Chad Blair: How Did Republican Linda Lingle Become Governor Of Hawaii? - Honolulu Civil Beat

Power local, independent journalism with a gift today and help us reach our goal of $250,000 by December 31.

Thanks to 634 donors, we've raised $96,000 so far!


Power local, independent journalism with a gift today and help us reach our goal of $250,000 by December 31.

Thanks to 634 donors, we've raised $96,000 so far!


About the Author

Chad Blair

Chad Blair is the politics and opinion editor for Civil Beat. You can reach him by email at or follow him on Twitter at @chadblairCB.

Twenty years ago next month Hawaii elected its first female governor, its first governor of Jewish ancestry, the first former county mayor to become governor and the first neighbor island resident to become governor.

Opinion article badge

Ballotpedia adds two other distinctions: the first twice-divorced governor of Hawaii, and the first not to have any children.

That’s a lot of firsts. How did Linda Lingle do it?

How did someone born in St. Louis, Missouri, who moved to Hawaii in 1975 with a journalism degree — journalism! — from California State University, Northridge, manage to win the highest office in the state?

As Hawaii prepares to elect its ninth governor since statehood, I’ve been thinking back to the 2002 election, which happened to feature Duke Aiona, the current GOP nominee, as Lingle’s convivial running mate.

While many capable Republicans have run for governor, including Aiona (this is his third turn at bat), Pat Saiki, Andy Anderson and Fred Hemmings, none pulled off a win — with the lone exception of Bill Quinn. But there is an asterisk to Quinn’s name, as he was the last governor of the Territory of Hawaii. President Dwight D. Eisenhower appointed him in August 1957.

Quinn would be elected the first governor of the new, 50th state just two years later. But his losing opponent, John A. Burns, defeated Quinn in a rematch in 1962, solidifying the rule of Democrats in Hawaii — until Lingle came along, serving as the state’s chief executive from 2002-2010.

Former Governors Linda Lingle (right) and Neil Abercrombie (left) look on during the inauguration ceremony for Governor David Ige, at the state capitol in Honolulu, HI, Monday, December 3, 2018. (Civil Beat photo Ronen Zilberman)
Former Govs. Linda Lingle and Neil Abercrombie, left, looked on during Gov. David Ige’s inauguration ceremony. She is the only Republican governor to serve two full terms. Ronen Zilberman/Civil Beat/ 2018

Lingle, 69, politely declined to comment for this column. She is “done” with politics, she says, though she still calls Hawaii home, loves tennis and actively advocates for reforming how women are treated in our criminal justice system.

But I talked to others who remember the race. I myself was a writer for Honolulu Weekly at the time and had a front-row seat to many of the political events that year. Here’s what I remember, and what I think.

Scandal, Division

Lingle came to local prominence serving first on the Maui County Council (she was elected in 1980 and served five 2-year terms) and then for two terms as mayor. In 1998 she stunned many when she came within a percentage point — or just over 5,000 of more than 400,000 votes cast — of kicking Gov. Ben Cayetano out of Washington Place.

Cayetano was vulnerable from the economic downturn of the 1990s, and he often clashed with his fellow Democrats in the Legislature.

The “Broken Trust” scandal involving Bishop Estate that broke in August 1997 also eroded public confidence in Hawaii’s power structure. Reports of “gross incompetence and massive trust abuse” filled news stories for years to come, and Democrats were tainted by the fact that a former Senate president and House speaker were among the five trustees under scrutiny.

Cayetano’s attorney general, Margery Bronster, sued to remove Dickie Wong and Henry Peters, alleging that the trustees jeopardized the estate’s tax-exempt status. But that’s another story.

Rick Blangiardi annouced his run for Mayor of Honolulu . Governor Linda Lingle was in attendance for her support for Blangiardi.
When Rick Blangiardi announced his run for mayor of Honolulu in 2020, Lingle was in attendance. But she says she is done with politics. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2020

Lingle also was not a typical Republican. She supported abortion rights, for example, and opposed the death penalty.

More unusually, she had worked as a public information officer for the Teamsters and Hotel Workers Union in Honolulu, according to the Shalvi/Hyman Encyclopedia of Jewish Women. She later founded a community newspaper, the Molokai Free Press.

Lingle was and is a smooth talker, one of the most polished pols I’ve ever encountered in local politics. But Cayetano sensed weakness.

In his 2009, “Ben: A Memoir, From Street Kid To Governor,” the former governor said he thought Lingle was not as well versed as he was in state issues, was sometimes robotic and, at her core, did not really understand local culture and values. And she was a poor loser.

“Lingle didn’t take her loss well,” he wrote. “While the news media cast Lingle in an emotional, sympathetic light, the discerning person might have noticed that she gave no concession, no congratulatory remarks; she made no offer to set aside differences and work together for the common good.”

‘Talent, Energy’

Cayetano has his own quirks, of course. He managed to tick off state teachers and University of Hawaii professors in labor disputes during his time on the fifth floor of the Hawaii State Capitol.

