Cover Story

Looking across the farmland at Ho’opili towards Pearl Harbor from Kapolei side of North South Rd
Image: Mike Hinchey

War on the Environment

In its rush to fast-track development, Hawai‘i’s moneyed elite has gone too far

Here is a history of Hawai’i 2012 in one sentence: What began as a fight over the Honolulu Rail became a raging battle over environmental regulation, which in turn became an all-out political war over land and power.

If it is distressing that only one person — Ben Cayetano — is in a position to bend the arc of this story, it is nonetheless the reality of the vote on August 11.


The scene for this potentially history-making event was set in 2010, when the new mayor and new governor became overnight cheerleaders for the Rail. Peter Carlisle had campaigned on pinching the City’s pennies, then rushed to commit nearly two billion dollars to the Rail. Neil Abercrombie had campaigned on sustainability, then instantly signed off on the Rail EIS, thereby surrendering both his leverage and his misgivings.

Who knows what went through Carlisle’s mind, but clearly Abercrombie had experienced a toxic shock resulting from his discovery that the State government was on the brink of insolvency. His answer was to abandon the niceties of sustainability and attempt to accelerate State revenues by embracing development.

The single most telling moment in this drama was the departure of the four young idealists who got Abercrombie elected — most importantly his policy adviser, Andrew Aoki, the primary author of the sustainability narrative entitled “A New Day in Hawaii.” The office was taken over by Bruce Coppa, who now runs much of the State government. For the many voters who do not know of Bruce, his previous credential was fusing the power of the construction trade unions and the development industry through the Pacific Resources Partnership (PRP).

Subsequently Abercrombie’s single most telling policy shift (after the Rail EIS) was his support for subdividing the best farm lands of Ewa — the lands that the developer D.R. Horton has succeeded in renaming Ho’opili. With the construction trade unions providing the muscle, and the development industry providing the money, the Siamese Twins of Rail and the subdividing of Ewa have raced forward, their progress partially obscured by the cover of HART (Rail) and the State Land Use Commission (Ho’opili), each of which is populated by pleasant and intelligent individuals whose livelihoods derive from development, construction and finance.

During the shambling disaster of the 2012 Legislature, the Rail dispute spread like a contagion, transforming into a multi-front battle over environmental regulation. In brief, this was about disabling the State of Hawaii’s system of environmental management in the interest of developing as much as possible as soon as possible, a conflict that will resume in the 2013 Legislature.

The other side of this story is more obvious. As the public belatedly learned about the blight, cost, and mismanagement of Rail, voter support for the great venture dwindled. Nonetheless the project — at least spending for the project — moved forward while Cayetano seethed in the spectator’s box. Having served as a Transportation Committee chair in the Legislature, and also having overseen the State Transportation Department in his eight years as governor (1994-2002), Cayetano had well-formed views on transit, government finance and the environment, none of which included elevated steel rail. After joining in the Federal Court lawsuit against rail in 2011, he concluded that it might be slowed in court but not stopped. It could only be stopped at the ballot box. With Senator Clayton Hee, he opposed the Ho’opili rezoning. He wanted Hee to run for mayor, but Hee demurred, at which point Cayetano put aside the dignity that comes from being a retired governor and committed to the indignities of running for mayor.

Despite the many antecedent disclosures of City waste and mismanagement, it took Cayetano’s candidacy to tilt public opinion from a slight pro-Rail plurality to an anti-Rail majority. And with that, the election of 2012 was suddenly huge.

In the face of an increasingly effective opposition to the Rail, the pro-Rail argument has been retrenched repeatedly. The project that first was sold as solving Oahu’s traffic problem (no) became a “jobs/jobs” program (no), then an energy-saving program (not really), and then it became a transit-oriented development program (yes). Most lately and ludicrously, its purpose is to save Oahu from urban sprawl.

The million-dollar attacks on Cayetano, led by none other than PRP, have shifted from debating his stance on Rail to an insistence that he is a person of low character, an extraordinary fabrication in light of his record as a hard-nosed reformer and particularly in light of his role in busting up the old boys of the old Bishop Estate. In addition to PRP, Imua Rail has emerged from the closet, revealing a blue-ribbon list of corporate interests that essentially are based, either directly or indirectly, in the development industry.

And now for the most interesting part of all: As this history unfolded, the election has become not only about the environment but about the distribution of political power. It is about whether money and muscle rule, and whether reputations made by long service can be destroyed overnight by ruthless attack. Cayetano’s most telling line of the televised debates was: “… a select few have been running things for a long time. They have their fingers in nearly everything that affects our lives and our children’s future. They influence or intimidate politicians to do their bidding, and they try to crush those who don’t go along. They have taken over the political power which rightfully belongs to you, the people.”

In a more personal moment, Cayetano elaborated by saying that however well- intentioned this new elite, however many had become his friends as governor, they have become a contemporary version of the old elite. He remembers such people well: they are the people “who for too long controlled the lives of my parents and grandparents.” And in that choice of words lies the most convincing clue as to why he is saying, “I see this election year as an opportunity for the people to begin the transformation of Hawaii politics.”

If he wins, a Mayor Cayetano will have what a Governor Cayetano never had, for all the centralized powers of the governorship. He will be the leader of an aroused electorate. He has unleashed something that politicians dream of but virtually never experience. Wherever he goes, people yell at him, “Hey Ben!” they say, “No Rail!”