no chance with Democrats and has limited political appeal but the governor will again likely call for an expansion of charter schools and, perhaps, some financial incentives that would be linked to academic performance.

"We do feel that there is a general recognition that she has moved the discussion of education to the front burner," said Linda Smith, the governor's senior policy adviser. Smith said Lingle would continue to stress education, affordable housing, tax relief and trust in government.

With a projected $535 million budget surplus by the end of the fiscal year, Democrats and the Lingle administration will both likely propose using some of the money to reduce a backlog of school repair and maintenance. But lawmakers and the governor, like last session, might again be split over whether to return some of the money to people as tax relief.

Targeted tax breaks, such as an increase in the standard income tax deduction or adjusting tax brackets, have some support from both parties but so far not enough to convince Democratic leaders, who still see education, affordable housing and other issues as more urgent. "Everyone is talking about tax cuts. But can we afford tax cuts with all these unmet needs?" Say asked.

IS LINGLE BEATABLE?

Some Democrats think the lack of a candidate for governor is more fodder for media speculation than cause for serious introspection about the party's health. They cite the gains Democrats made in the Legislature after both the 2002 and 2004 elections and the failure of Lingle's candidates last year for school board. On a more philosophical level, they believe most Island voters identify with the party.

"I think if you asked most people, they would say that they're Democrats," said state Rep. Kirk Caldwell, D-24th (Manoa). "They think in their heart that their values are the values of the Democratic Party."

CONSERVATIVE FACTOR

Lingle is also dealing with a small but vocal insurrection from conservative Republicans over her decisions not to veto a county tax option for mass transit and a tax increase on upper-end real-estate sales to help pay for affordable rental housing and land conservation. Other conservatives are upset over her support for a Native Hawaiian federal recognition bill sponsored by U.S. Sen. Daniel Akaka, D-Hawai'i.

The governor's botched appointment to the state House of Bev Harbin who has refused a request to resign for failing to disclose unpaid taxes and misdemeanor criminal convictions has also given Democrats the chance to question her judgment.

"Lingle is vulnerable because she has accomplished little," former Gov. Ben Cayetano said.

Democrats had a well-established line of succession, usually from lieutenant governor to governor, that was broken by Lingle in 2002. Former Mayor Jeremy Harris was the front-runner and his withdrawal amid a campaign-finance probe of his contributors threw the party into confusion, leading to a contested primary that weakened the eventual nominee, former Lt. Gov. Mazie Hirono.

Some Democrats ask why the party did not immediately start grooming several potential candidates who could compete against Lingle. Some believe the older generation, overly reliant on the political power of Inouye and the influence of labor unions, still wants to anoint a candidate rather than allow a more dynamic selection process to unfold.

POSSIBLE CANDIDATES

The two men who have been mentioned most often in party circles as possible candidates Big Island Mayor Harry Kim and, more recently, U.S. Rep. Neil Abercrombie are said by advisers to be close to making their decisions.

"The question is who responds to what the mainstream of Hawai'i wants," said U.S. Rep. Ed Case, D-Hawai'i. "I don't think either party has presented a message and a focus that represents a rapidly changing Hawai'i."

State Rep. Brian Schatz, D-25th (Makiki, Tantalus), said he has received a surprisingly positive reaction from a recent opinion column in The Advertiser in which he argued Democrats should stop waiting for a political messiah and spend more time talking about how they want the state's future to look.

"I think if we just refocus on the things that made us successful we'll be just fine," Schatz said.

Reach Derrick DePledge at ddepledge@honoluluadvertiser.com.