Cover Story

The candidate and his wife, Donna Tanoue, a Bank of Hawaii director The candidate and his wife, Donna Tanoue, a Bank of Hawaii director
Image: friends of kirk caldwell

The Doer

Kirk Caldwell emphasizes community engagement and hands-on task management in his mayoral bid.

Kirk Caldwell served a few months as interim mayor of Honolulu in 2010 (when Mufi Hannemann resigned to run for governor), before losing a special election to Peter Carlisle. Now he’s campaigning to get back into the hot seat at Honolulu Hale. It has been difficult for some to distinguish between Caldwell and Carlisle, both of whom staunchly support Honolulu’s rail project–an issue that arguably eclipses all others this year. The Waipahu-born Democrat and former state legislator sat down with the Weekly to talk story and show he’s more than just the “other rail candidate.”


Why do you think you’d be a better mayor than your two opponents?

I’m the only candidate that has served in all three branches of government, including the judicial branch–I clerked for Chief Justice William S. Richardson. I loved serving [six years] in the legislature because I loved debating the big issues, but sometimes you didn’t see the result. When I went to the City, I saw that every day I could make a difference in a very close and personal way … [But] I’m not a professional politician here. Peter Carlisle [has] 14 years as a prosecutor, two years now as mayor. Almost his entire life in Hawaii he’s been on the [public] payroll. [Former Governor] Ben [Cayetano] has 28 years in politics. One thing that distinguishes me from the other two is that I spent 30 years in the private sector [where] you get things done by engaging and working in a hands-on way.

For example?

I am a lawyer at Ashford & Wriston. From the time I joined the firm, I engaged with my clients on a day-to-day basis, visited their businesses, worked hard to understand the environment that they had to compete in. This helped me to deliver the legal services to meet their needs.

You’ve received a lot of union endorsements in this election, as you did in 2010. Why?

I think the unions recognize that I carry the values of working families … obtained from my life experiences growing up in Waipahu and Hilo. I understand how difficult it is for families to live here and the struggles they go through. I became the chair of the House Labor Committee because, I think, my peers saw me being passionate about issues concerning working families–and I was. I think that’s reflected in the endorsements.

My father was a plantation doctor and my mother was a nurse; both came from working-class backgrounds and instilled in their five children the value of hard work. I worked at Puna Sugar Plantation during the summers of 1971 and 1972 and the winter of 1974. I was in the weed-spray gang.

What kinds of projects do you recommend building in the urban core ?

No. 1, we do need to build rail. But we need to build rail better [as] I hear a lot of concerned smart-thinking people, from all sectors of our community, saying. We’re coming into the most dense, most historic part of our community. Downtown is where we’ve got the beautiful architecture, a beautiful waterfront. I’m saying we should listen. I’m open to working with the stakeholder[s] to … see what kind of design elements we could adopt within the confines of the FEIS (Final Environmental Impact Statement) to make rail blend better … and interact better with our downtown communities and neighborhoods. This would include such things as moving support columns so they are better hidden and don’t block view planes, that the spans between columns are made thinner and faced with natural stone or other types of finishes so that they blend with the surrounding buildings … trees are planted … and there’s opportunity yet because we won’t be in town until 2017.

If you build a rail station you can recreate a community, [such as] neighborhoods that once existed. [In] my hometown neighborhood of Waipahu, two transit stations are being built. I would plan for pocket parks where friends, neighbors and families can gather as they did in times past.

There would be mixed retail and commercial establishments wrapped around parking structures, [a] short walking distance from transit stations. You have off-street bike paths so people can ride to the beach and work. There would be affordable apartments for rental and for purchase that would be developed in a more vertical fashion to allow for more concentrated development. If you allow height limits to go higher in exchange for greater setbacks you still preserve your mauka-makai views.

Is raising height limits something that the mayor can do?

You have to go to the City Council, but that’s something that could be done. And I would want to do it. Here’s my point: We live on a very small island and we have a bunch of land zoned urban. We could build a building at 350 feet [height]. But what if, instead, you could put more units on the same piece of land? … It allows us to make better use of our urban lands so we’re preserving our ‘aina that lies outside of that area. I think Governor Abercrombie is onto something [with his Pohukaina project], and I’d want to work with him on that. A&B (Alexander & Baldwin) is doing a project at Comp USA, I’m for that. They’re going to be limited at 400 feet; maybe we should go 500 or 600. I’d go to the community and engage.

