Throughout United States history, only two Jewish women have ever been elected governors. The first, Madeleine Kunin, became Vermont’s governor in 1985. In late 2002 the second, Linda Lingle, was sworn into office in Hawaii—a state with a Jewish population of less than one percent. (The United States currently has one other Jewish governor, Ed Rendell, of Pennsylvania.)
Linda Cutter was born in St. Louis, Missouri on June 4, 1953, the second of three children. While Cutter was in junior high school, her family moved to southern California; her parents divorced in 1965, soon after the move, and for a time she lived with her grandparents. She attended Birmingham High School, a public school in Van Nuys, and then went on to California State University Northridge, where she graduated with a cum laude journalism degree in 1975. While at Cal State Northridge she met her first husband, Charles Lingle, whom she divorced after three years of marriage. Lingle then followed her father, a former pharmacist who had joined his brother’s car dealership, to Hawaii. She began working as a public information officer for the Teamsters and Hotel Workers Union in Honolulu before moving to Molokai. On her new home island she founded a community newspaper, the Molokai Free Press.
In 1980 Lingle closed the newspaper and commenced her political career when she became a member of the Maui County Council. She served there for ten years before her upset election as mayor of Maui County in 1990; she was re-elected four years later. Running for governor in 1998, Lingle came within a percentage point of victory. She took over as head of Hawaii’s Republican Party the following year, seeking to create a centrist image for the GOP in a state with a huge Democratic majority. (Examples of her moderate stances include support of abortion rights and opposition to the death penalty.)
Success in the governor’s race came in 2002, when Lingle defeated Democrat Mazie K. Hirono to become the state of Hawaii’s sixth governor (and the first woman). She ran on a platform that emphasized economic growth through deregulation and opposition to corruption. Her most ambitious and controversial proposal has been to restructure the state’s public education system. However, Lingle’s attempt to decentralize control of the schools has been stymied by the Democrat-controlled legislature.
Lingle’s status as a Jew is open and publicly honored in Hawaii. Each Monday, Lingle begins her week with a study session with the local Chabad rabbi, Itchel Krasnjansky, and each Friday a fresh challah is delivered to the statehouse. Her religion has not led to much political controversy other than crankish, conspiratorial hate mail and websites that Lingle herself publicized in order to contrast them with Hawaii’s tradition of ethnic tolerance. Yet few Hawaiians know much about Judaism, so Lingle does attract attention when she holds a seder at the governor’s mansion or lights a public Hanukkah menorah.
In her youth, Lingle attended Reform services and Sunday school, deposited dimes in Jewish National Fund “pushkes” and learned from her paternal grandmother about older forms of antisemitism. Even after moving to California, her social world was almost exclusively Jewish, at least until she arrived at college.
Lingle’s Jewish connections have helped her in the political arena, at the very least in the realm of finances. When she won the governor’s race in 2002, it was with the aid of the largest campaign warchest ever assembled in Hawaii history. A significant portion of the money came from outside the state, with organizations such as the Republican Jewish Coalition and the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) helping to attract funds. In turn, Lingle has been outspoken in her support of Israel and in 2004 led a well-publicized delegation to the Jewish state.
Married and divorced a second time—from attorney William Crockett in 1997—Lingle has no children. Her volunteer public service has included working as a reading tutor, as well as involvement with the Girl Scouts and the YWCA.