Saturday’s primary race for Honolulu mayor was historic.

No, former Gov. Ben Cayetano didn’t get more than 50 percent of the vote to avoid a November runoff. He received 44 percent and will duke it out with former Honolulu managing director Kirk Caldwell, who received 29 percent of the vote.

The most notable aspect of Saturday’s primary was that the incumbent, Mayor Peter Carlisle, lost, with only 25 percent of the vote. This just doesn’t happen in Hawaii.

Incumbents usually have to die or resign to have their name removed from the office nameplate. The last Honolulu mayor to lose an election was in 2010 when Carlisle beat Caldwell, who had only been in office for a matter of months. Before that it was Eileen Anderson in 1985.

But Carlisle — who was also only a short-term incumbent — had to contend with Cayetano. When the former governor announced his candidacy, it made what seemed like a winnable race suddenly very challenging.

Without Cayetano, Carlisle would have been the heavyweight. He’d been the Honolulu prosecuting attorney for years, which gave him high name recognition along with whatever positives come with being the man who locks up bad guys.

Caldwell on the other hand is a former state House member who served as acting mayor when Mufi Hannemann stepped down to run for governor. Plus, Carlisle was already 1-0 against Caldwell.

“He probably would have sailed in,” said John Hart, professor and chair of the Hawaii Pacific University Department of Communication. “But when a former governor decides to run against a mayor, gosh that’s rough. That’s like you’re playing hoops on the corner and Paul Pierce decides to show up.”

A Governor’s Influence

Cayetano, of course, has made the vote for Honolulu’s mayor a referendum on the city’s $5.26 billion steel-on-steel rail project. While others had opposed the project in the past — even deciding to run for mayor to stop it — none had Cayetano’s clout.

“Ben gave that movement some sort of focus,” Hart said. “When all of a sudden rail became a tar baby, clearly Peter was just unable to handle it.”

It’s true that support for rail has been tenuous. In 2008, voters narrowly approved of the city building a “steel wheel on steel rail” transit system. Two years later, they approved creating the Honolulu Authority for Rapid Transportation, a semi-autonomous board which now oversees the project.

But a recent Civil Beat poll showed that nearly 55 percent of voters oppose the project.

Carlisle’s approach to the campaign also might have worked against him. Of the three candidates he’s the least likely to be mistaken for a politician. He raises his voice and pounds the table when he gets excited — probably a remnant of his time as a prosecutor — and he throws out more shakas than drivers merging through traffic on H-1.

“Peter is a good guy and he’s a friend,” Cayetano said Saturday after the first round of results showed Carlisle in last place. “One thing we learned about each other throughout the campaign and especially throughout the debates is we have a feel for the other’s character. Peter is a pretty good guy. I think he’s honest. He’s not inclined to pander for votes.”

Limited Margin for Error

As the incumbent, Carlisle had an attentive audience. Each time he made an announcement about the city or introduced a new program his name would appear in newsprint or on TV.

This is usually an advantage. But as mayor he was also opened up to criticism about how the city functioned. Caldwell latched onto this more than any other candidate, saying Carlisle was hands off and inattentive.

“Peter Carlisle wasn’t in office long enough to get the advantages of incumbency,” said Neal Milner, professor emeritus of political science at the University of Hawaii. “But he was there long enough to face some issues that got increasingly controversial and worked against him.”

Aside from rail, Milner points to a recent fiasco involving cuts to bus service that sparked loud community uproar and backlash against the Carlisle administration. Both bus riders and Honolulu City Council members decried the cuts, and are now pushing to restore service levels.

While Milner said that might only make a small difference in the number of votes, it can add up when there are two candidates fighting for the “silver medal.” Cayetano was the frontrunner ever since entering the race.

“Cayetano just simply changed the entire dynamic of this race, and took it from being an ordinary election to an extraordinary election,” Milner said. “What you’re trying to explain is a second and third between two candidates who knew they were going to get skunked the day Cayetano entered the election.”

He said this is probably why Caldwell’s strong union support, combined with his arguments to “build rail better” and be a better leader, probably played a factor in him gaining a 4.3 percent edge on Carlisle during the primary.

“What he managed to do was cross the finish line just a little bit ahead of Carlisle,” Milner said.

This doesn’t mean the election was completely out of Carlisle’s control. On Sunday, he told Civil Beat that he could have done a better job campaigning before the primary. He also liked his chances had Cayetano not entered the race.

In particular, Carlisle said he should have raised more money early and buried Caldwell when he had the chance. Carlisle was the least successful fundraiser of the three contenders, hauling in about $674,000 according to campaign spending reports. Both Cayetano and Caldwell brought in more than $900,000, although Caldwell put $50,000 of his own money in.

“If I was a better political campaigner I think I would have done those things, but frankly all of that stuff gets in the way of doing the job” of mayor, Carlisle said. “You want to spend more of that time getting that stuff done than dealing with the political nonsense.”

During the next four months, Carlisle said he plans to keep pushing for rail. After conceding the election he attended Caldwell’s primary celebration to say he would continue to back the project. He said that’s different than supporting Caldwell as an individual.

“I can’t fathom what it would be like if rail got stopped right now, and so it’s critical for it to go forward,” he said.

Carlisle doesn’t plan to be away from Honolulu Hale for long. He said he plans to take another shot at mayor in 2016. He likes the job, he said, even though it requires an election to get it.

“I’ve always enjoyed a good fight,” he said.

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