Fair enough. Most people don’t feel like having a stranger ask them questions about Honolulu’s mayoral race on their morning bus commute. But I wanted to hear from some of my fellow bus riders on my way to the first mayoral debate Friday. Had they started thinking about who they want our next mayor to be? Do they even know who’s in the running? The answer, even from those who were happy to chat with me as we rode TheBus from downtown to Waipahu, was “Nope.”

“Five people running for mayor?” asks Ernest Fain, who has driven buses for the city for 21 years, as we waited at the bus stop just past Beretania and Punchbowl streets. “That’s news to me.”

Three others at the bus stop don’t want to talk politics. One couple apologizes for not speaking English. A pair of girls in heavy eyeliner tell me they’re not of voting age.

Once we board the uncrowded express bus toward Waipahu, I move from seat to seat, asking passengers about the upcoming mayoral election.

One Honolulu woman says someone called her on behalf of one of the candidates, but she can’t remember which one. A 19-year-old who gives only his first name, Rodolf, takes out his earbuds to tell me with a smile that he knows nothing about the race, and has no plans to vote. Another woman laughs when I ask her. “I’m just a student,” she says. “I have no idea.”

Lee, a middle-aged man from Kalihi, also laughs when he tells me he doesn’t know who’s running for mayor.

“What about Hannemann?” he asks.

I tell him Hannemann’s expected to resign July 20 to run for governor.

“Running for governor?” He shrugs, then laughs again.

A couple of rows forward, a 38-year-old Kalihi resident named Moki Kapanui knows a bit more about local politics than her fellow passengers.

“The mayor’s election?” asks Kapanui. “Isn’t that Mufi and Neil?”

That’s the governor’s race.

When I tell her the mayoral candidates — Kirk Caldwell, Peter Carlisle, Donovan Dela Cruz, Panos Prevedouros and Rod Tam — she’s incredulous: “Rod Tam? Didn’t he just get busted for something? That was him, right?”

She is right. He was fined for an ethics violation. The other name she recognizes, besides Tam, is Carlisle.

“He’s an attorney, yeah?”

Yeah. And the fact that somebody already knows who he is might be a tremendous help, especially in a race that will probably span less than two months, with the likely election date being the Sept. 18 primary. The date won’t be set until Hannemann formally resigns.

“The huge advantage Peter has is that, outside of the politics-and-media circle, these other guys aren’t known,” Honolulu City Council Chair Todd Apo tells me later that day. “The mayor’s race is going to get drowned out by the gubernatorial race. If you’re a contender, you need to have a strong message and make sure people are going to hear.”

As it turns out, the person who is most interested in the mayoral campaign is a student visiting Oahu from Hong Kong. But she, too, knows nothing about it.

When I ask her thoughts on the election, Krystle Fong explains she’s a tourist, then immediately asks, “You get to vote for your mayors here?”

That’s not the case in Hong Kong. We talk about the differences in political and media freedoms between China and the U.S. Fong tells me she’s interested in journalism. But she hasn’t forgotten about the mayoral race in Honolulu, and soon peppers me with questions.

“Who’s running?” asks Fong. I tell her.

“Who’s expected to win?”

I explain that I’m en route to the first debate so far.

“So the debate will help show who might win?”

I tell her it will probably just give us a first glimpse at how the campaign will play out.

She asks about the key issues that voters will consider, about how the candidates stack up against one another given their professional experiences thus far, and about what kinds of questions I’ll ask them. We talked about the election through several stops, until it was time for her to get off the bus.

DISCUSSION Do people in your circle know much about the mayoral candidates? What do you think of the lack of awareness of the race on the bus? Share your thoughts in our discussion of the 2010 mayoral election.

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