Controversial Rail Project Impacts High Profile Hawaii Elections

article top

BY MALIA ZIMMERMAN – Except for U.S. Senator Daniel Inouye, “everyone who touches the rail project gets burned.”

That was the observation from University of Hawaii Engineering Professor Panos Prevedouros about the outcome of Hawaii’s August 11 primary election and the impact the city’s controversial $5.2 billion elevated steel on steel rail project had on its outcome.


That happened with former Honolulu Mayor Mufi Hannemann, a candidate for Congressional District 2, and Honolulu Mayor Peter Carlisle, who sought re-election, “for sure”, Prevedouros said.

Hannemann, mayor between 2004 and 2010, is largely responsible for initiating the rail project and selecting the elevated steel on steel rail system, which has ballooned in price from $3.7 billion in 2008 to $5.2 billion today, while shrinking the route to 20 miles in length.

Carlisle, who was elected after Hannemann resigned as mayor to run for governor, continued to push for rail over the last two years despite tremendous public outcry against the project.

University of Hawaii law professor and author Randall Roth, who is a plaintiff in the federal lawsuit to stop the city’s construction of the rail, said the project was the single most important issue this election, but adds there were many other important issues and reasons why people voted for the candidate of their choice.

The most interesting race was the one for Congressional District 2, Roth said, which came down to a contest between little known Honolulu City Council Member Tulsi Gabbard and Hannemann.

“It was clear that Mufi Hannemann’s political star has fallen as far and fast as anyone can imagine,” Roth said. “I can’t think of anything that can be attributed to than having rammed rail through. I think the public directly associates his name with rail. And the fact that he was beaten in such a high profile race by a relative newcomer, and not just beaten but beaten badly, suggests to me that rail is heavier baggage for him than a lot of people realized.”

Several political observers noted Hannemann tried to ignore the rail project, never mentioning it in his congressional election materials.

“I think Mufi Hannemann tried to distance himself from rail but it did not work,” Roth said.

Neal Milner, who is an associate professor at the University of Hawaii College of Social Sciences and a political analyst for many Hawaii media outlets, agrees rail had a huge impact on the mayor’s election because it brought out a third major candidate to run on an anti rail platform – “a candidate who never would have been there if it was not for rail.”

That candidate was former Gov. Ben Cayetano, a political heavy weight with decades of political experience and substantial name recognition, Milner said.

Cayetano garnered enough votes to knock out incumbent Mayor Peter Carlisle from the race, but his 44 percent was not enough to win the election outright. Cayetano will take on former city managing director Kirk Caldwell in the November 6 General election.

Milner believes rail may have been less of a factor in Hannemann’s demise in the Democratic primary for Congressional District 2.  Hannemannn lost because he is not that popular with his own party members, Milner said.

“People don’t like him, don’t trust him and think he is a conservative in disguise,” Milner said.

Hannemann is a social conservative, while his opponent, Council member Tulsi Gabbard, had high positives, and from a Democratic perspective, was strong on women’s issues, Milner said.

Star-Advertiser Political Columnist Dave Shapiro said the unpopularity of rail among many voters obviously contributed to the losses of both Hannemann and Carlisle.

But Shapiro believes their loss had more to do with unhappiness over the way they comported themselves in office on rail and other issues – “Hannemann with perceived arrogance and high-handedness and Carlisle with perceived inattention to the job.”

Carlisle was criticized for traveling extensively during his administration rather than staying on island to focus on Oahu’s needs, and for being out of touch what was happening in his own administration.

As for the November 6 General Election, Shapiro said Mayoral Candidate Ben Cayetano has made it partly a referendum on rail, but equally important in deciding it will be other issues he and his opponent Kirk Caldwell have raised “such as leadership, basic infrastructure and the distribution of political power.”

“The influence of special-interest money will be both a factor and an issue,” Shapiro said.

Neither Lingle, nor her opponent Congresswoman Mazie Hirono, D-Hawaii, have inserted themselves into the rail debate.

But Prevedouros believes U.S. Senate Candidate Linda Lingle, who as governor approved a rail tax that allowed the project to go forward, can benefit from widespread opposition to the rail project by coming out against the rail in its current form.

Lingle said on Primary Election night that she believes the elevated steel on steel rail “is not the right fit for Hawaii” because it is too costly and imposing. She supports a different mass transit system that has a light rail at grade.

The Primary Election brought out about 42 percent of Hawaii’s registered voters. With President Barack Obama on the ballot, the contentious U.S. Senate race between Lingle and Congresswoman Mazie Hirono and the critical race between Cayetano and Caldwell, political analysts believe there will be a higher turnout during the General Election.

The challenge for the mayoral candidates, Milner said, is to reach unattached voters less involved in the political process who care less about the outcome of the rail project but may be passionate about other issues.