In the summer of 2002, Democrat Ed Case was a four-term state House representative from Manoa who often challenged his party’s leadership.
Republican Linda Lingle was a former Maui mayor and Council member who had run unsuccessfully for governor four years earlier and headed a political party mired in the minority.
And Democrat Mazie Hirono was the sitting lieutenant governor and heir apparent who had never lost an election since winning a seat in the state House in 1980.
By November 2002, however, Lingle would defeat Hirono in the governor’s race and Case would be elected to the U.S. Congress. It represented a major shift in Hawaii’s political landscape.
Nearly 10 years later, all three are together again — running for the same U.S. Senate seat, a contest that could tip the balance of power in Washington and elect a new senator who could serve for a generation.
These candidates know each other, and have a history. Civil Beat looks back to 2002 to see how it informs 2012.
Three factors that played into the 2002 elections are present today: an unpopular governor, a bad economy and unhappy school teachers.
The parallels are not precise, but they’re close.
In 2002, Ben Cayetano was completing two terms in office, while Neil Abercrombie this year is in his first. But, the unpopularity of both Democrats was directly linked to a bad economy and soured relations with labor groups who had supported their elections and later felt burned.
The Hawaii State Teachers Association, which went on strike for three weeks in 2001, took the unusual step in 2002 of not endorsing a candidate for governor — something that clearly hurt Hirono’s gubernatorial campaign. That same union today is presently challenging Abercrombie’s imposition of a new contract.
As for the economy, while it is an evergreen issue in most elections, it was the top issue in 2002.
Lingle, who stressed her fiscal record as Maui mayor, appealed to voters as a departure from Democrat rule, as opposed to Hirono, who had been in office for a tough eight years under Cayetano. Case also focused on the economy in his primary bid against Hirono.
Today, all three U.S. Senate candidates again have jobs and the economy at the very top of their platforms.
Not only was Hirono saddled with Cayetano’s baggage, she had little baggage of her own, positive or negative. The Hawaii lieutenant governorship has little power, and Hirono didn’t have much to show for her two terms.
Lingle had a successful two terms as Maui mayor, however. She and running mate Stan Koki lost to the Cayetano-Hirono team in 1998 by just 1.3 percentage points, or about 5,000 votes.
Hirono also confused the public by initially not running for governor. Until 2002, Hawaii voters had replaced their governors with their lieutenant governors dating back to 1974. But Hirono decided to run for Honolulu mayor in 2002 because then-Mayor Jeremy Harris was seen as the odds-on favorite to win the Democratic gubernatorial primary.
When Harris decided against a run, however, Hirono switched to the governor’s race. But by then she had lost valuable time in organizing a statewide campaign — her third — and raising money.
Case, meanwhile, focused all his energy and resources on his first statewide campaign to defeat Hirono in the primary. A tireless sign-waiver and hand-shaker, Case, like Lingle, was a fresh face who campaigned as an agent of change.
A third factor in the Democratic primary was a third candidate, Andy “D.G.” Anderson, a Republican turned Democrat who had already run for governor several times. A Native Hawaiian, Anderson’s campaign may have siphoned votes away from both Case and Hirono.
Case, for example, had angered many Hawaiians by introducing a bill to combine the Office of Hawaiian Affairs and the Department of Hawaiian Home Lands in order to protect Native Hawaiian entitlements. The Cayetano administration had struggled with a dysfunctional Office of Hawaiian Affairs over ceded land payments.
Finally, Hirono in 2002 was not the same politician she is today, bolstered by four consecutive elections (three of them landslides) to the U.S. House of Representatives.
Her debate performances in 2002 were never stellar, and she seemed to struggle on the campaign trail to connect with voters — even with the party establishment behind her.
Hirono slipped past Case in the Democratic primary, but the difference — 40.6 percent to 39.2 percent, or just 2,600 votes — was more of a win for Case than Hirono. (Anderson finished third with 17.7 percent.)
That Case considered the campaign a success was clear in the body language he exhibited at his Ward Center headquarters after the first of three election-result printouts was released. He was smiling, buoyant, seemingly aware that he might not win that night but coming much closer than anyone expected.
When the final printout was released around midnight, Hirono and supporters John Waihee, the former governor, and then-U.S. Rep. Neil Abercrombie stared in disbelief at TV reports at the Blaisdell Center election night headquarters.
Less than two months later, Lingle triumphed with 51.1 percent of the vote to Hirono’s 46.6 percent.
It was the first time that a sitting lieutenant governor had failed to advance to the top seat after winning the primary, the first time a Republican had been elected governor in 40 years and the first time a woman was elected to the top job.
Case then entered the Nov. 30 special election to fill the remainder of the term of U.S. Rep. Patsy Mink. Turnout was low and the field was crowded, but Case took 51 percent of the vote, crushing his nearest rival, Mink’s widow, John Mink, who finished with 36 percent.
In yet another parallel between 2002 and 2012, John Carroll, who is running against Lingle in the Republican primary next year, lost to Lingle in the 2002 primary for governor. He also finished a distant third in the 2002 special election that sent Case to Washington.
Hirono did not stay in the political wilderness for long.
It is that same Senate seat, of course, that Case, Hirono and Lingle are all vying for today. Whoever wins could hold the seat for a generation or longer.
After all, Dan Akaka, 87, has been a senator since 1990, and Hawaii’s senior senator, Daniel K. Inouye, is the same age. Hirono is 63, Case is 59 and Lingle is 58.