Cover Story

Cover Story
Image: deron kamisato

Game Changer

Former Gov. Cayetano throws his hat in the mayoral race, contending that his opponents are the one-issue candidates playing politics as usual

Cover Story / After retiring from public service in 2002, Ben Cayetano seemed to be taking it easy on the political scene–until 2005, that is, when then-Mayor Mufi Hannemann revived the long-lapsed idea of a Honolulu heavy rail project. Needless to say, Cayetano did not concur.

At 72, after having written a highly regarded memoir in 2009 chronicling his 28 years as a Hawaii state representative and senator, Lt. Gov. under John Waihee, and governor, the still-youthful former street kid from Kalihi and America’s first Filipino American governor had more than earned the right to spend his golden years resting on his laurels. But–in light of his recent mayoral bid–has he actually just been waiting to pounce?

Cayetano sat down with the Weekly to talk shop about his ideas and his hopes for the city of Honolulu, and, of course, his opinions on his opponents in the mayor’s race and how rail fits into the big picture.


You’re risking the legacy of eight years as governor, and never losing an election, on a mayoral race. Why?

Someone asked me that, “You’ve been governor, why would you want to go down?” I never looked at it that way. The way I look at it is, we’ve got a huge problem that none of the current politicians want to do anything about. I don’t identify public service as a duty with titles.

Retired governors are considered part of the establishment. Now you’re running against the establishment. Do you like fighting uphill battles?

Believe me, I thought a lot about it because…I don’t like to go out of my way to run against people who have supported me. But in this particular case, I differ with them very, very strongly and, frankly, I am very concerned about what I consider the bill of goods the Hannemann administration sold to the people.

They have given out these contracts to show the people that they are making progress or something. That administration had a very, very low sense of risk assessment, and look what happened: $15 million for [the change order].

Was it anything goes, just to push the plan ahead?

The problem is that this whole thing has been turned over to people who are not elected by the people and who do not have any accountability, and I’m talking about the people at HART [Honolulu Authority for Rapid Transit].

I don’t believe for one second that First Hawaiian Bank would lend Ansaldo [the company that holds the rail contract] money. The new CEO of the parent company tried to sell Ansaldo, [but] the Italian government says, “No, no you can’t sell it because we’re going to lose a lot of jobs,” and then Don Horner from First Hawaiian Bank says, “As a banker, I think this is OK.”

It’s the biggest project in the state’s history, and you don’t want to vet the companies that want this job, this $1.4 billion piece of the pie? And again, it’s all on an accelerated timetable and people can come to their own conclusions, but my earlier conclusion was that Mr. Hannemann thought that this would take him to the governor’s mansion.

Hannemann hatched it, but Peter Carlisle went with it. And you supported him for mayor. Why?

I like Kirk [Caldwell], but he was tied into Mufi [Hannemann]. I didn’t think he would be any different. Like many others, I talked to Peter, I said, “Look, if you’re for rail, it’s OK. But all I want from you is a promise that you’re going to take a look at what the other side is saying, and if you agree that maybe some changes should be made and you still want rail, OK, but do it right.” I went out and raised money for him. I went out campaigning for him. Then, the first day he got in office… started drinking the Kool-Aid, man.

Are you anti-rail or are you just anti this project?

I’m anti this project. I don’t think that elevated heavy rail is for Oahu. Our population is too small, it’s very expensive and it’s outmoded technology. When Peter talks about the future, it’s more like back to the past because nobody is doing this anymore.

What about your opponents’ claim that you’re a one-issue candidate?

[City Council Member]Ann Kobayashi told me the city has a water main break every day. The system is obsolete. And the sewer system, I think, is probably more important in terms of the city prospering and developing as an old city should.

We have roads that have so many potholes they look like a road in a third world country. I think those things are important as well.

I never thought I would be running for mayor because when you look at it, the issues are not very exciting–talking about sewers and all that. But when I learned what’s involved and how the mayor affects the city, I’m just motivated to become the mayor of this city, and I’m not running for anything else. Most guys who run for mayor, they want to be governor, or maybe go to the US Senate. It’s kind of like a stepping stone. I want to be mayor, period. I’m 72 and I don’t have any ambitions to go anywhere else.

