Retired Fire Chief Says Since Political Endorsement of Cayetano for Mayor, He’s Received Threats, Retaliation; Current Chief Denies Tie

Retired firefighters endorse Ben Cayetano for Mayor
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Retired firefighters endorse Ben Cayetano for Mayor

BY MALIA ZIMMERMAN – Just weeks before announcing the endorsement of former Gov. Ben Cayetano for Honolulu mayor, retired Honolulu fire chief Donald Chang received an anonymous call warning him not to “upset the applecart” by endorsing a candidate other than the one already backed by the Hawaii Fire Fighters Association.

The firefighter and police unions previously endorsed former city managing director Kirk Caldwell over Cayetano and Honolulu Mayor Peter Carlisle.


But Chang, who now heads the Honolulu Fire Department Retirees Association, said he was not intimidated even though the caller warned he might get hurt if he goes through with the Cayetano endorsement.

He told the caller he believes in the First Amendment and their members’ have the right to endorse the candidates they believe will best help retirees like himself, including many who are elderly, sick and living on a fixed income.

Just a week later, on February 17, Chang received a letter from Fire Chief Kenneth Silva telling him their group was “no longer allowed to step foot in the Honolulu Fire Fighters facilities, can no longer hold meetings there or even pick up their mail.”

While Fire Chief Kenneth Silva denies there is any connection, Chang, who helped get the Queen Street firefighters’ facility built, said because of the timing and specifics of the call, he believes his group is banned in retaliation for the Cayetano endorsement, even though they had not yet announced their decision.

On May 15, the retirees went through with their endorsement of Cayetano, saying he is the best person for the city’s top office because he instituted tax cuts as governor, has a plan to fix the city’s infrastructure and won’t bankrupt the city or its taxpayers by building the planned $5.3 billion elevated steel on steel rail system that the other candidate endorse. (see the original video of the endorsement here)

At a press conference today, Chang said since the endorsement, the Hawaii Fire Fighters Association has also retaliated against the Honolulu Fire Department Retirees Association. (See Retired Fire Chief Donald Chang’s entire interview from today’s press conference)

Chang received a letter on May 24 from Robert H. Lee, the president of the Hawaii Fire Fighters Association, which asked him to retract the endorsement of Cayetano by June 4.

Lee, who backs Caldwell over Cayetano and Carlisle, wrote: “The retirees understand Cayetano supported anti-worker initiatives as governor, such as raiding the ERS fund, placing a two-year pay freeze on all public workers that the courts ruled was unconstitutional, and failing to adhere to the final and binding arbitration process in our contract negotiations.”

Lee said failure to make the retraction “will validate it was your intention that the Retirees Association and its members endorse candidates that support anti-worker initiatives.”

Silva, who maintains the fire department is non political and separate from the union, told the media in a press conference today that Chang’s claim “is a stretch.”

He said no one is allowed to conduct political business at the headquarters on Queen Street, not even union members who backed Caldwell. He said union members that are seen on site are not conducting political business. (See the Fire Chief Silva’s entire interview here)

“We retirees differ with the HFFA over its endorsement for mayor,” Chang said.  “I can understand the union’s disappointment but I think I speak for all retirees when I say we are very disappointed in the way Hawaii Firefighters Association and the Honolulu Fire Department  have acted.”

Chang said they endorsed Cayetano because of his experience and proven track record as a leader, and Cayetano is needed because the city “is broken and needs fixing.”

But Chang said retirees are concerned additional retaliatory measures will be taken against them if they do not retract their endorsement of Cayetano by June 4th.

Cayetano, whose grandson is a fire fighter, said the Fire Department’s retaliation against the retirees is “mind boggling” and “disrespectful.”

“Retired firefighters like former Chief Donald Chang built the Honolulu Fire Department into one of the finest in the nation. My grandson is a firefighter and I am proud of him and all of the rank and file firefighters – but I find it sad and disrespectful that the current leaders of the Hawaii Firefighters Association have retaliated against the retirees simply because they endorsed me.”

“This is like throwing one’s parents out of their own house,” Cayetano added.

Cayetano said growing up, he always wanted to be a firefighter or a policeman, but he joked he was “too short for either occupation.”

Instead he went on to become a state legislator, the lieutenant governor and governor of the state, ending his nearly three-decade long political career in 2002.

Cayetano opted to run for mayor this year because he is concerned about the state of the city’s infrastructure and finances and also wants to stop the $5.3 billion Honolulu rail project from moving forward because he is concerned it will bankrupt the city.