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David Shapiro
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By David Shapiro

Saturday, May 20, 2000

Cayetano can get
his clout back

BEN Cayetano is at a critical turning point in his final term as Hawaii's governor.

No other governor here has been so disrespected by the Legislature. At the end of this year's session, Cayetano was cut out of the action as legislative leaders repeatedly ran to United Public Workers boss Gary Rodrigues for their marching orders on key bills.

It was a far cry from the early days of Democratic rule in Hawaii when the late Gov. John A. Burns stood in the wings of House and Senate chambers at the close of each year's session, guiding lawmakers as they finished their work. Even the most powerful union lobbyists deferred to Burns.

The big question now is what Cayetano will do about it.

If he's willing to flex the political muscle that comes with his job, he can take the offensive in his remaining two years and still achieve many of the reforms he wants in state government.

Or he can lamely accept the lame-duck status legislators have put on him and spend his final years in dubious public relations ventures to polish his image for history. Here's hoping he understands that his place in history will be decided by how well he does on reforming government, not by any PR campaign.

The governor is sending mixed signals on which way he'll go. One day he's showing strength by vetoing the worst bills of the recent session, such as the unwarranted tax breaks for hotels and the Rodrigues-engineered deal to give his union the inside track on running a new prison.

The next day he's playing the lame duck, quacking that folks don't appreciate what he and the Legislature have achieved on tax breaks and workers compensation reform. He talks of raising private money for a media campaign to educate the public about his good deeds.

If Cayetano wants to be a factor in the next Legislature, he needs to worry less about self-serving media campaigns and more about making himself a factor in this year's legislative election. He needs to prove he can put some political hurt on lawmakers who block his initiatives and help those who help him.

Partly because of a poor economy that wasn't his doing, Cayetano isn't our most popular governor. He won his two elections by the slimmest of margins and his job approval rating in the polls is still stuck at well below 50 percent.

BUT the governor has earned the grudging respect of even some of his critics for his willingness to take on the public employee unions that were so key to his election. That translates to political capital he can use to be a player in this year's election and regain influence in the Legislature.

To do this, he must name names of lawmakers who have thwarted his reforms. He must encourage friendly Democratic challengers to take on unfriendly Democratic incumbents in carefully chosen races. He must withhold funding for the pet projects of legislators who have disrespected him to show them that insolence has a penalty.

It goes against the grain for the governor to take on fellow Democrats, but he can think of it as saving his party from itself. Either Democrats will reform our expensively underachieving state government or voters sooner or later will find someone else to do it.

If Cayetano can truly get his party on the road to reform, the honored place in history he so craves will take care of itself.

David Shapiro is managing editor of the Star-Bulletin.
He can be reached by e-mail at

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