Carlisle says the rail general excise tax (GET) fund is dedicated by the state legislature and you can’t touch it. What is your answer to that?

I understand the law. I’ll go to the legislature, I’ll go to the governor and I’ll say, “Listen you guys, I don’t want to build this rail project. Let’s go with something less expensive–which the studies have indicated will do the job. If we had dedicated bus lanes and all of that, I think we can do the job. And also, because you’re never going to get rid of traffic congestion, you manage it. You combine that with other things, from staggered working hours to moving people out of the city and all of that. So set aside about a billion dollars for that.

And the rest? Let me, as mayor, use that to fix the water system and the sewer system.” To fix [the water system], they are going to have to raise the water fees dramatically, [but] if I can use the money from the rail fund, we can keep those fees down. My argument to the legislature is that this affects the districts throughout the island; it’s not just endemic to one place. Same thing with the sewer system, it affects everything.

What would you say to HART officials who say they are simply “carrying out the will of the people”? That stopping rail is like trying to “put the genie back in the bottle”?

The mayor, like the governor, has the power to veto, has the power not to release monies to certain things. When you talk about “the will of the people,” give me a break, man.

If you look at how the information was coming out, it was coming out from Parsons Brinckerhoff, [an engineering firm] which stands to make maybe $400 million in fees if this project ever goes, probably more with the cost overruns and all of that. They gave the information to the city Department of Transportation, and then Mufi Hannemann hired PR firms to disseminate it to the public.

The deal was, at that time, most of the public understood that this thing was going to cost about $3.7 billion, I think, and the money was going to come from the rail surcharge half-percent tax and that was it. Well, they broke the deal. It’s now $5.3 billion and they want to extend the tax.

This thing about [Carlisle] might have to extend it? He will have to extend it. Because if you look at their financial plan, what they’ve done for example, they borrowed $300 million from the bus fund. Well, the FTA wants them to pay the money back to the bus fund. They’re not going to reduce the number of buses; in fact, they’re going to expand it. So where are they going to get the money to do that? It shows how shaky their financial plan is.

This HART, it shows you what happens when you take things out of the hands of people who are elected and can be held accountable. So you’ve got [HART Interim Executive Director] Toru Hamayasu having the nerve to publicly announce that, well, they may seek an extension of the half percent tax. No one in my administration would ever have the nerve to say anything like that without clearing it with me first. So Peter, now, basically repeats what the guy says!

How do you stop it? I’ll say [to the FTA], “We don’t want the money. We’re going to do something that’s less expensive.” And yeah, we will lose some money because these guys have been giving out contracts and we don’t even have a full funding agreement.

So what are we looking at in terms of costs?

As I recall, the federal money that has actually been spent is something like $115 million. They want to give the impression that it’s billions of dollars, and that’s typical. They can’t win their arguments on the facts, so they’re doing what Hannemann was good at doing: bullying people to try and maneuver in a certain direction.

Would you be worried about being tied up with lawsuits from contractors?

We’d sit down and negotiate with them and try to reach some common ground, but I wouldn’t throw good money after bad…

As the Oahu population continues to grow, what would you say to commuters who are fed up with sitting in traffic?

We found out…that the city relied on a 2004 population study done by the state, which basically forecast that the population on this island would increase by 200,000. So the city fed that into their computer. Then we found out that there was a later population study by the state which said it will increase by only 100,000… The city didn’t feed that into their computer. These are the kind of things that drive you crazy because you find out that information has pretty much been structured to support what they want.

The question I would put to people is: OK, the city is saying that even with rail, traffic congestion will be worse than it is today, do you think that’s worth $5.3 billion?

Doesn’t that depend on how bad it would be without the rail?

When the city was under Mayor Jeremy Harris, he proposed something called Bus Rapid Transit (BRT). What he proposed was pretty much what they have in San Diego, a system of buses and trolleys. Parsons Brinckerhoff–the same guys that were telling us that rail is the best way to alleviate traffic congestion–compared the alternative. They did the study, and they found that BRT was cheaper and could deliver the same level of service as rail.

So why didn’t they do BRT this time around? Because when Hannemann became mayor, he announced publicly that BRT will not be an option for his administration. So if you’ve been here for a while and you are familiar with the politics of this state and this city, you know that Harris and Hannemann hated each other. They were rivals.