You’ve prioritized sewer infrastructure projects. Such as?

Gravity flow tunnels. They’re expensive to dig but in the long run you save money, because you’re not using electricity. You’re no longer pumping the sewage, you’re letting gravity move it and it’s big so it can handle a lot of capacity. What I’m talking about is making long-term investments.

In regards to road repairs, what would you do differently?

[Mayor Carlisle is] saying [he’s] cutting back on spending; [he’s] bending the debt curve and cutting back on CIP (Capital Improvement Program) construction. That means less roads are being paved, less potholes are being filled. He’s done it in his first budget, and he’s done it again. When I was at the city I expedited $155 million of road repaving in the 18 months I was there. It wasn’t all done before I left but we got the bids and contracts out … Mayor Carlisle [says] slurry seal is already a part of his road management system. Ask him where it is and how much. I haven’t seen it.

You’ve spoken of phasing out landfills. How?

What I’m saying is eliminate the need for an everyday landfill. I think we can get it down to a much smaller footprint. That last little percent [of trash] is harder to manage. When I was at the City we looked at how we can use construction waste better.

HPOWER is old technology, but it works. With that third boiler coming on, it will reduce the ‘opala that goes into our landfill to just 10 percent. We are recycling and we’re burning. But here’s what else we need to do: What does go into that [Waimanalo] gulch is the [incinerator] ash. When I was at the City I started working to see if we could take out some of the lead and other metals that are dangerous and use [the ash] to repave roads–free asphalt.

To site a new landfill we’re talking seven years. Why don’t we just reduce and get rid of it? I know we can.

What would you do differently to help the homeless?

When I was at the City I worked on legislation that prevented the homeless from putting tents in parks. They moved to the sidewalks. So I worked on legislation to deal with the sidewalks–that failed after I left. But I went back and I met with [Councilwoman] Tulsi Gabbard [and] told her about the bill which she put in and made better. And that passed. What’s the next step? What I’ve been told by providers is that if you make it convenient for them to camp somewhere, they’ll camp. Here’s what I’d be looking at next. We called it Housing First, Peter Carlisle calls it Pathways Project–it’s the same program with a new name, started when I was at the City. What’s [Carlisle] done in 18 months other than come up with a new name? So first, help the most chronic homeless. Second is finding a place for a safe zone so the homeless have somewhere to go. And then have providers working with them to get back on their feet.

What would you do to help local agriculture?

Unfortunately we’re at a competitive disadvantage in terms of growing food here, because the price of land is expensive and labor is expensive. And to compete with places on the mainland where they have vast acreage and cheap labor, it’s hard.

That doesn’t mean we walk away from farming. The government needs to [do] a better job of maintaining infrastructure. The No. 1 issue is our irrigation systems. We need to step up and take that responsibility, both the state and the county working together in a collaborative style. The second [issue] is making sure we have the road system so farmers can get to and get their products from their lands. We need to allow [farmers] to have facilities closer to where they grow so they can take it right from the field to a processing center, package it and get it into Chinatown, get it into Foodland.

I’d create an Office of Agriculture in the mayor’s office. All my life here, agriculture has been a state issue; I believe it’s a county and state issue. And I think we should have, in fact, even urban agriculture.

What about Hoopili and Koa Ridge?

For now … the urbanization of some ag land is a compromise that must be considered in the name of providing more affordable housing. [Both] Hoopili and the revised Koa Ridge project are inside the Urban Growth Boundary (UGB) [which says] that urbanization will not go beyond this line. If we expect that tool to be effective, we must honor the rights for landowners to urbanize within the line. The [UGB] decision was made through an inclusive, democratic process–we don’t always like such decisions, but we have to honor the process. At the same time … I would strongly oppose any exemptions outside of the UGB.

What if the federal funds for the rail don’t come through?

I’d go back and ask the community what they want to do. I would look to see what they believe should be done. Perhaps it would be a redesigned system, [or] a shorter system. [Maybe] they would say let’s take it slow and build it over a longer period of time. But [i]f you always talk about the “what ifs,” you wouldn’t do anything.

