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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Wednesday, January 11, 2006

Gov. Lingle, itís time to act like a governor

By David Shapiro

As she begins the final year of her first term, Linda Lingle needs to look in the mirror and try to remember why she wanted to be governor.

Was it to fundamentally change Hawai'i's political culture, or simply to use the position to advance her own career?

If the career was her priority, Hawai'i's first Republican governor in 40 years has been a smashing success.

Having done little to antagonize anybody, Lingle scores high in public approval surveys and has banked so much campaign cash that majority Democrats are hard-pressed to recruit a candidate to oppose her re-election.

Her meticulous courting of the Bush administration has positioned her for a future run for the U.S. Senate or an administrative job in Washington.

But when it comes to public policy change, Lingle has enacted so little of her agenda during her first three years that she's barely left a mark that she was here.

She's failed to use her personal popularity to grow the GOP, which has lost nearly half of the 19 House seats the party held before she was elected.

Many of Lingle's supporters expected her to engage Democrats in a monumental battle of ideas; instead, she's mostly stood by meekly as the Legislature ignored her and pushed its own agenda.

It's fitting that the governor begins the New Year by taking a huge supporting cast on a ceremonial tour of the Philippines, since she's so often made herself visible by stressing ceremony over substance.

She took similar delegations to Japan and Israel, visited Iraq and eagerly sought the limelight at national governors' meetings.

She's embraced her mostly ceremonial role as commander-in-chief of Hawai'i's National Guard like no previous governor.

But on policy matters, Lingle has mostly stayed in the background and let committees and underlings do her lifting on proposals for school restructuring, tax relief, crime fighting and regulatory reform.

She's done little to strike back as the Legislature has overridden a record number of her vetoes and passed bill after bill to diminish her powers and increase their own.

She vowed to take her case to voters in the 2004 legislative elections to win enough GOP seats to uphold her vetoes.

Instead, she became distracted by the bright lights of the Bush presidential campaign and was virtually invisible in local races, resulting in Republican losses of five more House seats on top of the four they lost in 2002.

The governor's strategy of staying above the fray has only made it easy for her adversaries to disregard her and do as they please.

Democrats have exploited their overwhelming advantage in the Legislature and Lingle's timidity so well that it's been of little practical consequence to them that Hawai'i has a Republican governor.

If Lingle wants her time as governor to mean anything, she must start using her communications skills and access to the news media to aggressively take the fight to Democrats in support of her initiatives.

She must defend the powers of her office ó and use those powers to lay some political pain on those who ignore her.

She must speak for herself; people want to hear from their governor, not from committees and aides.

And she must advance a compelling platform that all Republicans can run on in 2006, looking beyond her own campaign to win the legislative clout she'll need to accomplish anything in a second term.

Lingle can probably cruise to re-election by continuing to embrace ceremony and play it safe.

But if she does that, she'll leave little more than a faint blip on Hawai'i's historical radar when her tenure is done.

David Shapiro, a veteran Hawai'i journalist, can be reached by e-mail at dave@volcanicash.net.