Mayor Cayetano? Former Hawaii Governor Considers a Run for Honolulu Mayor

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Ben Cayetano (photo courtesy of PBS Hawaii)

BY MALIA ZIMMERMAN – Will former Governor Benjamin Cayetano become Mayor Cayetano in 2012?

Cayetano said in a Sunday interview with Hawaii Reporter he is considering a run at Honolulu Mayor in August 2012.


The tenacious politician, who has never been one to shy away from controversy, has won every one of his elections. In the 28 years he served in public office in the state House and Senate and as lieutenant governor and governor, he had a well deserved reputation of being a street fighter.

Cayetano, a Democrat and attorney who retired from politics in 2002, is now taking on Hawaii’s all Democratic Congressional delegation, many establishment politicians and private construction unions over the proposed $5.3 billion Honolulu rail project. They all support the city’s planned 20-mile heavy steel on steel elevated rail system. He has been a long time outspoken critic of the project and is one of seven plaintiffs in a controversial federal lawsuit aiming to stop the construction.

The lawsuit, filed by Cayetano, founder Cliff Slater, retired Judge Walter Heen, University of Hawaii Law Professor Randal Roth, Small Business Hawaii Entrepreneurial Education Foundation, Dr. Michael Uechi and Hawaii’s Thousand Friends, claims the city administration and federal government did not consider more environmentally friend and cost effective traffic solutions before selecting heavy rail as the best choice.

The alliance, organized and funded through, teamed up with nationally renowned environmental attorney Nicolas Yost, partner in San Francisco based SNRDenton firm. Yost is considered one of the top – if not the top – environmental lawyer in the country.

But Cayetano and his supporters, who say the rail will destroy Oahu’s beauty and bankrupt the state, are looking at another way to stop the rail project – electing Cayetano as mayor. If he wins, he can stop the 20-mile project immediately.

Cayetano, who would be the only leading mayoral candidate opposed to heavy rail, has formed an exploratory committee to determine if he can raise enough money and organize his campaign in time for the August primary.

One challenge, Cayetano said, is most of his would be campaign volunteers are already committed to a number of other political campaigns including Congresswoman Colleen Hanabusa’s re-election campaign as well as the U.S. Senate campaigns for Congresswoman Mazie Hirono and former Congressman Ed Case. Cayetano already has secured campaign pledges from supporters.

“I know what it takes to run a hard campaign, and this would be hard,” Cayetano said, noting some of the key unions would likely be against him because of the rail issue and he is starting his campaign late. “I am willing to take on the establishment, but I am not interested in bonzai charge.”

Cayetano, 72, said he would run because he wants people to have a choice this election between candidates who support and oppose the rail.

The current Honolulu mayor, Peter Carlisle, who is strongly in favor the project, will run for re-election. Former mayoral candidate Kirk Caldwell, a Democrat who served as interim mayor in 2010, will also run for election under a pro-rail platform. University of Hawaii Professor Panos Prevedouros, who was a candidate for mayor twice before with an anti-rail platform, announced on December 30 he will not seek election in 2012.

Cayetano supported Carlisle in his bid for mayor in 2010 over Caldwell and Prevedouros, but soon after Carlisle won, Cayetano said he regretted the endorsement.

“I know Peter. I made the mistake of supporting him in the election in which I will not do again,” Cayetano said in a press conference about the rail lawsuit back in March. “I’m disappointed that Mayor Carlisle has not been more careful, more judicious. Maybe it’s his experience, he spent 20 years throwing people in jail (as the city prosecutor), and he never analyzed a project like this by himself.”

Cayetano said he would support Caldwell, a favorite of many establishment Democrats, if his stance on rail was more “moderate.”

The public is sharply divided over the rail project, which continues to escalate in price and will be an imposing structure along Honolulu’s waterfront and historic districts.

On one side, the appointed board charged with overseeing the project, Honolulu Authority for Rapid Transportation, rushed to sign a $1.4 billion 14-year contract with the financially troubled Italian-owned firm, Ansaldo Honolulu Joint Venture, for car construction, operation and maintenance, to move the project ahead.

