By Jacob Shafer
The moment was so perfect it was almost surreal. St. Paul, Minnesota, September 2008. The Republican National Convention. A giant American flag projected on the wall dissolves into a sea of red. Deep, blood red. A woman, dressed in a dark gray pantsuit and the hint of a pink shirt, strides to the lectern and flashes a confident, knowing smile. The assembled crowd roars.
Sarah Palin, right? Try again: Linda Lingle – “the honorable Linda Lingle,” as the announcer intones–Governor of Hawaii and featured speaker at the GOP’s quadrennial bash. Palin will later take the stage to educate Americans about the subtle distinctions between pit bulls and hockey moms, but this is Lingle’s moment.
After touting Palin’s “strong leadership” and her second-place finish at the Miss Alaska pageant, Lingle gets down to brass tacks: “I find it reminiscent when I hear Democratic Party leaders and their surrogates questioning Sarah’s experience. They used that same tactic against me when I ran for governor. They said being the mayor of Maui was insufficient,” she said, her voice rising. “Being a mayor, whether in Hawaii, in Alaska or anywhere else, is outstanding preparation for higher office. And the people of Hawaii and Alaska will tell you, Sarah and I are doing just fine!” (click here for video footage of the convention.)
Four years later, Palin and Lingle are both ex-governors–Palin by choice, Lingle by term limits. Their roads, however, diverge from there: while Palin has turned her unsuccessful VP run into a lucrative career–reality TV star, FOX News talking head–Lingle ducked under the radar after exiting Washington Place.
Now she’s clashing with her greatest political rival, Democratic Congress woman Mazie Hirono, in the race to replace outgoing Democratic Senator Daniel Akaka. From the outside, it’s easy to write Lingle off: a Palin-stumping Republican running in a deep blue state, and the birthplace of President Obama no less?
Lingle has never been Hawaii’s most likely political powerhouse. Yet since her arrival in the late 1970s, she’s taught her rivals one lesson, time and again: underestimate her at your own peril.
Linda Cutter was born in Missouri in 1953. Before she was a teenager her family moved to Southern California’s San Fernando Valley, and young Linda wound up attending Birmingham High School, a palm-tree-flanked institution that graduated the likes of actress Sally Field and musician Jermaine Jackson.
In 1972, while attending a local state college and earning a degree in journalism, Linda married a man named Charles Lingle. The marriage lasted three years, but she decided to take the name with her to Hawaii, where her father and uncle had established a lucrative auto sales business.
Her earliest employment in Hawaii was anything but typical for a future Republican governor. After a stint doing public relations for the Teamsters, Lingle launched The Molokai Free Press, a small newspaper on an even smaller island.
Politics, however, soon came calling. In 1980, Lingle earned her first electoral victory and a seat on the Maui County Council, where she’d serve for a decade. In 1986, she married attorney William Crockett and carried his name until their divorce 11 years later.
So far, Lingle’s career was unusual but not extraordinary. Sure it was odd for an untested Mainand transplant to represent an isolated, deeply local place like Molokai. But stranger things were in store.
Like this: in 1990, when just 37, Lingle ran for Maui’s top post against Elmer Cravalho, a former Maui Mayor and state Speaker of the House almost 30 years her senior. Most observers at the time predicted a landslide for Cravalho. Instead, Lingle scored a stunning upset.
Lingle shattered a number of glass ceilings on her way to the ninth floor, becoming Maui’s youngest, and more significantly first female, mayor. Four years later she proved her success was no fluke, trouncing Democrat Goro Hokama (the mayor’s race was partisan back then) by eight points.
Lingle only lost one election in her life, her 1998 defeat to incumbent Governor Ben Cayetano. But even in defeat she managed to advance her ambitions. It was the mother of all moon shots: Cayetano was a born-and-raised Oahu Filipino, well-connected, well-financed and heavily favored. Taking him on was the kind of overreach that cripples careers. Lingle, as usual, was fearless.
The Valley Isle upstart campaigned hard, even against a ludicrous whisper campaign that she would abolish Christmas. As the gubernatorial election drew closer many polls gave her a slight edge. In the end, Cayetano won by a scant 5,254 votes, or a mere one percent. Lingle (who had dropped Cutter the year before) wasn’t governor yet, but her star was on the rise.
