Lingle suffers in picking Harbin
Critics say her choice was unusual to begin with and damaging in light of revelations
For Gov. Linda Lingle, it has become something of a conditioned response.
Say "Bev Harbin" and the GOP governor responds: "I was surprised and disappointed."
Critics now, however, are saying the public is "surprised and disappointed," not only in Harbin, but also Lingle.
University of Hawaii political scientist Neal Milner says the fumbled Harbin appointment puts a crack in Lingle's image for running a businesslike administration.
"It just doesn't make her look good," Milner said.
Even before it was learned that Harbin, a small-business advocate, shut down a business, owing $123,000 in state taxes and had three criminal misdemeanor convictions for passing bad checks in 1987, Lingle's appointment of Harbin to fill a legislative vacancy was raising eyebrows.
"It was so bungled, it is hard to take at face value," Rep. Marcus Oshiro, House majority leader, says.
Harbin was already known at the Capitol. She had been a lobbyist, most recently for Hawaii Island Contractors Association.
"She was not very effective. She was very abrasive and she burned a lot of bridges as a lobbyist," Oshiro (D, Wahiawa-Poamoho) notes.
When Lingle appointed Harbin on Sept. 16, Harbin was hailed by Lingle as someone who would "create a more business friendly environment statewide."
Even last week, Lingle said she assumed Harbin would be an ally in the Legislature.
"Her positions on some key issues were in alignment with mine as they related to worker's comp reform, unemployment insurance and tax reductions. So I felt she was the right person," Lingle said.
Selecting someone who would vote her way, according to some critics, was Lingle's undoing.
"She appointed someone who is a political ally. She evaluated who she wanted to appoint on the basis of who would be aligned with her instead of the needs of the community," Rep. Brian Schatz (D-Tantalus-Makiki) said.
Sen. Roz Baker (D, Honokohau-Makena) notes that Lingle was a big backer of Collin Wong, a 25-year-old computer programmer who last year came within 152 votes of beating incumbent Rep. Ken Hiraki.
When Hiraki resigned, opening up the 28th District House seat, Baker speculates, Lingle appointed Harbin because she was unlikely to either challenge Wong or mount her own campaign.
"It looks to me like politics. I don't know what other conclusion you can draw. Since it was a closely contested election, it seems to me either they wanted the weakest candidate or someone who would not run, this individual had bit of both," Baker said.
Both Lingle and Bob Awana, her chief of staff, say Harbin was picked because of her qualifications, not political considerations. But since then, Republican Lingle, House Speaker Calvin Say and Democratic Party Chairman Brickwood Galuteria have all asked Harbin to resign, saying her newly disclosed past prevents her from being an effective representative.
Harbin has refused and said she plans on keeping up her agenda of lobbying for small-business issues and plans a weekly news conference "to tell you what is really going on down here."
Legislators say part of the reason for the controversy is that Lingle changed her method for making legislative appointments.
The state Constitution gives Lingle the power to appoint anyone who is a qualified voter from the district in question and is of the same party of the person being replaced.
Last year, when Rep. Sol Kahoohalahala resigned Lingle set up a two-tiered screening process. The first level had three Democrats and three Republicans review applicants.
Then Awana and Linda Smith, Lingle's senior policy adviser and Democratic Sen. Les Ihara interviewed the finalists to recommend the top three for Lingle.
The plan drew some criticism for being slow and cumbersome, but it was also hailed as fair, bipartisan and open.
"At first I thought it would be political and I would be outvoted, but I was impressed how we went about business," Ihara said.
Ihara adds that his panel asked several questions about the candidate's past and he thinks they would have caught a candidate with a hidden, unsavory background.
"I think the process would have flushed out things in the past that would have been detrimental," Ihara said.
Lingle and Awana now said they felt the administration has been criticized for not moving faster with the previous appointment and that is why the sped up the September screening.
Instead of two search committees, with Democrats and Republicans, Lingle just asked the public to send in names. The Democrats, without invitation, started their own search.
Democrats surveyed the downtown-Kakaako community and came up with four nominees: Roy Benham, Peter Leong, Kevin Mulligan and Karl Rhoads. Another possible candidate, former Democratic House candidate Pat McCain also tossed in his name, but the party said because he had voted on the mainland in the 2004 election and didn't live in Honolulu now, he wasn't eligible.
Former state Sen. Patsy Young submitted her name, according to Awana as did Harbin.
The Democrats protested Harbin's inclusion, saying she became a Democrat after Hiraki resigned, but Awana said the administration didn't care when she became a Democrat, only that she was one and met the qualifications.
Harbin also was criticized for just moving into the district.
Now Lingle says she "needs a more elaborate written procedure so that whenever someone talks to us about a position they sign off and verify that all these things are true."