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A Look at Hawaii

The past, present and future of Hawaii politics came together in a Senate hearing room a couple of weeks ago. There, the state’s Congressional delegation joined new Gov. Linda Lingle (R) to push for legislation granting sovereign rights to native Hawaiians. [IMGCAP(1)]

It is an issue that Hawaii’s Members have been working on for years, but Sen. Daniel Inouye (D), keen to the ways of Washington, said the bill’s fate could rest with Lingle — the Aloha State’s first Republican governor in 40 years — and her ability to press their case with the GOP Congress and White House.

With that, Inouye, who has served in Congress since Hawaii achieved statehood in 1959, both acknowledged the Republicans’ newfound clout in his home state and laid down a challenge to the GOP. And that simple statement perfectly encapsulates the current state of Hawaii politics.

Several days later, Inouye threw down the gauntlet again, telling the Honolulu Star-Bulletin that the Hawaii Democratic Party “has evolved into an organization of fiefdoms or baronets or whatever you call it.” Inouye also urged state Democrats to “get some new blood in here” — a curious statement, perhaps, for someone who personifies Hawaii politics and who appears set, at age 78, to seek an eighth term in 2004.

Hawaii Democratic Party Chairwoman Lorraine Akiba said Democrats are equipped to capitalize on the voters’ desire for new leadership.

“I think what they want to see is progressive change with a D,” she said.

But assuming Inouye’s health holds, he may be one of the few things Hawaii Democrats can count on in the near future. Shaken by the death of the venerable and venerated Rep. Patsy Mink (D-Hawaii) last September, the party was clearly sent reeling by Lingle’s 52 percent to 46 percent victory over then-Lt. Gov. Mazie

Hirono (D) on Election Day. Several political analysts saw it coming.

“It was bound to happen,” said John Leopold, the Republican candidate for governor in 1978. “I think the economy has turned far worse than it had been.”

Indeed, while the rest of America prospered in the late 1990s, Hawaii’s economy foundered, and the economic fallout from Sept. 11, 2001, has been especially devastating in a state that is so dependent on tourism.

But the economy was only one factor in the Democrats’ defeat. At the gubernatorial level, the party, whether or not Inouye’s analysis is correct, was in disarray.

Honolulu Mayor Jeremy Harris was the early frontrunner — and Hirono had bowed out of the race in deference to him. But just days before the state party convention, Harris dropped out, and Hirono jumped back in. She won a close three-way primary but did not have much momentum going into the general election.

Lingle, who has taken compassionate conservatism several steps further and calls herself “a bleeding-heart conservative,” had lost the 1998 governor’s race to incumbent Ben Cayetano (D) by just 5,000 votes.

Hawaii’s past few governors have represented historic firsts. Cayetano was the first American governor of Filipino descent. His predecessor, John Waihee (D), was the first governor of native Hawaiian ancestry. And Waihee’s predecessor, George Ariyoshi (D), was the first governor of Japanese descent.

In Lingle, Hawaii has its first woman governor and its first Jewish governor — not to mention its first Republican governor since John F. Kennedy occupied the Oval Office.

Whether Lingle’s win signals a new Republican era won’t be known until future elections. Next year, in addition to Inouye and the state’s two House Members, Reps. Neil Abercrombie (D) and Ed Case (D), only state House seats are up for election.

But there are some early contradictory clues about where the parties are headed. While Lingle won, her raw vote total in 2002 actually fell off by 1,900 from 1998. Hirono’s tally fell off precipitously from Cayetano’s in 1998: She got almost 24,000 fewer votes.

At the same time that Lingle was making history, Democrats were actually expanding their majority in the state House, to 36-15 (they lost two seats in the Senate but still hold a 20-5 advantage). And Case, a former legislator who was runner-up to Hirono in the gubernatorial primary, won a wild, 44-candidate special election to replace Mink.

On the other hand, the Hawaii GOP has reason to be optimistic. National Republicans are touting Lingle as someone in the mold of EPA Administrator Christine Todd Whitman. Brennon Morioka, chairman of the Hawaii Republican Party, said that last month’s Lincoln Day dinner attracted 1,800 guests and raised $500,000 — both records.

But the state party still has few obvious rising stars.

Like Inouye, Sen. Daniel Akaka (D) — who isn’t up for re-election until 2006 — is 78. Democrats waiting in the wings to run for higher office include state House Vice Speaker Sylvia Luke, who is 35, and House Majority Leader Scott Saiki, who is 38.

“There is definitely a generational transfer going on,” Akiba said, “with the blessing of our senior national leaders.”

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