A stint as state Republican Party chair followed, during which Lingle helped Republicans gain a significant minority in the state legislature–no small feat in heavily Democratic Hawaii. In 2002, she ran for governor again, this time against Hirono, who’d served as lieutenant governor under Cayetano. This time Lingle prevailed, scratching out a four-point victory. By this time, few called it an upset. Probable or not, the underdog was now top dog.
“She is a terrific campaigner,” a Maui County official who has followed Lingle’s career since her Molokai days told us recently. “She’s a surprisingly good communicator and she’s shrewd. She knows how to read the waters.”
The nautical metaphor is apt. Lingle’s first term as governor was defined mostly by halcyon seas and economic prosperity: tourism boomed and the state’s economy grew while unemployment shrank to historic lows. How much of the credit Lingle deserves is an open question, but at the very least her timing was impeccable.
When she ran for reelection in 2006, the best Democrats could offer was former state senator Randy Iwase. Lingle outspent Iwase more than 10-to-1 and ultimately smashed him by close to 30 points, one of the greatest routs in state electoral history.
But in Lingle’s second term, the political seas got choppier. The bottom fell out of the economy in 2008, and as local officials scrambled to stanch the bleeding and avert fiscal disaster, the governor’s clashes with union reps and the Democratic-controlled legislature became both more frequent and contentious.
Three issues, in particular, highlight Lingle’s tenure as Hawaii’s chief executive. The first is the Hawaii Superferry, the infamous inter-island vessel that sparked widespread protest from Native Hawaiian and environmental groups across the state.
Lingle staked her reputation on the project. After she and a group of determined legislators rammed the Superferry through without the required environmental impact report, environmentalists on Maui cried foul and sued. Eventually, the state Supreme Court agreed and Hawaii Superferry, Inc. shut down in 2009. Ultimately, taxpayers were left holding the bag on what turned out to be a massive boondoggle. (The U.S. Navy finally purchased both Superferry vessels earlier this year.)
Lingle, however, remains defiant. On her official campaign website, in a section titled “Fact Vs. Myth,” she addresses the Superferry controversy, calling the Supreme Court’s ruling “a major departure from well-established law” and laying the blame at the feet of protesters and her political opponents.
That same strategy played out in Lingle’s clash with the teachers union over so-called Furlough Fridays. Facing budget cuts after the 2008 crash, Hawaii schools implemented four-day school weeks. The move invited national scrutiny and kicked off a war of words between Lingle and Hawaii State Teachers Association President Wil Okabe, who accused Lingle of “clinging stubbornly to her mantra.”
Lingle’s response? “Union leaders care more about money than educating Hawaii’s children.” Clearly, she’d come a long way since her Teamster PR days.
But in many ways, the third issue that defined Lingle’s governorship–same-sex civil unions–was the most disappointing of all. After years of stalling and eleventh-hour backpedaling, in 2010 the state Legislature finally sent a civil unions bill to Lingle’s desk.
Lingle put the bill on her veto list but proved unusually cagey, refusing to tip her intentions and even jetting off for a tour of Asia shortly before the veto deadline.
Ultimately, she killed the bill. The response was muted (MauiTime was one of the only local outlets to vehemently chastise the governor) but Lingle’s justification was telling: “While some will disagree with my decision to veto this bill,” she said at the time, “I hope most will agree that the flawed process legislators used does not reflect the dignity this issue deserves.”
It was a remarkable bit of verbal gymnastics: in one sentence, Lingle managed to deflect attention, and blame, and lob it back at the opposition–a trick every successful politician must master.
Master it Lingle has. Whatever else she may be, she knows how to play the game, and play it for keeps. As she prepares for a delayed second-round against Hirono, it’s as easy as ever to write her off. Indeed, recent polls show her trailing.
Maybe Lingle’s run is over; maybe the turmoil and ugliness of her second term finally soured voters. But this is a woman who four years ago stood on her party’s biggest stage–confident, smiling, defiant. She didn’t look like a person who was ready to concede defeat. She still doesn’t.
In other words: underestimate her at your own peril.