Linda Lingle took office as governor eight years ago with the promise of "A New Beginning," the first woman — and the first Republican in 40 years — to claim Washington Place.
She vowed to end what she described as a culture of cronyism and mediocrity in state government. She said her success would depend on three things: restoring trust and integrity to government; expanding and diversifying the state’s economy; and improving public schools.
Lingle presided over a record $732 million budget surplus. She committed to alternative energy and innovation. She took action to shelter the homeless. She was overwhelmingly re-elected to a second term.
Gov. Linda Lingle’s job approval rating was once among the highest of any politician in the state. Her rating tumbled during the recession and after the public backlash over teacher furloughs and other state budget cuts.
*Source: Ward Research Inc.
But Lingle also had to manage through the deepest economic downturn since the Depression and a budget deficit in excess of $1 billion. Her education reform and tax relief ideas were smothered by the state Legislature. She agreed to teacher furloughs and other state budget cuts that drove her job approval rating downward. Her political party lost ground.
Lingle leaves office tomorrow at noon with her legacy clouded.
"History will judge. That’s why it’s called history, right? It will be something down the line," Lingle, 57, said in an interview with the Star-Advertiser. "But I do think people’s feelings about anyone in office are tied to how their life is going right now, and it’s been a very difficult couple of years for tens of thousands of people in this state.
"I don’t think people can be thrilled with the way things are going if they had their hours cut, or they lost their job, or they were put on furlough, or their company is struggling. It’s unrealistic to expect they are going to think, ‘Well, that’s OK. You did well on energy transformation or something like that.’
"So I’ll let history be the judge. But I feel confident. And I hope people will feel that I did my absolute very best every single day I came to work to try to make Hawaii better."
Before Gov. Linda Lingle took office, the state Legislature had overriden only one veto since statehood — an age of consent bill rejected by Gov. Ben Cayetano in 2001. While majority Democrats were more inclined to override bills rejected by the Republican governor, most of Lingle’s vetoes stood.
* Does not include five line-item vetoes, and one line-item veto override, in bills that otherwise became law.
Source: Star-Advertiser research
Outnumbered by majority Democrats at the Legislature, and with few genuine allies among the business, institutional and nonprofit interests that are wired into the state Capitol, Lingle often tried to use the power and prestige of her office alone to make and influence public policy.
The governor relied on a handful of core advisers who guarded her policy ideas until they were ready to hatch in well-packaged, media-friendly events. Lingle’s communications skills were undeniable — she often had Democrats scrambling to react — but her team was not as savvy about how to maneuver through the legislative process.
While Lingle had good personal relationships with state House and Senate leaders and could work well with them when they had common goals, her overall approach was insular and she and her staff rarely established the kinds of day-to-day connections necessary to survive the legislative slog.
Her most substantive policy proposal was to break the state Department of Education into local school districts with elected boards, which she believed would create more local accountability and lead to higher student achievement. After losing an early round, she formed an advisory committee and built community support for her plan, which also included a new student-spending formula that was based on student need rather than school enrollment, and expanded control for principals over school budgets.
Democrats still rejected her idea and instead adopted their own version of education reform that included the new student spending formula, greater budget control for principals and empowered school community councils.
Lingle’s tax relief proposals suffered similar fates. She called for significant tax cuts while the state was flush with a budget surplus, but Democrats agreed only to modest, targeted tax relief, preferring to spend on public education and social services.
Lingle said one of her proudest accomplishments is the Hawaii Clean Energy Initiative, a partnership with the U.S. Department of Energy that was endorsed and enacted into state law by Democratic lawmakers. The state, almost entirely dependent on imported oil, has committed to generating 70 percent of its energy from clean sources by 2030 — 40 percent from renewable energy and 30 percent from conservation.
While the success of the initiative will not be known for two decades and largely depends on follow up by future governors, Lingle said she hopes people will remember she turned talk into action. "Certainly starting it, because it had been talked about for so long, so I think actually doing it," she said.
Lingle also hopes she has sparked future innovation through her advocacy of science, technology, engineering and math in public schools. Over the past few years, the governor and her administration have relentlessly promoted the expansion of robotics programs at public schools, many of which now compete in national and international contests.
Unable to move the Legislature, Lingle often used her administrative power to advance her policy goals. She issued emergency proclamations, for example, to bypass the state regulatory process and the Legislature to expedite shelters for the homeless.
Lingle said she believes the state would not have been able to get as many emergency shelters in place otherwise. "I knew it would be somewhat controversial at the time, because when something hasn’t been done, people are going to ask questions about it," she said.
Past governors believe, like Lingle, a legacy is fully revealed only over time.