What’s the media overlooking in this race?

That we have three people running, all very different. Honolulu’s best mayors–Frank Fasi, Jeremy Harris, Mufi Hannemann–[had] a hands-on management style.They did not lead by sitting behind a desk, but by walking to the front line to solve problems. I believe I have that style of leadership as a mayor and that’s critical.

Why do you think you’d be a better mayor than your two opponents?

I’m the only candidate that has served in all three branches of government, including the judicial branch–I clerked for Chief Justice William S. Richardson. I loved serving [six years] in the legislature because I loved debating the big issues, but sometimes you didn’t see the result. When I went to the City, I saw that every day I could make a difference in a very close and personal way … [But] I’m not a professional politician here. Peter Carlisle [has] 14 years as a prosecutor, two years now as mayor. Almost his entire life in Hawaii he’s been on the [public] payroll. [Former Governor] Ben [Cayetano] has 28 years in politics. One thing that distinguishes me from the other two is that I spent 30 years in the private sector [where] you get things done by engaging and working in a hands-on way.

For example?

I am a lawyer at Ashford & Wriston. From the time I joined the firm, I engaged with my clients on a day-to-day basis, visited their businesses, worked hard to understand the environment that they had to compete in. This helped me to deliver the legal services to meet their needs.

You’ve received a lot of union endorsements in this election, as you did in 2010. Why?

I think the unions recognize that I carry the values of working families … obtained from my life experiences growing up in Waipahu and Hilo. I understand how difficult it is for families to live here and the struggles they go through. I became the chair of the House Labor Committee because, I think, my peers saw me being passionate about issues concerning working families–and I was. I think that’s reflected in the endorsements.

My father was a plantation doctor and my mother was a nurse; both came from working-class backgrounds and instilled in their five children the value of hard work. I worked at Puna Sugar Plantation during the summers of 1971 and 1972 and the winter of 1974. I was in the weed-spray gang.

What kinds of projects do you recommend building in the urban core ?

No. 1, we do need to build rail. But we need to build rail better [as] I hear a lot of concerned smart-thinking people, from all sectors of our community, saying. We’re coming into the most dense, most historic part of our community. Downtown is where we’ve got the beautiful architecture, a beautiful waterfront. I’m saying we should listen. I’m open to working with the stakeholder[s] to … see what kind of design elements we could adopt within the confines of the FEIS (Final Environmental Impact Statement) to make rail blend better … and interact better with our downtown communities and neighborhoods. This would include such things as moving support columns so they are better hidden and don’t block view planes, that the spans between columns are made thinner and faced with natural stone or other types of finishes so that they blend with the surrounding buildings … trees are planted … and there’s opportunity yet because we won’t be in town until 2017.

If you build a rail station you can recreate a community, [such as] neighborhoods that once existed. [In] my hometown neighborhood of Waipahu, two transit stations are being built. I would plan for pocket parks where friends, neighbors and families can gather as they did in times past.

There would be mixed retail and commercial establishments wrapped around parking structures, [a] short walking distance from transit stations. You have off-street bike paths so people can ride to the beach and work. There would be affordable apartments for rental and for purchase that would be developed in a more vertical fashion to allow for more concentrated development. If you allow height limits to go higher in exchange for greater setbacks you still preserve your mauka-makai views.

Is raising height limits something that the mayor can do?

You have to go to the City Council, but that’s something that could be done. And I would want to do it. Here’s my point: We live on a very small island and we have a bunch of land zoned urban. We could build a building at 350 feet [height]. But what if, instead, you could put more units on the same piece of land? … It allows us to make better use of our urban lands so we’re preserving our ‘aina that lies outside of that area. I think Governor Abercrombie is onto something [with his Pohukaina project], and I’d want to work with him on that. A&B (Alexander & Baldwin) is doing a project at Comp USA, I’m for that. They’re going to be limited at 400 feet; maybe we should go 500 or 600. I’d go to the community and engage.

You’ve prioritized sewer infrastructure projects. Such as?

Gravity flow tunnels. They’re expensive to dig but in the long run you save money, because you’re not using electricity. You’re no longer pumping the sewage, you’re letting gravity move it and it’s big so it can handle a lot of capacity. What I’m talking about is making long-term investments.

