For top state job, a muted campaign
|||2006 General Election voter's guide|
By Derrick DePledge
Advertiser Government Writer
By Derrick DePledge
Gov. Linda Lingle recognized her staff and the volunteers at the Next Step homeless shelter in Kaka'ako on a recent Saturday evening. The temporary shelter was holding its monthly birthday party for homeless children, with balloons, gifts, cake and a few hours of joy for those who have not known much celebration in their lives.
"They have made this a real model of what can happen when people of good heart come together," Lingle said, "and when people who are driven to make a difference set their mind to something."
The shelter, along with another being set up in Wai'anae and the transitional apartments planned for Kalaeloa, is an example of how the Republican governor has gone outside the Democratic-controlled state Legislature to accomplish things that are important to her. Lingle has worked more collaboratively with Democrats during the last two years of her term — after bitter fights over public education and drug control in her first two years — but has often used administrative rules and her own discretion as governor to make public policy on her own terms.
Her Democratic opponent in November, former Mililani state Sen. Randall Iwase, views the homeless shelters differently. He said Lingle waited until Ho-nolulu Mayor Mufi Hannemann was about to force the homeless out of Ala Moana Beach Park before scrambling to take emergency action, instead of following through on earlier promises for a more comprehensive strategy to respond to the causes of homelessness.
Iwase said it is part of a pattern by Lingle to inflate her accomplishments through a $6 million election-year public relations campaign. He said the governor has claimed too much credit for the state's healthy economy, low unemployment and budget surplus. "I wouldn't be surprised if she did take credit for inventing the wheel in some form," he said.
Voters have had few opportunities to compare Lingle and Iwase in what has been a muted and kind of peculiar campaign for the state's highest office.
Lingle's popularity and $6 million in campaign money have led many political analysts to conclude her re-election is inevitable. The Democratic establishment, unable to find a viable candidate early and distracted by the Democratic primary contest for Senate between U.S. Sen. Daniel Akaka and U.S. Rep. Ed Case, only got behind Iwase after he won the primary in September.
Iwase has not been able to raise enough money or find the right message to pierce Lingle, and his verbal slip-ups in their only televised debate gave the governor's campaign the opening to dismiss him as not ready for prime time. The earthquakes off the Big Island canceled a joint appearance scheduled for Kona and interrupted the campaign narrative just as the news media — and voters — might have started devoting more attention to the race.
Private polls have shown Iwase trailing Lingle badly, but the governor's campaign has not relaxed its advertising or outreach because Hawai'i still remains a blue state politically. Some Democrats are privately pessimistic about Iwase but feel they have to help him make a respectable showing for the reputation of the party. But other Democrats say an effective get-out-the-vote drive by the party and labor unions might give him a slim chance.
"Democrats have done well because they still have a solid base," said Neal Milner, a political analyst and the ombudsman at the University of Hawai'i-Manoa. "But Iwase probably doesn't have enough to take the election."
Lingle's first two years in office were politically turbulent, marked by losing fights with the Legislature over breaking up the state Department of Education into six school districts with local school boards and emphasizing law enforcement and prevention over treatment in the war against crystal methamphetamine, or "ice." After Republicans lost five seats in the state House in the 2004 elections, Lingle began to work more cooperatively with Democrats on issues in which they share common goals, such as alternative energy and affordable housing.
The administration also became more successful at framing debates around policy, rather than as personal clashes between the governor and Democratic leaders. With Attorney General Mark Bennett taking the lead, the administration helped get the Legislature to create a new sex- offender registry and a three-strikes penalty for violent criminals.
On the two most consequential issues last session — whether to keep a wholesale price cap on gasoline and how to spend a budget surplus — the governor took firm positions but chose not to engage in partisan warfare. Lingle opposed the gas cap but mostly focused on alternative energy, while Democrats fought amongst themselves before deciding to suspend the cap. Lingle urged Democrats to spend about $300 million of the budget surplus on tax relief but still declared the session a success after the Legislature approved a more modest $50 million tax package and spent much of the surplus on education.
Lingle said that if re-elected, she would like to pattern a second term after her last two years rather than her first two.
"I would think this model would work even better because I would be in a final term," the governor said. "You don't have the tension that comes with an election period, or the tension that comes when you first get into office and everybody is trying to figure the other side out. That's why I'm so optimistic for the future."
Lingle, as the state's chief executive, can naturally take some credit for the economy, low unemployment and the budget surplus, even though many of the factors that influence the economy are cyclical and beyond government control.
Lingle can also point to improvements in some state departments, such as the Department of Hawaiian Home Lands, which has been more aggressive about placing Hawaiians into housing. The governor also worked with the Bush administration to preserve the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands as a marine national monument.
But the governor let down some conservatives by not vetoing a tax increase for mass transit or hikes to the conveyance tax and the cigarette tax. She was also accused of playing politics with the appointment process after naming Bev Harbin last year to fill a Democratic House vacancy. Harbin had just joined the Democratic Party before the appointment, and it turned out she owed back state taxes and had old misdemeanor criminal convictions for writing bad checks.
