Gov. Linda Lingle’s job approval rating has climbed, a new Hawaii Poll has found, but more than half of voters still disapprove of the way she is handling the challenges facing Hawaii as she prepares to leave office after two four-year terms.
The Republican governor’s job approval rating was 44 percent, up slightly from her record low of 40 percent in April. Fifty-one percent disapprove, and 5 percent said they did not know.
Lingle’s dip — her job approval rating was at 73 percent in 2006 — comes at an unfortunate time for her and her struggling political party. Political analysts and the news media will start sketching the first drafts of her legacy in the coming weeks before her term ends in early December.
Lt. Gov. James "Duke" Aiona is trying to succeed her at Washington Place, and the state GOP wants to double its presence in the state Legislature. An unpopular chief executive could be a drag on Republican campaigns.
Lingle’s job approval has fallen during a state budget crisis, brought on by national and global recessions, that prompted the governor to order cuts to state programs and layoffs and furloughs for state workers.
"It is not surprising that some may not agree with the decisions Governor Lingle has taken to address the worst economic recession and fiscal shortfall in the state’s history while positioning Hawaii for the future," Lenny Klompus, the governor’s senior communications adviser, said in a statement. "However, we believe the majority of the people understand Governor Lingle is carrying out her obligation to ensure the state lives within its means and she is doing what is in the short and long-term interest of the entire state."
Klompus also said politics could have an influence on the low job approval rating "as we enter the last 10 days of this critical election season at both the local and national level. This is especially evident with millions of dollars being spent locally attacking the governor."
The poll was taken by Ward Research for the Star-Advertiser and Hawaii News Now from Oct. 12 to Tuesday. The poll was based on telephone interviews with 608 likely voters statewide. The margin of error is 4 percentage points.
Rebecca Ward, president of Ward Research, said she believes — as she did when Lingle hit a record low in April — that public anger over teacher furloughs was the main cause of the decline.
"I think it’s a reflection of a really difficult year," she said. In particular, she said, it is a "reflection of people’s frustration with the Furlough Fridays situation."
Lingle’s job approval rating was higher on Oahu than on the neighbor islands. Union, Hawaiian and Japanese-American voters were the most disappointed in her performance. There was also a partisan split: 70 percent of Democrats disapprove of Lingle, while just 14 percent of Republicans do.
The governor received higher ratings from white, wealthy and independent voters.
Lingle has not said exactly what her career plans are after leaving office, but has indicated she may be interested in running against U.S. Sen. Daniel Akaka in 2012 or establishing a role in national GOP politics.
Ward said she does not believe Lingle’s low job approval ratings weaken the governor’s political prospects.
"I think when she does not have to fight a Democratic Legislature and doesn’t have all of the opposition, I think her general favorability would improve again," she said. "She went in so strongly that I think she could recapture more of that."
Dante Carpenter, chairman of the Democratic Party of Hawaii and a former Big Island mayor, said he understands the challenges Lingle, a former Maui mayor, faced as chief executive. He said Lingle was in confrontation with majority Democrats in the Legislature for the past eight years.
"By and large, I think she’s done a credible job. Obviously, in the last couple of years when the economy had gone literally through the tank, it has been a difficult thing to get a cohesive bonding with the Legislature."
But Carpenter said he believes Lingle could have done more to find common ground.
"It seems there were some times when she took a very hard line," he said.
U.S. Sen. Daniel Inouye, the state’s leading Democrat, was also measured in describing Lingle’s performance. "I did not agree with her on everything, but I must say that she tried her best," he said.
Akaka said he considers Lingle a friend and believes she has worked hard trying to be a good governor.
"I should tell you that she’s been a friend of mine for all the years that she’s been here, and I respect her very much and respect her right to run," he said. "I want to wish her well in her future and continue to be her friend."
Akaka, 86, said he definitely plans to run for a fifth six-year term in 2012. He said he and Inouye — 86 and the Senate president pro tempore, the chamber’s senior member — have seniority that gives Hawaii tremendous leverage.
"I will tell you that seniority, without question, really makes a difference," he said.
State Rep. Gene Ward (R, Kalama Valley-Queen’s Gate-Hawaii Kai) predicts Lingle’s popularity will rebound with the economy. "I think that the good that the Lingle administration was doing — and it’s continuing — has been sidetracked by the downturn in the global economy," he said. "People have still got that filter and that sort of fuzziness in front of them when they are viewing her.
"It’s to be expected of anybody in leadership. That’s why the incumbents are being examined so closely, and many of them are going to be thrown out, because there is a lot of trouble on the horizon. I think her opinion rating will return as the economy returns."