In regards to road repairs, what would you do differently?

[Mayor Carlisle is] saying [he’s] cutting back on spending; [he’s] bending the debt curve and cutting back on CIP (Capital Improvement Program) construction. That means less roads are being paved, less potholes are being filled. He’s done it in his first budget, and he’s done it again. When I was at the city I expedited $155 million of road repaving in the 18 months I was there. It wasn’t all done before I left but we got the bids and contracts out … Mayor Carlisle [says] slurry seal is already a part of his road management system. Ask him where it is and how much. I haven’t seen it.

You’ve spoken of phasing out landfills. How?

What I’m saying is eliminate the need for an everyday landfill. I think we can get it down to a much smaller footprint. That last little percent [of trash] is harder to manage. When I was at the City we looked at how we can use construction waste better.

HPOWER is old technology, but it works. With that third boiler coming on, it will reduce the ‘opala that goes into our landfill to just 10 percent. We are recycling and we’re burning. But here’s what else we need to do: What does go into that [Waimanalo] gulch is the [incinerator] ash. When I was at the City I started working to see if we could take out some of the lead and other metals that are dangerous and use [the ash] to repave roads–free asphalt.

To site a new landfill we’re talking seven years. Why don’t we just reduce and get rid of it? I know we can.

What would you do differently to help the homeless?

When I was at the City I worked on legislation that prevented the homeless from putting tents in parks. They moved to the sidewalks. So I worked on legislation to deal with the sidewalks–that failed after I left. But I went back and I met with [Councilwoman] Tulsi Gabbard [and] told her about the bill which she put in and made better. And that passed. What’s the next step? What I’ve been told by providers is that if you make it convenient for them to camp somewhere, they’ll camp. Here’s what I’d be looking at next. We called it Housing First, Peter Carlisle calls it Pathways Project–it’s the same program with a new name, started when I was at the City. What’s [Carlisle] done in 18 months other than come up with a new name? So first, help the most chronic homeless. Second is finding a place for a safe zone so the homeless have somewhere to go. And then have providers working with them to get back on their feet.

What would you do to help local agriculture?

Unfortunately we’re at a competitive disadvantage in terms of growing food here, because the price of land is expensive and labor is expensive. And to compete with places on the mainland where they have vast acreage and cheap labor, it’s hard.

That doesn’t mean we walk away from farming. The government needs to [do] a better job of maintaining infrastructure. The No. 1 issue is our irrigation systems. We need to step up and take that responsibility, both the state and the county working together in a collaborative style. The second [issue] is making sure we have the road system so farmers can get to and get their products from their lands. We need to allow [farmers] to have facilities closer to where they grow so they can take it right from the field to a processing center, package it and get it into Chinatown, get it into Foodland.

I’d create an Office of Agriculture in the mayor’s office. All my life here, agriculture has been a state issue; I believe it’s a county and state issue. And I think we should have, in fact, even urban agriculture.

What about Hoopili and Koa Ridge?

For now … the urbanization of some ag land is a compromise that must be considered in the name of providing more affordable housing. [Both] Hoopili and the revised Koa Ridge project are inside the Urban Growth Boundary (UGB) [which says] that urbanization will not go beyond this line. If we expect that tool to be effective, we must honor the rights for landowners to urbanize within the line. The [UGB] decision was made through an inclusive, democratic process–we don’t always like such decisions, but we have to honor the process. At the same time … I would strongly oppose any exemptions outside of the UGB.

What if the federal funds for the rail don’t come through?

I’d go back and ask the community what they want to do. I would look to see what they believe should be done. Perhaps it would be a redesigned system, [or] a shorter system. [Maybe] they would say let’s take it slow and build it over a longer period of time. But [i]f you always talk about the “what ifs,” you wouldn’t do anything.

What’s the media overlooking in this race?

That we have three people running, all very different. Honolulu’s best mayors–Frank Fasi, Jeremy Harris, Mufi Hannemann–[had] a hands-on management style.They did not lead by sitting behind a desk, but by walking to the front line to solve problems. I believe I have that style of leadership as a mayor and that’s critical.