"She kind of took her eye off the ball in regard to the tax situation," said Richard Rowland, the president of the Grassroot Institute, a public-policy group that leans libertarian.
Rowland also said many conservatives believe she has moved more to the left as governor than she was as GOP chairman or Maui County mayor. "The way I would phrase it is to say she's moved toward government solving more problems than it should," he said.
State House and Senate Democrats have been mostly restrained when criticizing Lingle during the campaign, as if they are trying to avoid adding any animosity to a relationship that might continue for another four years.
House Speaker Calvin Say, D-20th (St. Louis Heights, Palolo, Wilhelmina Rise), has sent out one mailer that includes a picture of him with Lingle and Lt. Gov. James "Duke" Aiona and newspaper clippings describing their collaboration last session.
But several Democrats, like Iwase, come back to whether Lingle is more about public relations than public policy.
"She has terrific people skills," said state Sen. Russell Kokubun, D-2nd (S. Hilo, Puna, Ka'u). "She can make people comfortable and get her message across very well. On the negative side, I wish there was more substance."
Kitty Lagareta, the chairwoman of the University of Hawai'i Board of Regents and a friend of Lingle's, said the governor has changed attitudes about how people see themselves and Hawai'i and forced different conversations about politics from the days when Democrats ruled almost exclusively.
"The fact that the worst thing they say about her is she seems too rehearsed, to me, as a PR person, tells me they haven't figured out how to deal with her," Lagareta said.
Lingle said her goals in a second term would be affordable housing, tax relief and land-use issues. She said county officials should be freer to draft their own comprehensive land-use plans to direct growth as long as they meet standards set by the state Land Use Commission. Such plans, she said, might help avoid disputes over individual development projects.
Lingle also said she would speak with House and Senate leaders before next session on whether an education-reform law they passed in 2004 is working as they hoped. The Department of Education has slowed the implementation of a new student spending formula — the core of the reform law — because some schools would lose too much money.
The governor said she would likely again propose a pilot project on local school boards.
"The one major disappointment was my inability to convince legislators on the Democrat side what the general public already knew, which was we needed to make a major change in the governance structure of the Department of Education," Lingle said.
"I just wasn't successful in getting them to see it, or, if they did see it, to take some action on it. And that is critically important, and I am more committed to it today than I ever have been, just because of the lack of progress in student achievement."
Iwase, an attorney and former Honolulu councilman, had been off the political radar since he left the state Senate in 2000 for the state Labor and Industrial Relations Appeals Board.
Iwase was part of a dissident faction in the Senate and has cited his bipartisan work for an income tax cut in the late 1990s as one of his accomplishments. He is known as a Kennedy-style liberal who believes in the party's traditional values of equality, equal opportunity and worker rights.
He said the state's economy and low unemployment have masked quality-of-life struggles of the lower and middle classes who can barely afford to live in the Islands. "It's not the stereotypical face that the public believes," he said. "We're talking about families. We're talking about people who work but can't make ends meet."
Iwase said Lingle's fixation on local school boards misses the larger issue of whether schools are adequately funded or maintained. He said public education has to improve for the economy to expand from tourism and the military into more innovative alternative energy or biomedical industries.
He said voters should remember that Lingle wanted to spend nearly half the budget surplus on tax relief while the Democrats in the Legislature put much of the money into schools and other infrastructure improvements.
"I was fortunate — I am a product of the public schools — to have had good teachers, strong family support and extended family support," Iwase said.
Iwase also faults Lingle for shifting from a promise in her "New Beginning" platform in 2002 to build two privately funded, 500-bed substance-abuse treatment correctional facilities. Lingle has said that no community appears to want a new correctional facility so the administration will maintain existing prisons, explore community treatment options and continue to send prisoners to the Mainland.
Iwase said Lingle herself recognized in 2002 that it is important that prisoners keep family ties as part of their rehabilitation, which is difficult when they are on the Mainland.
"They just seemed to say, 'We heard public response. We heard objections.' And they stopped. I don't know how much they did," he said.
Iwase said the state is missing an opportunity to have a corrections industry but has not said where he would build a prison other than it should be in an unspecified remote location. "We have to go look for someplace. We have to get public input," he said.
Democrats did not flock to Iwase when he announced his campaign in January, but many say he has earned respect for challenging Lingle when few others were willing.
"I think on a philosophical level, this governor is no different than Republicans elsewhere. She has a GOP agenda, she's just not so up front about it. She has others doing her dirty work," said Randy Perreira, the deputy executive director of the Hawai'i Government Employees Association. "Even though the odds may seem long, Randy Iwase stands for the principles that we believe in."
Mike McCartney, chairman of the Democratic Party of Hawai'i, said voters angry about the war in Iraq, the federal No Child Left Behind education law and other Bush administration policies should also hold Republicans like Lingle accountable.
"I think people just have to take a stand," McCartney said. "I think Randy will make good decisions. He has good judgment."
Reach Derrick DePledge at email@example.com.