Friday, May 21, 1999

State GOP to
choose new leader

The party will elect a leader, then try
to use the Bronster vote to gain seats
in the House and Senate

By Mike Yuen


Hawaii Republicans, who have chafed under Democratic dominance for more than four decades, are gathering today in Poipu, Kauai, for a three-day convention to elect a new party leader. That new leader, many delegates and alternatives say, must be able to harness voter outrage over the Democratic-controlled Senate's refusal to reconfirm Margery Bronster as attorney general and channel it into GOP gains in next year's elections.

"I don't think there's any question that their party will come out of the convention stronger," concedes state Democratic Party Chairman Walter Heen. "There's no question that my job will be tougher."

One of the two candidates for party chairman is former Maui Mayor Linda Lingle, 45, who came close to unseating Gov. Ben Cayetano last year and who will likely use the party chairmanship as a springboard for another gubernatorial bid.

Art Challenging Lingle is James Kuroiwa Jr., 56, the former Oahu County chairman. He acknowledges that Lingle is the front-runner.

"She needs to storm in," says Howard Chong, Hawaii's Republican national committeeman. "If she loses or her win is close, that won't be a good signal for her."

Lingle, who wants to broaden the GOP's appeal to independents and disenchanted Democrats, says about half of the more than 400 convention delegates and alternates are her supporters from the gubernatorial election. They have never been involved in Republican Party activities before, she says.

Kuroiwa says his aim is to expand the isle GOP by appealing to Japanese-Americans, long the backbone of the Hawaii Democratic Party.

Lingle and Kuroiwa agree on economic issues -- the need for a smaller and more efficient government and no tax increases. They do differ on a hot-button social issue: abortion. Lingle is pro-choice; Kuroiwa isn't. Both are against same-sex marriage.

Unlike earlier this year when the Lingle-endorsed candidacy of Bob Awana, her campaign chairman, threatened to split the GOP, the battle between Lingle and Kuroiwa gives no hint of causing a rift. And Kuroiwa, who's backed by Orson Swindle, the federal trade commissioner who twice ran unsuccessfully for the U.S. House, says he'll support Lingle if he loses.

Lingle and Kuroiwa agree that they and the public have a common enemy: one-party rule by Democrats that has been out of touch -- and even arrogant -- and unable to revitalize the state's economy.

The Democrats' inability to fix the economy and their rejection of Bronster and then-Budget Director Earl Anzai to a second four-year term should give Republicans a boost because voters are looking for alternatives, says Lingle, echoing a common GOP sentiment. "They're disgusted with what they see," she said.

"The Bronster and Anzai votes by the Senate are symbolic and they're made easier to explain because they involve two people whom average voters believe performed very well. This was not the usual vote trading that goes on with issues not as easy to see as this one was."

Kuroiwa adds: "I think what's been happening has been totally a Democratic Party problem. It's not just the Senate. It's the nonperformance of the governor, a Democrat. It's the Bishop Estate."

Bronster, who launched the state's investigation of the estate, believes that estate trustees were behind her ouster. The outcry over her dismissal stems from the public's perception of her as symbolic of change and willing to take on the politically connected estate, one of the nation's largest charitable trusts.

Perhaps the most daunting task for the isle GOP's new leader will be to convince the electorate that Republicans -- not new Democrats -- are the alternative to the political status quo, says Sen. Sam Slom (R, Kalama Valley).

Many longtime political observers agree. Disenchantment with incumbent Democratic lawmakers has simmered -- even flared -- in recent years. But of the eight Democratic senators who were voted out in 1996 and 1998, along with a ninth who did not seek re-election last year, all were replaced by Democrats.

Throughout this decade, the 25-member Senate has had only two or three Republicans. In the 51-member House, where Republicans have had as few as four members, they have fared better. They now number 12, but did not make any gains last year as they had hoped.

And while the isle GOP claims 4,000 more members than the Hawaii Democratic Party, polls commissioned by the Honolulu Star-Bulletin have found that nearly two out of every three Hawaii voters identify with the Democratic Party.

GOP operatives, however, believe their party is on the upswing, saying that in 1998 it fielded its best slate of candidates in recent memory. And unlike previous years, Republicans contested all but one legislative race.

There are other promising signs, too, insists outgoing state Republican Chairwoman Donna Alcantara. While Lingle did lose, Republicans came the closest to winning the governor's seat since statehood, Alcantara notes. And the total number of votes cast for GOP legislative candidates last year -- 153,898, or 39 percent -- was the highest in the 40 years of Democratic domination.

"It will be up to the new party chair to plot a strategy for the next election," Alcantara says. "I don't think this disenchantment over what the Senate did to Margery Bronster is going to go away. But it won't matter unless we can recruit good Republican candidates who are financed and can win elections. Disenchantment is not enough."

Outgoing state GOP Executive Director Jesse Yescalis adds that Kauai Mayor Maryonne Kusaka attempted to convince freshman Sen. Jonathan Chun (D, Lihue) to run as a Republican. But Chun, whom Republicans saw as a kindred spirit, apparently concluded that he had a better chance of winning as a Democrat.

"They'll continue to run as Democrats until the Hawaii Republican Party shows it can win," Yescalis says.

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