Richard Borreca

On Politics


Faces have changed
in halls of power

Gary Rodrigues would stride through Hawaii's state Capitol halls with a faithful entourage of politicians and labor cronies and hold court whenever he stopped.

His presence radiated political power as he moved easily from floor to floor, walking out the back door of the governor's office, hanging out with House Democrats or pausing to instruct his Senate buddies.

During his day, there was no place Rodrigues couldn't go and get respect.

Now, convicted of money laundering, embezzling union funds, taking kickbacks and defrauding his union's health-care funds, Rodrigues, the United Public Workers chief, has shamed himself.

Rodrigues could melt the strongest political backbones during his prime, but during the last two years, as his appearances in court started to outnumber his days at the Legislature, Rodrigues' clout waned. While in power, for example, Rodrigues was able to hold off any meaningful civil service reform or big changes to state privatization laws.

Both issues moved only in the last two years without any concerted attempt by Rodrigues to block them.

As it happens with so many legislative decisions, politicians listening to Rodrigues responded to the force of personality and the implied threat of political retaliation, rather than to the arguments on the issue.

Now the Legislature is awaiting a new force. Rodrigues' removal and disgrace creates a power vacuum at just the wrong time for the Democrats in state government.

As Republican Linda Lingle gathers up her cabinet and starts to adjust the office of governor to her liking, Democrats are pondering their response.

Does the Democratic majority in the House and Senate proclaim the Lingle budget DOA because it comes from a Republican? Do they pick apart her legislative package or substitute their own legislation for the ideas of the new governor?

That sort of a tough response would be easier to accomplish with the covering fire provided by Rodrigues. The loss goes further than just not having Rodrigues around to tell law- makers how to vote, it means that a critical portion of the labor coalition is leaderless.

At the same time, the absolute crown jewel in the Democratic Party's control, the office of the governor, also has been lost. With the remarkable power to control the state budget, to reach into a department and either shower it with new funds or let it wither with restrictions, Governor Lingle will have power unfettered by the Legislature.

In his book "Hawaii Politics and Government," Richard Pratt wrote, "The governor has the power to define what is, and what isn't, important.

"It is unlikely any governor equals the overall capacity to influence the policy that will prevail in areas such as education, transportation, health and environmental protection as the governor of Hawaii," Pratt wrote.

Today, with Lingle readying her inauguration and Rodrigues appealing his conviction, Hawaii is no longer in transition. It has turned a corner.

Richard Borreca writes on politics every Sunday in the Star-Bulletin.
He can be reached at 525-8630 or by e-mail at

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