Cover Story

Image: Deron Kamisato

Former Gov. Cayetano, the anti-rail mayoral candidate, is being attacked by union- and city-funded public relations consultants just for talking ‘common sense’, he says.

Since the Weekly’s Feb. 8 cover story on Ben Cayetano, who promises to terminate the city’s rail project if elected, the mayoral race has heated up. The city’s Honolulu Authority for Rapid Transportation (HART), has been spending hundreds of thousands of dollars to promote rail to the public–but why try and convince us, now that it’s approved and underway? Could it be they’re using public money to influence the election? Cayetano, the double-digit front runner, told the Weekly he thinks so. In March, after all, the news polls showed that a majority of likely voters, 53 percent, now oppose rail. To hear his take on these and other matters, the Weekly met with Gov. Cayetano at his local Zippy’s. He arrived behind the wheel of his EV, a black Chevy Volt sedan, bumper emblazoned with his red campaign sticker. He’s a regular: When the waitress brought his French toast, she asked the Gov., “What about your side Portuguese?”

Do you get waved at a lot?

Yeah, and never once has anyone given me the finger. Even the union guys, when I drive past, they give me the shaka sign. I have a long history with private construction unions; I was a former electricians’ apprentice. But the government unions have their head in the sand; they don’t see the impending problems; they’re in denial regarding the financial crisis.

Have your campaign and the federal lawsuit to stop rail informed the downturn in public opinion about the project?

Yes. People don’t like it when they think they’re being fooled. For our lawsuit, we were able to get into FDA administrative records, and found some [internal agency] emails. [One] email said the FDA should not be associated with the public manipulation the city was engaged in.

Was the public inadequately informed when then-Mayor Mufi Hannemann held the rail vote in 2009?

An Advertiser poll [at the time] found that 73 percent believed rail would reduce [traffic] congestion. Even Inouye said that–he doesn’t say it now, because he knows better.

Pacific Resources Partnership (PRP), which does public relations for the carpenters’ and contractors’ unions, has formed a PAC attacking you over past charges of illegal contributions to your gubernatorial campaign, which was deemed free of wrongdoing years ago. You seem underwhelmed. Are you?

[Frowns and shakes his head.] I think I got a little ticked off. The press didn’t respond until I spoke to Bob Watada, head of the Campaign Spending Commission [at the time] and Bob [now retired] said, ‘Give the press my phone number.’

PRP also financed a poll in late May. They say your lead is slipping. Are you worried?

[PRP] did a push poll [basically asking], ‘Did you know Cayetano had accepted illegal contributions? Would you vote for him?’ [They did the poll when] we had not really begun our advertising … I think the drop [to 44 from 53 percent in the May Civil Beat poll] can be attributed to the push poll. [But in the poll showing me] at 44 percent, my opponents’ combined add up to 44, Carlisle at 21 percent and Caldwell was at 23.

I think it’s backfired. If the blogs are any indication, they’re 9-1 in support of me.

What about PRP’s “Be nice, Ben” campaign after you said in the first mayoral debate that Sen. Dan Inouye was out of touch with regard to rail?

I haven’t talked to the senator nor seen him since then. Long before the debate, I wanted to meet with him personally. His staff said he was out of the country. I sent an email that I had the higest regard for him but on this issue [rail] we differ. He didn’t respond. He has accepted whatever the city says on face value.

In April, Move Oahu Forward (MOF) a pro-rail advocacy group composed of 30 CEOs and community leaders, was formed. The co-chairs are Connie Lau, president and CEO of Hawaii Electric Industries, and Richard Dahl, president of the James Campbell Co. Why do they want rail?

The HART people have said rail would probably spend about $24 million a year for electric power. Rail will be running 20 hours a day, seven days a week. So that’s an incentive for HECO (Hawaiian Electric Co.) to support rail, and Richard Dahl is looking to land development. It’s not about the traffic congestion to these guys. It’s about making money.

Getting back to these people on the list of 30, it’s interesting that, if you check my campaign spending reports, you’ll find that some have contributed to my campaign. [Laughs.] The Bank of Hawaii PAC gave me $4,000. The head [of a leading resort company] told me personally he opposes rail. He said he thought it would bankrupt the city. [Businessmen like him] understand numbers.

There’s pressure on these guys to, you know, kind of work together. Not much difference from the Big Five. The Big Five used to have the same guys sitting on the boards of directors. You check the Star-Advertiser, you check the HECO board…a lot of these guys are my friends, you know! [laughs]

You’re a member of the Establishment.

I was, by default. I never expected it. I got elected.

What’s your comment on the House Appropriations Committee’s reducing funding for rail to $100 million from the $250 million sought?

