Aiona's gubernatorial campaign stresses 'balance'
By Derrick DePledge
Advertiser Government Writer
For Lt. Gov. James "Duke" Aiona, the message in his Republican campaign for governor is balance.
With Gov. Linda Lingle, the first Republican governor in 40 years, preparing to leave office after two terms, Aiona is asking voters whether they want to return to one-party rule.
"It's about balance," said Aiona, whose performance may help determine whether the GOP can expand its ranks in the Islands. "It's something that has helped us, I believe, in government, and has made things better. We want to maintain that balance."
Aiona's message may have resonance with Republicans and the increasing number of voters who describe themselves as independents, but he acknowledges the challenges ahead in a state that has favored Democrats.
His two potential Democratic opponents — U.S. Rep. Neil Abercrombie and Ho- nolulu Mayor Mufi Hannemann — are stronger than the candidates Lingle and Aiona beat in 2002 and 2006.
The Democratic primary for governor will likely dominate politics from now until September and, along with a special election to fill the remainder of Abercrombie's term and the Democratic primary to replace him in Congress, could push Aiona out of the storyline until the fall.
The Cook Political Report, a national online newsletter that analyzes campaigns, has the governor's race in Hawai'i as a toss-up, the most competitive category. But most local political analysts believe the Democratic primary winner will have the edge.
Aiona still has the task of introducing himself to voters as a leader distinct from Lingle after eight years spent mostly in the background. He will also have to define the Lingle administration's record and try to get voters to focus on the successes when, fresh in their minds, are two years of state budget cuts because of the recession.
Aiona, 54, a former deputy prosecutor and Family Court judge who helped establish a drug court to encourage treatment, will argue that his experiences have uniquely prepared him to be governor.
As a prosecutor, he learned toughness. As a judge, he learned how to weigh evidence and make decisions. And as a father of four, he learned about family.
"I place so much emphasis on family," Aiona said. "Because, really, it drives everything. Everything that we see, our economy, our education, our criminal justice system, whatever it might be, it's all driven from our families."
Aiona will likely stress the Lingle administration's record on energy independence, the focus on science, technology, engineering and math in education, and the call to move the state's economy away from land development toward innovation.
His recent proposal for a constitutional amendment to create an elected, nonpartisan secretary of state to oversee elections will also likely be a campaign theme.
Aiona believes in core Republican principles — lower taxes, less government, personal responsibility — but he said he would not automatically reject new tax proposals solely for ideological reasons.
Aiona is considered more conservative than Lingle, mostly on social issues, and Democrats have sought to characterize him as out of balance with Hawai'i voters.
Aiona held a December fundraiser in Portlock with conservative radio talk-show host Michael Medved. The state GOP, meanwhile, has invited Karl Rove, the strategist behind former President George W. Bush, to speak at the party's annual Lincoln Day dinner in February.
The state GOP sees a potential benefit in attracting grassroots activists sympathetic to the national "tea party" movement and religious conservatives organizing against issues such as civil unions and physician-assisted suicide at the state Legislature.
Aiona, a Catholic, says he opposes civil unions and physician-assisted suicide on constitutional and moral grounds.
"There is a moral basis to it," he said. "It's a criteria, no doubt about it. But I also listen to what the arguments are."
Some Republicans see danger in Aiona identifying too closely with the conservative wing of the party, which has not had much success in Hawai'i.
"I just try to be myself and do what's right. I align with a lot of the positions that they take, so I think it's a natural for me," he said of religious conservatives.
"It's not like I'm saying, 'OK, I'm only with these guys or I'm sticking with these guys.'
"It's what I am, I can't hide that. I am what I am. I believe what I believe. And I want people to know that."
But Aiona said political labels can get tricky. He asked whether his support for a drug court as an alternative to criminal prosecution and incarceration for nonviolent offenders makes him a liberal.
"That's a liberal concept," he said. "So does that make me a liberal? Does that alienate me from the conservative group? I don't think so. I hope not, because it's something that's positive that I'm doing right."
Chuck Freedman, a Democratic strategist, said appearances with Medved or Rove clearly push Aiona "into the right-hand lane."
Yet he said Aiona's larger problem may be an inability to point to an individual accomplishment during his time as lieutenant governor. Aiona has been a consistent voice against drug abuse and underage drinking and an advocate for healthy diet and exercise, but his attempt at anti-drug policy faltered at the Legislature.
Freedman compared Aiona's record to that of former Gov. Ben Cayetano who, when he served as lieutenant governor, helped launch the A-Plus afterschool program.
"What is his A-Plus? There's not even a C-minus," he said. "There's nothing you can name that he clearly achieved during his eight years."
RUNNING AS A LEADER
Jonah Ka'auwai, the state GOP chairman, said Aiona will have to work to get his message out given all the attention expected on the Democratic side.
Ka'auwai believes there is a winning coalition for Aiona in voters who have supported Lingle and those who are motivated by family, faith and small-business concerns.
Aiona also will be competitive financially and, since he will likely not have a difficult primary, may be able to conserve his resources until the fall. He has held 35 fundraisers since 2007 and will likely report around $2 million in campaign contributions through the end of last year.
"Duke has a great chance in this election," Ka'auwai said.
Aiona is likely to get a primary challenge from the right in attorney John Carroll, a former state lawmaker who lost to Lingle in the 2002 primary.
Carroll has been critical of the Lingle administration for not doing enough to save businesses such as Aloha Airlines and for supporting a Native Hawaiian federal recognition bill, which many conservatives believe is racially discriminatory.
Adrienne King, an attorney and veteran Republican activist, is the only announced candidate for lieutenant governor. Republicans are courting other potential candidates from outside the party.
While individual issues are important, Aiona believes many voters are looking for leadership qualities, since issues will change over the span of a four-year term.
"You don't know what's going to happen four years from now. You don't know what kind of issues are going to happen," he said. "So what you want to be certain of is, what kind of leader do you have? What is that leader made out of? And that's where I think my strength is, because people will know what I am."