If they had thrown that in the mix, Parsons Brinckerhoff would have to come up with the same conclusion–that the BRT would be a better deal for the people of this state. Because it was less costly–one fifth of the cost–and it would produce, actually, a little higher ridership.

How would you implement BRT on the freeway?

In my opinion, if [Hannemann] wanted to do a complete analysis of every option available, he should have gone to Lingle and asked what the city and state could do together to try and provide some relief in terms of transit to the people. One option that they didn’t look at was dedicated lanes for buses on the freeway. When my administration came in, we put in the zipper lane. So I would go to the governor and say, “Let’s work together and let’s put in a lane that’s dedicated to buses.”

You served in the state legislature with Neil Abercrombie. Do you hold advantages over the other mayoral candidates because of your good relationship with the governor?

We’ve been friends for a long time, he wrote the foreward to my book, you know. Carlisle and Caldwell could have the same type of relationship, if they tried to cultivate it. I don’t think Carlisle has talked to the governor about anything. He’s been on trips: he’s gone on 10 or 11 [official] trips I think. I think the governor is the kind of person that will sit down and talk to whoever’s mayor whether it’s Carlisle, Caldwell or me. But they’ve got to go and talk to him. I talk to him all the time.

Let me put it this way, I would be the first mayor to become elected to not be a threat to the governor. If you look at the history of this city, and even the state, there was always this animosity and hostility between Mayor Frank Fasi and Gov. Ariyoshi, and before that even Gov. Burns…because Fasi wanted Ariyoshi’s job. Then when I became governor, Jeremy Harris wanted my job. And of course Lingle and Hannemann had the same kind of competition, so to speak. There’s none of that between Abercrombie and me.

How has the writing of your book informed your approach to running for mayor?

When you write a book like that, you have a chance to reflect on many things. I think that there were examples during my career, mistakes that I made, that caused me to reflect and say, “OK, maybe I’ve got to listen a little bit more to people,” because I have a strong opinion, usually. I used to get a little bent out of shape when I was in office because I couldn’t see why some of these guys were so worried about getting reelected. I’m a little more mellow and understanding now.

People have been saying that your running for mayor is a “game changer.” How does that term strike you?

I think that what’s really different about this election is that, for once, you have somebody who is out of the so-called establishment and trying to change things. I find that I am getting support from a lot of areas. This is a non-partisan race, and the support has truly been non-partisan–democrats, republicans, conservatives and liberals–for their own different reasons. The level of enthusiasm is very high. In all the years that I’ve been in public office, all throughout my eight elections, I’ve never seen it as high as it is now. In the past, I’ve always been an underdog. I really think that if you tell people the truth and they believe you’re telling them the truth, if you persuade people that you’re going to do whatever it takes to do what’s best for them–regardless of political costs–I think that’s a winning formula. It’s worked for me in the past and I’m doing the same thing now.

What about your campaign is being overlooked in the media?

I would hope that the media doesn’t paint me as a one-issue-candidate. This is not a one-issue campaign. It’s true that there is a big issue, maybe the central issue is rail, but as I explained, it affects sewers, it affects water and it affects the roads–so it’s more than that. The one-issue people are my opposition. Caldwell only looks at rail. When I made my announcement, his spokesperson came out and issued a press release that said rail will not bankrupt the city. If rail is the only thing that’s there, yeah, it won’t bankrupt the city. But if you put rail on top of $5 billion for sewers and $5 billion for water and $1.6 billion for repaving the roads and $800 million for fixing the storm drains and all these other costs, it may very well bankrupt the city–or you have to go and raise taxes. He’s the one-issue candidate, not me.

Do you think as Mayor you can restore hope and the sense of a shared future for Honolulu?

I hope that if I get elected I can make people feel that I’m going to do the best I can to make this city not only a beautiful place to live but some place that they can be really proud of. I’m in this because I saw the renderings of that rail project running through Halekauwila and blocking the waterfront. It’s crazy. If that thing is ever built, I’ll be long gone, but I think that probably my great-grandchildren will be tearing it down and saying, “What the hell did they do this for?”