Former Gov. Linda Lingle told fellow Hawaii Republicans at the party’s convention in Kauai over the weekend that she would decide by the end of August whether to run for the U.S. Senate next year.

Civil Beat sat down with Lingle for an interview at the convention to talk about what issues she might campaign on in a national race, her views on mixing religion and politics and whether she regrets her veto of civil unions legislation in 2010.

Civil Beat: You are now seriously considering a run for the Senate.

I’d like to make a decision by the end of August. And that’s dependent upon feeling that I’ve done enough due diligence, and by that I mean to gauge support and, if I ran, to determine if there is a strategy I feel I could use to win in a race like this when you know there will be a lot of attention on the other side for a long period of time.

Our primary is not until (next) August in Hawaii. So, it’s a year where people are all going to be talking on the other side, a year when the president who is from Hawaii will be on the ballot. So, I just want to make sure there is a strategy for victory in this race before I ask all my supporters and friends to sacrifice again the way they have so many times.

Have you done any internal polling?

No, I haven’t done any polling at all.

You talked to your party this weekend about the importance of balance in political representation. What else would you run on besides that issue? What two or three key issues would be important in a Senate campaign?

I think the military presence in Hawaii, its impact on national security, its impact on our society here in Hawaii, economic impacts, will be very important, someone who is very close to the military, able to articulate their issues effectively — that would be important.

Also, I’ve felt that we haven’t taken full advantage of our position vis-à-vis the Asia-Pacific region. And I’d like to become, if I was in the Senate, the go-to person on things in this part of the world. I just don’t see anyone like that in the United States Senate, of either party.

That was a big focus of your administration — Hawaii in Asia.

Right. So, I’ve made a lot of acquaintances there that I think would be helpful to our country, let alone our state. So that is something I would like to pursue,

And of course the economic issues would be paramount going into 2012 no matter what else happens. This issue will not go away — the debt, a long-term issue, the deficit in the short term. So, I think those would be some of the issues that people will be talking about.

When you addressed the Lincoln Day dinner with Newt Gingrich in town, you spoke out about religious diversity. There has been the emphasis on Christianity by Party Chair Jonah Kaauwai. How much will you continue to speak out on religion, particularly if you take a national role?

Well, my main point at the Lincoln Day dinner — and I would make it at all times to our party as a reminder — is, we have to be where all people feel welcome. No one is going to agree on every issue, but fundamentally you want people to feel, “I have a place in this party.” And for us to become a majority whether it is nationally or locally, you can’t have a minority point of view and represent the majority.

My point is that everybody, regardless of their religion or if they have no religion, they should feel welcome in the majority party, because our party is not about religion, it’s about public policy, it’s about government. I think it’s important — this is my personal view — and I am a person of faith, but that is separate from me in politics and government and public policy.

And I think when you start focusing on religion, because we are not all of the same religion, some people feel left out of that. And in a state like Hawaii, where we celebrate great diversity — we don’t just tolerate it, we celebrate it. I think it is extremely important that all people feel welcome. And when I was party chair we stressed that.

You never pulled Jonah aside and said, “Jonah, let’s ease up a bit.”

I have spoken to him directly as well — in fact, I likely wouldn’t have spoken out publicly without having tried in a private fashion. I felt I needed to maybe be more effective in communicating, and I have done it after people have come to me who were not of that religion, or in some cases friends of mine who are very strong Catholics who they themselves raised the issue with me, saying, I come to the party issues to talk politics and public policy, and not religion.

Watching what happened with the Legislature and your successor, particularly wrestling with the third year in a row with a budget deficit, something that started under your administration trying to address by cutting back … Did you feel a little déjà vu or vindication for having singled out fiscal responsibility very early on as a very important issue?

The most difficult decision I made in my eight years was having to lay off almost a thousand people. It was a horrible decision to have to make because it was about real people, their families and their ability to live a good life here. And I had to lay them off not because they did anything wrong or weren’t performing well but simply because of our financial situation.

I made tough decisions. When that recession hit us, it was the fastest on record. It’s not just that it was deep; it was rapid. And so we had to make some tough, quick decisions and let the public know that we were doing it. And I think over time people are understanding why those decisions had to me made.

I don’t like to comment specifically on the governor only because I know how hard it is to be a governor in a way that few people do, and I am sure that he’s doing what he believes is the best thing — like I did what I believe is the best thing. And I leave it to the public to decide whatever their opinion is on what (governors) are doing.

But, I can tell you that the decisions I made, while difficult, were absolutely necessary, and any decision I did not make at that time would be compounded now.

On civil unions legislation, which you vetoed, you wanted it to go before the electorate as a ballot question. It has now been signed and will become law. Do you feel you were on the wrong side of history with that decision?

I don’t. I think when an issue is so passionately held on both sides — and if you remember the rallies that were being held, and if you sat with me, Chad, in these meetings with people who were so heartfelt on both sides, and I spent a lot of time listening, just listening. And I asked questions of people who believe so strongly in the civil union issue and I talked with people who thought it was a very bad idea for society. So, my feeling was, I feel in a democracy that a vote would make a lot of sense.

And it’s not the first time I’ve taken that position on an issue, I felt the same way on gambling. I’ve always been opposed to gambling — not gambling; to legalizing gambling in Hawaii. If you want to go gamble in Las Vegas, have a great time. It’s not a moral issue with me, I just think it’s bad for us as a people and as a state.

But there are people on the other side who make some very strong arguments why we should have it. So I said, let’s put it before the public. Why don’t we just put it before a vote? So, I think there are those kind of things where it makes sense. I felt at the time extremely comfortable with my decision (on civil unions).

Here at home, the 2010 election was a disappointment for Republicans. And some, including me, criticized you for having no coattails. What’s your take now, six months from that election?

I wasn’t as involved in the campaign; I was focused on the state’s toughest time in history. I focused all eight years on running the best state I could and not spending my time out campaigning for candidates. While I tried when asked to help, I tried to help because I believe so strongly in this concept of a two-party system. …

I’ve always told people you don’t transfer influence to people. Look at Sen. Inouye: He came out for Hillary Clinton and got swamped in Hawaii. It doesn’t mean that Sen. Inouye is not popular, it means that when it’s him running there’s one result, and when it’s another race, even though he says to all his supporters, “Please vote for Hillary Clinton,” they say, “No, we like the other guy.” That’s their independent opinion and I don’t think it’s any different.

So, it all comes down to not whether I have personal coattails, it comes down to whether the candidates running are relating to the people in their district, whether they are taking positions and have a record of working in their community. … I think that’s a determinant of whether you win seats or not, not whether I am for a particular candidate or not. I don’t think the whole concept of coattails exists, and I think Sen. Inouye is the best example.

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