We’ve been trying to impress upon people that the city doesn’t have a backup, it doesn’t have a Plan B. In the first debate I asked, what if there’s no federal money? Caldwell said, basically, ‘Dan [Inouye] will get it for us.’ If it’s going to be this difficult for Dan to get money for us every year, when the President [Obama] wants it, what happens when the Republicans take over? The President [also] wants $3.5 billion for a California high-speed rail project a hundred and something miles long, [for] a population of 38 million. What makes people think that [Oahu] with 20 miles and 950,000 people, is going to get $1.5 billion [in total federal funding]? At least Carlisle says [if we don’t get it] he’s gonna plow ahead! Louise McCoy said we may have to shorten the route. How? You start 4-5 miles from Kapolei and in three, four years you’ll be at Waipahu. Where you gonna shorten? You gonna stop in Kalihi or someplace? They haven’t thought it through. The whole thing has been mismanaged. Mufi [Hannemann] took out a full-page campaign ad with not a peep about rail.

What do voters say in your town hall meetings?

The part of our presentation that always draws gasps are the AIA renderings we show of before and after rail. They’ve never seen it from the city before. They ask, ‘Are you going to be able to stop it?’

Yeah! But I also say the reality is because they’ve given out the contracts early, the city may face some losses; gotta pay these guys for the work they did. We’ve had great turnouts: 200 in Mililani, Waipahu and Pearl City; in Manoa, 300; in Hawaii Kai, 350. Kirk [Caldwell] has been doing stew & rice. His crowds have been less than 100. We give people chili & rice.

You testified against Ho’opili. Was the LUC’s approval a foregone conclusion with rail?

The Oahu General Plan included Hoopili and Koa Ridge in the urban boundary. The General Plan is created by big interests, large landowners like Bishop Estate who have a vision for their holdings, and the city rubber-stamps it.

I opposed Hoopili because it’s prime agricultural land. We had only 4,500 prime acres–because they have water–and now half will be gone.

Rod Haraga was [Governor Linda] Lingle’s director of transportation and one of Mufi’s engineers. He was pro-rail, but said he didn’t agree with starting [the line] at Hoopili, because if it ran out of money there would be no riders.

You know where the finger should be pointed to? Mufi Hannemann! Ask him, ‘Eh, Mufi, you know that big [campaign for U.S. House of Representatives] advertisement you put in the Star-Advertiser [about a month ago]? There’s a lot of information about you but not one word about rail.’ He’s the guy. The trouble is, both Caldwell and Carlisle had a chance to fix things, eh?

So when they say HART was created to take out politics–I say that’s BS.

Do you support building higher and denser in the urban core? What is your vision for Second City?

The North Shore?

We need to build in the urban core, I think high-density condos and apartments are appropriate, but I don’t know about 650-foot-high condos. You’ve got to go out to the suburbs to have single-family homes; we can’t stop Kapolei from growing, it’s driven by the market.

Caldwell already came out in support of the Mormon Church [at Laie]. I’m against building any new hotels on this island unless they’re built on the old footprint. If the waves are good and you go out to the North Shore, you can’t find parking so why would you want to screw it up some more? The balance of jobs here is so one-sided. We’ve got to find other ways to create jobs, small things.

For example?

When I was governor, I pushed for building the John Burns School of Medicine. My thought was that people from Asia would come here for health treatment. Ed Cabman, former head of the medical school, was a guy of vision, we got him from Yale. He said if we have a good facility here, we can develop a medical school with a strong research component and the school doesn’t pay those guys, they get grants.

If elected, will you look at light rail as well as bus rapid transit (BRT)?

Yes. I was chair of the transportation committee 4 years in the state House and 2 years in the Senate. We looked at San Diego light rail, it’s at-grade, like a trolley, and that makes it more acceptable. When [Mayor Frank] Fasi first proposed heavy rail I was a freshman in the House and I loved it. I took committee members to view other heavy rail systems, like BART. [I met] with Melvin Webber, the dean of the School of Urban Planning at UC Berkeley. As it happened, his class had been studying the Honolulu proposal. He taught me what to look for. I concluded heavy rail was not for Oahu.

City bus service was cut back June 3. Is the DOT’s Wayne Yoshioka, a member of HART, forcing rail on us?

The rail plan calls for dismantling the bus lines. They’ll [just] be a feeder system. Yoshioka says he’s cutting back because of rising fuel costs [but] it’s all tied into rail. [The city]’s cutting fire services and road repairs that should be going up instead of down. They keep siphoning money from the federally subsized TheBus and Handivan without shoring up their financial plan despite pressure from the FTA. They’ve taken out $244 million from TheBus and now this $450 million line of credit. The question the media isn’t getting answers for is, ‘How do we pay back the bus system? How do we pay back the line of credit?’ The rail and bus fares are capped at no more than 30 percent.

Meanwhile, HART keeps spending on pro-rail PR, is it about $11 million to date?

It’s unprecedented. I would say $20 million or more. The $11 million doesn’t include $15 million spent by PRP. When [City Councilmembers] asked [HART] why [they were] spending all this on PR, [they were] told the FTA required it. They do not.

If I win, the one thing I will not be paying for is the stuff they paid for PR people who were on Mufi’s team. People move around between being subcontractors and employees. The flow of information goes like this: [He details a pathway–Former Hanneman staffers who get highly paid jobs with equally highly paid consultants and feed the PR machine.] Hannemann’s former campaign chairs, how are they worth $300,000-$400,000 a year? To set up a speakers’ bureau? The public is entitled to know the names of these people.

For [anyone with] common sense: It’s not just about rail; it’s about power.