U.S. Senator Daniel Inouye, the most important backer of the project, also is stepping up the pressure, announcing recently that Hawaii could be eligible for up to a portion of $510 million in FY 2012 should a full funding grant agreement be signed by the end of 2012. So far, Hawaii has received about $90 million, but Inouye pledged to bring in $1.855 billion should the city keep the project on track.

On the other side, there are several well-known community and political leaders who oppose the elevated steel rail system because they say it is expensive, invasive, culturally insensitive, inflexible, and frankly too ugly, for an island paradise.

The Outdoor Circle, which is opposed to the project, issued a scathing statement in recent days, saying in its 100 year history, The Outdoor Circle has seen no other venture that holds the potential to degrade the landscape of Oahu as the proposed Honolulu Rail Transit project.

“Of great concern to The Outdoor Circle is the visual damage caused by Transit. The City acknowledges that the damage will occur but has determined that the blight the project creates is the price our residents and visitors must pay for “progress.” Imagine the cumulative visual impact of more than 20 miles of a massive elevated concrete guideway, supported by 720 large concrete columns with the inevitable graffiti and enormous transit stations. The project is destined to become an ugly scar across one of the most beautiful places on earth while there is little evidence that it will bring relief to Oahu’s unacceptable traffic situation,” the Outdoor Circle said.

The League of Women Voters also is opposed to the project.

Cayetano said the rail project, which may reach as high as $7 billion because of cost overruns, creates a number of problems for Oahu.

  • First, this is the largest public works project in Hawaii’s history, five times bigger in terms of cost than the H-3 Freeway, the most expensive freeway in terms cost per mile in the world, and will not relieve traffic congestion as originally promised.
  • The operations and maintenance costs will be “huge,” Cayetano said, leading to city property tax hikes and state tax increases.
  • The state already has billions of dollars in debt because of unfunded liabilities, Cayetano said, such as the Employee Retirement System.
  • The city also is facing billions of dollars in infrastructure repairs. He points to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s order to upgrade the city sewer system – a project expected to cost nearly $2 billion. Other infrastructure improvements, such as road repairs and water main repairs and replacements, could total another $4 billion.

Deciding whether the federal lawsuit will be enough to stop the rail or whether Cayetano will need to be mayor to do so is a matter of timing.

The city has delayed the lawsuit for at least 6 months by refusing to hand over 500,000 pages of record. Judge A. Wallace Tashima of the Ninth Circuit Court, who is overseeing a lawsuit, ordered the city and FTA to comply in December, but added the outcome of the lawsuit will probably not be determined until next summer or fall. That decision could come right around primary election time.





  1. Garbage Out, then back in again.
    Will never forget his tax and spend abuse.
    Decorating Maximum Security prisons with fancy furnishings for inmates, so they feel at home and comfortable.

  2. Cayetano has had luck in three-way races before. I believe he won his first gubernatorial election with less than 40% of the vote.

    I think a majority of people want the rail project, but by electing Ben, it wouldn’t take a majority to finally kill the project. This effort is clearly orchestrated, with Panos quietly getting out of the way so as not to dilute the anti-rail faction. Sadly, this is simply about stopping rail at all costs by a hardened minority, not how to run the city efficiently for the majority of its citizens.

  3. Keith^^^^, you must not have read the article. The financial liabilities of this project, along with sewage uprades, (with interest approaching 6 billion), road maintenance, water main upgrades, are well beyond the financial capabilites of this small a population. We would be the smallest city in the country and the last one in 30 years to build elevated rail. With the League of Women Voters, Outdoor Circle, Sierra Club, and virtually every environmental group against this project there has to be something wrong. Add in the fiscal conservatives, Hawaiian groups, food security folks, and people outside its linear path and Ben will win if he runs. Heck, the rail barely passed in 2008 with almost zero organized oppostiton.

  4. so, all the recent outrage against rail was apparently a publicity stunt for a future campaign for mayor. Oh, brother.

  5. Sorry, Freeland, there’s nothing “recent” about the outrage against rail. The problem is that those participating never reached a majority and have been looking for a way around that little technicality ever since.

    • Hasn’t Rail faltered for years before barely pulling the majority in the referendum the last time?

    • I meant in reference to Cayetano’s ulterior motive. Of course, in politics there are no such things as ulterior motives.

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