Lingle's job approval hits lowest level so far Hannemann, Abercrombie split Hawaii voters, yet both lead Aiona
By Derrick DePledge
Advertiser Government Writer
Gov. Linda Lingle's job approval rating has tumbled to the lowest point in her two terms as the state's chief executive, a new Hawai'i Poll has found, as teacher furloughs and a sour economy have weakened her popularity.
Just 40 percent of voters interviewed said they approved of the job Lingle is doing with the challenges facing Hawai'i. Fifty-three percent disapprove, and 7 percent said they did not know.
The Republican governor has been among the most popular politicians in the state, with approval ratings that have often rivaled U.S. Sen. Daniel K. Inouye, the state's leading Democrat. Her high mark, according to the Hawai'i Poll, came in 2006, when 73 percent backed the way she was doing her job.
Rebecca Ward, president of Ward Research, which conducted the poll for The Advertiser and Hawai'i News Now, said she believes teacher furloughs, and not the recession, drove the governor's job approval rating downward.
The poll was taken among 604 voters statewide between April 23 and April 28. The margin of error was 4 percentage points.
"I didn't think it would be this low. But I think this is fallout from the furlough Fridays and the teacher problems," Ward said. "I think the public is blaming her. Some blame her. Some blame the teachers union. But it's going to those two.
"She's really feeling it at the end of her eight years."
Ward believes that the recession has penetrated so deeply that most people understand the nation's economic woes and the state's budget deficit and do not fault any one person.
"It's hit so many more of us than it ever has before," she said. "But then there are decisions to be made based on it, and I think she takes the heat there."
Lingle agreed to teacher furloughs to reduce labor costs in the two-year contract with the Hawaii State Teachers Association reached last September. But the governor later said she made a mistake, and has since been debating with educators on how to reduce or eliminate furloughs and restore classroom instruction time.
The state Legislature authorized the use of $67 million from the state's hurricane relief fund to end teacher furloughs next school year. Lingle has said she would only release $57 million of the money and said educators could decide which school staff should return on furlough days.
"In challenging times, leaders are called upon to make difficult decisions," Lenny Klompus, the governor's senior communications adviser, said in a statement, responding to the poll results. "Over the past year and a half, Gov. Lingle has had to make tough decisions that may not have been popular but were in the best interest of all the people of Hawai'i over the long term.
"Her actions reflect the kind of decisive leadership Hawai'i's people expect and deserve from their elected leaders."
DOING 'RIGHT THING'
The Hawai'i Poll was taken shortly after several people who want to end teacher furloughs were arrested at a sit-in protest in the governor's office at the state Capitol.
Several political analysts believe Lingle mishandled the protest by not talking to protesters at the beginning to try to calm the situation.
State Senate Vice President Russell Kokubun, D-2nd (S. Hilo, Puna, Ka'ū), said one of Lingle's strengths has been her public-relations skill, which appeared to be missing in how she dealt with the protesters.
Kokubun also said voters may be starting to put the governor's eight years in office into context. "People are looking at what was accomplished," he said. "And there isn't that much on the record for them."
Her allies, however, believe Lingle has managed the state well during the recession. The governor helped prevent the deficit from growing, they believe, by restricting state spending and fighting larger tax increases.
"It has to do with the economy and the hard choices we have had to make," state House Minority Leader Lynn Finnegan, R-32nd (Lower Pearlridge, 'Aiea, Hālawa), said of the governor's low approval rating.
"At times, that may have made her unpopular with some folks. But it was the right thing to do."
The Hawai'i Poll found that voters on the Neighbor Islands had a more negative view of Lingle than voters on O'ahu. Democrats, union voters and Native Hawaiians also viewed the governor harshly.
Klompus said voters may be looking at the governor in a partisan context in an election year.
"We cannot overlook the fact that this poll could be reflective of the partisan division of the electorate as we begin a critical election season at both the local and national levels," he said.