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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Wednesday, March 3, 2010

With eye on GOP, Lingle gets do-overs

By David Shapiro

Hawaii news photo - The Honolulu Advertiser

Gov. Linda Lingle

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Gov. Linda Lingle has drawn the unlucky card of leaving office at the end of the year with her popularity at a low because of an unprecedented budget crisis that wasn't entirely of her making.

But there have also been some political cards flipping in her favor as she ends her eight-year run as Hawai'i's first Republican governor in 40 years, with hopes of some kind of future in national GOP politics.

Lingle got elected the way any local Republican has to in Democratic Hawai'i, by downplaying party and tailoring her views to be moderate enough to win a decent chunk of Democratic votes.

The strategy gave her a comfortable victory in 2002 and a near landslide in 2006, but at the cost of alienating many in her own party, especially those on the right.

John Fund, the conservative Wall Street Journal columnist, at one point dismissed her as a RINO Republican in name only.

That could be a problem as she tries to bulk up her national GOP credentials at a time when the party is swinging sharply to the right in the wake of President Barack Obama's election and big losses in Congress.

But political fortune has smiled upon Lingle and presented her with second chances to heal the sore feelings in the party and to reconnect with her GOP base.

Conservatives had it in for Lingle mainly because she supported the Akaka bill for Native Hawaiian recognition and joined with legislative Democrats to allow a half-cent general excise tax increase on O'ahu to pay for the city's $5.3 billion commuter train.

Now she's been handed the gift of being able to reverse her position on both without really flip-flopping; Lingle can make a credible argument that the circumstances have changed, not her.

On the Akaka bill, the gift was courtesy of Democrats in the Hawai'i congressional delegation.

After she fought for the measure for seven years against a near-solid wall of opposition in her own party, the Democrats inexplicably crossed her by pulling a secret rewrite out of their hats on the eve of committee action without informing her.

Lingle complains that the new bill, which has passed the House and is awaiting action in the Senate, is a drastic revision that gives a Hawaiian government inherent political rights and sovereign immunity prior to negotiations instead of after as provided by the original bill.

The governor says she can't support the rewrite despite late Democratic amendments to address some of her concerns, and the bill faces an uphill battle in the Senate without Lingle on board.

Politically, it puts her center stage on an issue that could become nearly as much of an ideological line in the sand for national Republicans as health care reform.

On the transit tax, Lingle's appearance with Democratic legislators in the Capitol courtyard to sign off on the measure infuriated her fellow Republicans, who generally don't like big public works projects or higher taxes of any kind.

It's hardly won her any love from the other side, either. Mayor Mufi Hannemann has seldom passed up an opportunity to take a political shot at her despite the favor on the rail tax.

Now she has a chance to re-position herself because of the requirement that the state must approve the rail environmental impact statement before construction can begin.

Lingle says she won't approve it until she conducts a thorough review of whether the project's financing still works after the crushing recession.

Republicans who once called her a RINO over rail are now cheering her on, and it's tough for Democrats to accuse her of playing politics when former Democratic Gov. Ben Cayetano expresses the same concerns about the project's financing and design.