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Two Women Compete for Hawaii Governorship - 2002-10-29

Ten women will vie for governorships across the United States on November 5, tying the record number running in 1994 and 1998. But this year, for the first time since the Nebraska governor's race in 1986, two women are competing against each other for the top statewide office. The race is between Democrat Lieutenant Governor Mazie Hirono and Republican Linda Lingle.

Voters in Hawaii will have a choice of two experienced politicians on November 5. Mazie Hirono is a former legislator and the incumbent lieutenant governor. Linda Lingle is a two-term Maui mayor who lost to the incumbent Democratic governor in 1998 by just 5,000 votes. If Ms. Lingle wins the general election, she would be the first Republican to govern Hawaii since it achieved statehood in 1959.

The Democratic Party has held not only the governor's office in Honolulu, but most of the seats in the state legislature and the Hawaii delegation in Washington. But, after more than 40 years, voters are calling for a change. Many blame the Democrats for nepotism in the state government, and complain that previous governors depleted what was once a healthy state budget. The public education system is also a mess. Earlier this year public school teachers and university faculty went on strike to protest low salaries and the lack of pay raises.

Critics of the Democratic party say Lieutenant Governor Hirono is part of the "old boy network" that needs replacing. This woman, who asked not be identified, says she's been a life-long Democrat, but will vote for Republican Linda Lingle in November.

"She represents a change, which I think is sorely overdue, and she also represents and opportunity for grassroots participation," said this woman voter. "And it's time to revive the two-party system in Hawaii."

Hirono campaign worker Dave Bellino says last week's televised debate, the only one during Hawaii's gubernatorial campaign, highlighted Ms. Lingle's reputation for being too well packaged as a candidate. He says Ms. Hirono is the one who came across as approachable and part of the community.

"She is more real as an individual," says Mr. Bellino. "I feel like her answers were not canned, it was a real person responding to real questions."

Women have been involved in Hawaii's government since its days as a U.S. territory. Most have served as delegates at national political party conventions, but in the past decade women also have been elected as mayors on two of the eight Hawaiian Islands.

Congresswoman Patsy Mink, who died unexpectedly in September, served in both the state and federal legislatures since the 1960s. And now, the Aloha State will have its first woman governor.

But the novelty of two female gubernatorial candidates has not seemed to excite the electorate. Many voters say they're more interested in what the women have to say.

In their campaigns, Linda Lingle and Mazie Hirono have outlined their plans to improve the state economy and the public education system. They both promise to devote more money and attention to classroom teachers. And they agree Hawaii needs to diversify its economy to stay healthy. With tourism numbers down, the continued development of the state's $3 billion high-tech industry has become more important. In a recent debate both women pledged to support and promote controversial legislation that gives tax breaks and tax credits to firms investing in high-tech projects in Hawaii. Ms. Lingle also cited the University of Hawaii as a strong player in developing the state's tech industry. She said its new "Accelerated Research Commercialization Grant Program," that matches private companies with university researchers, has a lot to offer.

"This is an attempt by the university to hook up, at a very early stage, in the development of an idea," she explained. "And they are focused on specific areas of tech like biotech, alternative energy, and ocean sciences."

As governor, Ms. Lingle said she would make sure the grant program continues to receive adequate funding.

Mazie Hirono said Hawaii must focus on its strengths like technology and agriculture, but the role of tourism and support from the federal government can't be ignored.

"We have to diversify tourism and attain government efficiency by partnering with the private sector, and also to bring as many resources from the federal government as we can," emphasized Ms. Hirono.

Linda Lingle was able to turn voter anger at the Democratic administration to her advantage early in the campaign, but Mazie Hirono has closed the gap during the past month. The latest polls show the candidates nearly tied. However, a recent Honolulu Advertiser poll found more than 16 percent of the voters remain undecided. It says voters still trying to make up their minds are more likely to be of Filipino and Japanese ancestry. That would seem to be good news for Ms. Hirono, who has strong backing among those groups. Linda Lingle's support is strongest with Caucasian voters and people between the ages of 35 and 54.

As in other tight races across the United States, these undecided voters will be a significant factor in the remaining days of the campaign... and on election day.