Who Wants to Be Hawaii’s No. 2 Politician?

The Democratic primary race for lieutenant governor draws powerful senator, former TV reporter and the guy who’s got the job.

Quick, tell us the first and last name of the current lieutenant governor. Did you say Shan Tsutsui? Congratulations, you’re savvier than most. If you blanked, you’re the reason the lieutenant governor is probably sweating his re-election bid. Conventional wisdom gives the advantage to incumbents, but this year Tsutsui faces two challengers with more name recognition than himself.

The unexpected entrance of  Sen. Clayton Hee—a personal friend and political ally of Gov. Neil Abercrombie—earlier this month already made this race one to watch. Former TV news reporter Mary Zanakis added more intrigue to the lieutenant governor’s race by throwing her hat into the ring last week. Zanakis was a reporter on KITV and KHON for 22 years. (Disclaimer: I met Zanakis when we were both reporters so naturally her name jumped out at me.) Although she left the news biz in 2005, Zanakis’ campaign is counting on people remembering her—she hopes—as a fair and balanced reporter with broad knowledge of the issues that matter to the people of Hawaii.

Zanakis may have more name recognition than Tsutsui, but is she the challenger he should be worried about?

Maybe not. Hee, after all, has powerful allies that include former Gov. Ben Cayetano, and Tsutsui has Gov. Abercrombie’s backing. Hee also has a hefty war chest: He reported more than $460,000 cash on hand at the end of last year, topping Tsutsui by more than $100,000 in the same time frame.

Zanakis, in a phone interview yesterday, said she has no money, no plans to mortgage her house to finance her campaign, and doesn’t intend to ask for contributions. “The majority of people are like us. We’re not rich, and I can’t bring myself to ask people for money when they have to work for it,” she explains.

As for asking bigwigs to donate, she says she’d rather not have to owe anyone anything if she should manage to pull off an upset victory. She’d rather get by on her name and her reputation—getting out and meeting as many voters as possible and hoping those who recall her from TV remember her integrity as a journalist.

Neither political pundits Colin Moore nor Neal Milner expect Zanakis to make much difference in the election. The lieutenant governor’s race rarely gets much attention and voters often just pick the names they know. But Zanakis might attract the kind of voters who want anyone elected but lightning-rod Hee. “I think this is bad news for Tsutsui,” Moore says.

Both Tsutsui and Zanakis might be able to argue that Hee isn’t great at compromise, but that’s something that journalists and political junkies are more aware of than the average voter, Moore said. People just aren’t going to be paying too much attention to the lieutenant governor’s race, especially in a year when the contests for U.S. Senate, Congressional District 1 and governor will have a much bigger draw.

Milner agrees that Hee has the advantage. “Clayton Hee is a pretty well-known guy for a state senator. He can be controversial and off-putting…but it would be in some ways flattering to know him that well to be that pissed off with him,” he says.

Tsutsui hasn’t made any gaffes as Senate President or Lieutenant Governor, but hasn’t managed to stand out, either. “It’s not like he has a huge record to run on,” Milner says.

Moore says Zanakis might have had an easier time if Hee hadn’t jumped into the race. “If she was running against Tsutsui, she’d probably have a fighting chance,” he notes. “But in this case, it’s going to be tough because everyone knows who Clayton Hee is.”