Senator Lingle’s Secret Sauce

Senator Lingle's Secret SauceIt wasn’t that long ago that we all laughed at the prospect of former Governor Lingle running for senate whether Senator Dan Akaka decided to run again or not.

One debacle after another had left most of the state’s voters with a distinct “don’t let the door hit ya in the ass on the way out” attitude toward her future in Hawai`i politics.

And why not? In arguably the most Democratic state in the country she had cozied up to the national Republicans two years earlier, opposing our “native son” in the presidential race. Then she dissed every teacher and somehow every parent in the state too with her “Furlough Fridays” in a manner that belied her usual and notorious PR perfect pitch. She had made a show– one that no one really believed– of trying to convince people her veto of civil unions was a “tough decision.” And no one had forgotten the SuperFerry debacle which left both sides blaming her for either trying to force the doomed-from-the-start “H4” down our throats or, in “entitled” Honolulu, bungling the effort.

Yet this week’s archetypical Stepford Wife announcement of her candidacy caused not just the usually out-of-touch-with-Hawai`i-politics Cook Political Report to call the race a “toss-up” but had many local pundits treating her candidacy with credibility.

So assuming something changed, what was it? Still the same robotic and vaguely spooky Lingle? Check. Still the same predominately Democratic “fool me twice… ya can’t get fooled again” electorate? Check. Still the same draconian congressional Republican cabal that she cozied up to in ’08? Check.

So what’s the difference? It well may be the rocky row her replacement has hoed.

As Governor, Neil Abercrombie couldn’t have mimicked more of her specific blunders if he tried. Suspending the state’s environmental protection laws for fishy reasons? Although declaring an emergency to move Nene geese that had been causing the same problems at Lihu`e Airport for a decade isn’t exactly the SuperFerry, it was the same thread of political expediency that runs through both in the minds of the electorate.

But in the one place where Abercrombie could have put a wedge between “what a Democrat in office will do” and “what the Republican did,” his tin-ear handling of the teachers’ union negotiations left many asking what the difference is.

Abercrombie’s now infamous “I’m not your pal” statement to the unions and the viral YouTube screaming match with a nurse were followed by the same imposition of a contract and violation of the tenets of collective bargaining that caused massive protests at state capitols in Wisconsin, Michigan and Ohio after Republican governors in those states imposed similar anti-union measures.

Even though criticism of the actions of the teachers’ union’s tactics in fighting Abercrombie’s unilaterally-imposed, force-fed contract got most of the press, the antipathy toward Abercrombie still simmers just beneath the surface among the unions whose support will be crucial if either Mazie Hirono or (god no) Ed Case is to send Lingle back out to national Republican pastures.

It’s a long time between now and a year from November and it’s said voters’ memories are long in Hawai`i. But those memories are made not just in broad sweeping brush strokes but in the daily paint splotches and, to mix metaphors, once a crack appears in the veneer it’s hard to plaster it over to keep the wood from splitting right down the middle.

Abercrombie would do well to keep, if not a low profile next January when the legislature meets, at least one that doesn’t rock his own party’s boat. Because if Hirono or Case loses to Lingle many Democratic fingers will be pointing his way and it will be a short two years until the ’14 gubernatorial election where he’ll need all the party support he can get.

Journalist Andy Parx has covered Kaua`i government and politics for over 30 years in print and on local TV. He currently writes a daily on-line news, commentary and analysis column at "got windmills?- The Daily Tilt."

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