Former Gov. John Waihee praises Lingle for efforts by the state Department of Hawaiian Home Lands to return Hawaiians to their land. The department awarded more than 2,450 homestead leases over the past eight years. The department had awarded only about 5,800 leases in its first 80 years, according to the Lingle administration.
Waihee said Lingle may also leave a lasting imprint on the state’s courts. She appointed two of the five state Supreme Court justices — James E. Duffy Jr. and Chief Justice Mark Recktenwald — and five of the six judges on the state Intermediate Court of Appeals.
Waihee predicts Lingle’s decision to veto a civil-unions bill will not age well. "Twenty years from now, when that becomes much more accepted in society, people are going to remember that that was something she had a chance to do — and stand for — and that didn’t happen," he said.
But Waihee said Lingle’s biggest missed opportunity was the chance to lay the groundwork for a true two-party system. Despite Lingle’s historic victory in 2002 and her sweep to re-election in 2006, Republicans have lost seats in the Legislature and appear weaker as a party than before she was elected.
Waihee said Lingle — a moderate on social issues, more conservative on fiscal policy — could have helped create a Hawaii Republican brand. Instead, he said, she gravitated toward the kind of mainland conservatism that has proved unpopular in the islands and "ended up, at the end of her term, palling around with (former Alaska Gov. Sarah) Palin."
"She really didn’t define what a Hawaii Republican would be like," he said. "And, actually, I think that’s a loss for the entire state. She started off very committed to building a two-party system, but she ended up with it being more one-party than ever."
Former Gov. Ben Cayetano once said, during his final days at Washington Place, that a governor should not be judged by contemporaries. "I’m sure she did her best," he said in an e-mail. "But as was the case with all governors, history will be the final judge of Lingle’s legacy."
Lingle, who told scandal-plagued Democrats eight years ago that she would restore trust and integrity to government, had a few embarrassments.
Her chief of staff and campaign manager, Bob Awana, resigned in 2007 after being targeted in an extortion plot over an extramarital relationship with a woman in the Philippines.
Awana’s resignation was not just a personal and public-relations blow. He was a former Democrat comfortable in Democratic political and business circles and his absence left Lingle and her advisers even more isolated.
The Lingle administration’s decision to exempt harbor improvements for the Hawaii Superferry from an environmental assessment led to a legal challenge by environmentalists that produced a stunning state Supreme Court ruling just before the vessel’s 2007 launch. The court found that the exemption was invalid because the state failed to consider the secondary impacts of interisland ferry service on the environment.
Lingle and House and Senate leaders crafted a new law in special session that allowed the Superferry to resume operations while a modified environmental impact statement was prepared. But the Supreme Court ruled in 2009 that the new law was unconstitutional because it applied only to the Superferry. The Superferry ceased operations and later went bankrupt.
Superferry executives had pressured state officials to exempt the project from environmental review because they said it could jeopardize financing. Most of the state staff who worked on the project had at one point recommended an environmental review.
"We made the exact right decision," Lingle said. "Remember, people who are working in staff positions always want to take the most cautionary approach, because it’s the safest approach. But what they don’t know, and what they couldn’t have known at the time, is there was no financing for Superferry had you done an environmental impact statement. There would have been no Superferry to do an EIS on because the people who were investors would not invest in a year and a half from now. It was now. Here was an opportunity."
Eager for a breakthrough after months of stalled talks with public-sector labor unions over reducing labor costs, Lingle signed off on a deal last year with the Hawaii State Teachers Association and educators that led to teacher furloughs on classroom instruction days.
Lingle said educators told her teacher furloughs would not be taken on instruction days, but educators said it was part of the agreement. "I made a mistake in trusting and believing what they told me," she said.
While Lingle’s job approval rating is low now, many political analysts believe she is being judged on the basis of teacher furloughs and other state budget cuts made in just the past two years to get through the recession. Many Democrats have said Lingle would likely be a formidable contender if she decides to run for the U.S. Senate in 2012 against Democratic U.S. Sen. Daniel Akaka.
Politics is cyclical.
Gov.-elect Neil Abercrombie, a Democrat, beat Lt. Gov. James "Duke" Aiona in November on a message of change against the status quo. Thematically, the former congressman’s blueprint for "A New Day in Hawaii" was a mirror image of Lingle’s "A New Beginning." He, too, has promised to restore trust and integrity to government. He also wants to reform public education.
Lingle acknowledged that it was difficult for candidates to be Republican this year. She said governors do not get to pick what the times are going to be like when they serve for two terms.
"Whatever is dealt to you, that’s what you have to play," she said.