Lingle, who by that time was running the Hawaii Republican Party, had spent four years preparing for another run for governor. With the election of George W. Bush in November 2000 and the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, the country had changed, too.

Lingle was aided by drawing a lackluster opponent, then-Lt. Gov. Mazie Hirono, rather than Honolulu Mayor Jeremy Harris or another Democrat. Hirono actually for a short time ran for mayor that year before Harris elected not to run for governor. (That’s another story, too.)

Hirono also barely edged Ed Case in the Democratic primary (and Andy Anderson, too, this time running as a Democrat), winning by a scant 2,600 of more than 180,000 votes cast.

Clearly wounded, and a poor public debater compared to Lingle, Hirono would lose 51.1% to 46.6% that November, breaking a streak of Democrat LGs succeeding Democrat governors dating to the mid-1970s.

“There was a tremendous amount of preparation and bringing in individuals who had a talent, an expertise and energy in a particular area,” remembers Lenny Klompus, one of the campaign’s senior advisers along with Bob Awana, Randy Roth (co-author of the “Broken Trust” expose) and Linda Smith. “There were many people like me who were never involved in politics but were driven by what we could do to make life better for people in Hawaii.”

Mazie Hirono, left, and Linda Lingle at a 2012 U.S. Senate debate. Chad Blair/Civil Beat/2012

Klompus, who would become Gov. Lingle’s communications director, said the campaign also focused on the positive, being flexible and listening to what voters wanted. “We never ran a negative ad — ever,” he said.

Lynn Finnegan, the current chair of the local GOP, said Democrats were divided at the time.

“There was a lot of reporting on different types of corruption, and it excited people like me who didn’t know how to get involved,” she said.

Finnegan, who was first elected to the state House that same year, added, “Plus, she was a very, very qualified candidate. It was the opportunity for a perfect storm.”

Fate is fickle. So are voters. After serving two terms, Lingle lost to Hirono in a humiliating landslide in the 2012 race for the U.S. Senate.

But the gubernatorial race of 2002 is one to be remembered. Whether it can be replicated is quite another matter.

Read this next:

John Pritchett: Political Football

Local reporting when you need it most

Support timely, accurate, independent journalism.

Honolulu Civil Beat is a nonprofit organization, and your donation helps us produce local reporting that serves all of Hawaii.


About the Author

Chad Blair

Chad Blair is the politics and opinion editor for Civil Beat. You can reach him by email at or follow him on Twitter at @chadblairCB.

Latest Comments (0)

Best Governor Hawaii ever had, Nuff Said

Malama · 1 year ago

First time in history the Hawaii Democrats FAFO. its was not going to be status quo. Hawaii's Democratic party and thier "friends" was running amok like little kids loose in a candy store. Broken Trust was an understatement not just Bishop Estates, but for Hawaii as a whole. Many voters got tired of the same old thing, just a different day with the Democrats. Many thought to break the insanity and try something different for a change and Lingle was it. Did not come off as a typical republican. She carried some of the Democratic values that many here hold dear. It made it easier to vote for her.

Jus_a_moke · 1 year ago

Linda Lingle won in '02, primarily b/c Ben Cayetano's scorched-earth tactics in dealing w/the HSTA & UHPA strikes all but ensured that many disgusted union members would either not vote, or if they did vote, it would be for Lingle. Being more charismatic & media savvy than Mazie Hirono was the icing on the cake that cinched her win.That's why it was so hard to figure out why Lingle destroyed whatever political future she had beyond Washington Place, when she snubbed a group of parents & kids who were protesting in her office, wanting a meeting with her to discuss the now-infamous Furlough Fridays. I don't think the group expected Lingle to single handedly resolve the issue. They just wanted to express their feelings to her. But she stonewalled them & resorted to having some of them arrested after a few nights when they wouldn't leave. That moment of stubbornness, hubris, or whatever you want to call it...that was the end of her political career. Why bother believing the sincerity of someone who wants to do town halls & talk-story coffee hours while campaigning, when you know that person has a history of stonewalling/ignoring their constituents once they get into office?

KalihiValleyHermit · 1 year ago

Join the conversation


IDEAS is the place you'll find essays, analysis and opinion on every aspect of life and public affairs in Hawaii. We want to showcase smart ideas about the future of Hawaii, from the state's sharpest thinkers, to stretch our collective thinking about a problem or an issue. Email to submit an idea.


You're officially signed up for our daily newsletter, the Morning Beat. A confirmation email will arrive shortly.

In the meantime, we have other newsletters that you might enjoy. Check the boxes for emails you'd like to receive.

  • What's this? Be the first to hear about important news stories with these occasional emails.
  • What's this? You'll hear from us whenever Civil Beat publishes a major project or investigation.
  • What's this? Get our latest environmental news on a monthly basis, including updates on Nathan Eagle's 'Hawaii 2040' series.
  • What's this? Get occasional emails highlighting essays, analysis and opinion from IDEAS, Civil Beat's commentary section.

Inbox overcrowded? Don't worry, you can unsubscribe
or update your preferences at any time.