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Aiona runs in shadow of Lingle

Once-popular governor now may damage outlook for her lieutenant

October 9, 2010
By HERBERT A. SAMPLE, The Associated Press

HONOLULU - Lt. Gov. James "Duke" Aiona says he's no Gov. Linda Lingle, though he takes little issue with Lingle's policies.

Former U.S. Rep. Neil Abercrombie, Aiona's Democratic foe, insists that electing Aiona governor would essentially be the same as granting Lingle a third term.

That dynamic - Aiona's ties to Lingle and the extent to which he can or should separate himself from her - is part of the framework surrounding Hawaii's governor's race heading into the Nov. 2 election.

Article Photos

Lt. Gov. James “Duke” Aiona

There is no doubt Lingle supports Aiona's effort to become only the second GOP governor in nearly five decades.

But she does so at a time when her popularity seems tenuous. After enjoying the fruits of a roaring economy for several years after taking office in late 2002, Lingle has presided over three terrible years that forced her to slash state spending. And while the teacher furlough controversy that roiled the Capitol was resolved months ago, it remains a fresh memory.

Her job approval ratings hit 73 percent in mid-2006 but plummeted to 40 percent last May in a Honolulu Advertiser poll that was taken about seven months into the furloughs and as frustrated parents conducted a sit-in at the Governor's Office.

Thus, Lingle's political coattails appear frayed, University of Hawaii political science professor Neal Milner said.

"She's not going out in such a blaze of glory that she's able to offer him very much," Milner said. "On the other hand, she didn't do anything in such a bad way that would make him make an issue of separating himself from her."

Aiona thinks the whole issue is moot.

"Linda Lingle is Linda Lingle and Duke Aiona is Duke Aiona," the lieutenant governor said in an interview this week. "We have different leadership styles and we have a different background."

On the campaign trail, Aiona frequently refers to "we" when describing initiatives started by the Lingle administration that he wants to continue or expand. At least three Lingle advisers are helping him - most notably, Linda Smith, the senior policy aide for both the governor and Aiona's campaign.

Lingle "is a great asset," Aiona spokesman Travis Taylor said. "The focus for us is on the team of tomorrow, and that's Aiona and Finnegan," his running mate for lieutenant governor.

Aiona now is in a better position than Democratic Lt. Gov. Mazie Hirono was in 2002 when she was trying to succeed Gov. Ben Cayetano, whose popularity had deteriorated. Moreover, Democrats generally were hampered by a string of high-profile corruption cases.

Lingle, with Aiona as her running mate, beat Hirono and Matt Matsunaga by 4-1/2 percentage points.

But Hirono suffered more from her uncharismatic campaigning and record in a post that held few major responsibilities, said Rick Castberg, a retired University of Hawaii at Hilo political science professor.

"I don't think much of Lingle is going to rub off on Aiona either way," Castberg said. "On the other hand, what do you have to show for . . . eight years as lieutenant governor? And that's not the lieutenant governor's fault. It's just the way the office is structured."

Since taking office in late 2002, Aiona and Lingle have publicly disagreed in only a couple of instances: Last year, he said he would have nixed a measure that Lingle allowed to become law that cut back the state's high-tech tax credit. This year, he backed a revised version of a bill in Congress to establish a governing entity for Native Hawaiians at a time when Lingle opposed it.

But they have been aligned on the thorniest of issues, such as same-sex civil unions and school furloughs. That handicaps Aiona, contended Dan Boylan, a longtime political analyst and retired history professor. "Like it or not, he was a part of that administration," Boylan said.

Lowell Kalapa, president of the Tax Foundation of Hawaii, said "extreme conservatives" still dislike Lingle's acquiescence in 2005 to a general excise tax hike for Honolulu's rail transit proposal, and fervent liberals strongly opposed her recent budget-balancing cuts to social programs.

"If (Aiona) doesn't disassociate himself, he will come with that baggage, so to speak," Kalapa said.

Abercrombie is trying to connect Aiona to Lingle.

"I simply can't detect anything of a credible nature in terms of a different approach," he said. "What they are doing now they're going to keep on doing, and much of that involves cutting programs and furloughing people."

Abercrombie, however, is not shy about coupling himself to another politician. He uses a slogan and campaign logo similar to those adopted by the 2008 presidential campaign of Barack Obama, whom Abercrombie has known since Obama was a child growing up in Honolulu.

While Obama's approval ratings have declined on the Mainland, Abercrombie insists the president remains popular in his native Hawaii.



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