When Ben Cayetano was a college student during the 1960s, civil rights and the Vietnam War were dominant issues.

The lesson he learned from that period, which he shared with high school journalism students Saturday at the University of Hawaii, was to be skeptical of everything government tells them — especially what the city has to say about rail.

“This project deserves the utmost scrutiny from the members of the profession that you will be joining,” he said. “You need to ask the hard questions, to probe, to go beyond what you are being fed by the city.”

Cayetano’s opponent in the Honolulu mayoral race, Kirk Caldwell, had advice to share with the students as well.

“Dream big” and “believe that we can do better,” he said during his remarks at the Journalism Day forum. Journalists deserve credit for having the guts to have a byline and allow themselves to be judged — “good, bad, effective, truthful” — by the public.

Caldwell agreed the rail project deserves a lot of public scrutiny. But, as a supporter, he believes rail is the way to go for a better future.

The candidates also had a lot to say on other issues such as infrastructure and tourism, hinting that the race may become less of a one-issue election.

Rail, Buses, Infrastructure, Beaches

Though it dominated the headlines and airwaves leading up to the Aug. 11 primary, the Honolulu mayoral race has been virtually invisible ever since.

Besides one other appearance before a small group, Cayetano and Caldwell haven’t directly faced off in their runoff. The lawsuit last month that led to a temporary halt on rail construction briefly reminded voters of the mayoral contest. Caldwell aired his first general election television spot just last week, and debates on KITV and KHON are still weeks away.

Rest assured, the candidates — in particular, Cayetano — have not changed their views about the single-most important issue in the campaign, the controversial rail project.

In brief, here’s what Cayetano had to say:

The media, especially the Honolulu Star-Advertiser and the two dailies that immediately preceded it, failed to tell the voters the truth about bus-rapid transit, a system that Cayetano says is “the new thing sweeping the country.” The journalism students should instead follow what Cayetano says is the good example of local columnists like David Shapiro, Richard Borreca and Cynthia Oi.

Regarding rail, Cayetano says it won’t relieve traffic congestion or create 10,000 jobs a year for the life of the project. Citizens did not have adequate time to tell city government how they really feel about rail, and transit-oriented development won’t spur growth because true development is marketplace-driven.

He says Mufi Hannemann is to blame for awarding contracts to all those PR firms with ties to the former Honolulu mayor and gubernatorial candidate. “I think his political career has ended,” Cayetano said of Hannemann, who last month lost a bid for the U.S. Congress.

As for Caldwell, comparatively speaking, he actually didn’t talk all that much about rail, which may signal a shift in his campaign strategy.

Caldwell began his talk to the students by telling them that what a mayor mostly does is deal with the “nitty-gritty” stuff like sewer and water lines and trash pickup.

“If it doesn’t work for just one day, you guys starts complaining immediately,” he said.

What Caldwell mostly emphasized was his vision for a sustainable urban core, one that may or may not include rail but still needs to take cars off roads and better connect people with work and communities. Even if rail is built, he said, it will take “seven, eight, nine years before completion, and in between we need to worry about all the other things” that will continue, including infrastructure challenges.

He disagreed with Cayetano that development is market-driven; he said it requires infrastructure. He also said he wanted to set a goal to no longer have landfills on Oahu, or anywhere in the state, for that matter. We can reduce opala to zero and only use a landfill for emergencies like handling debris from hurricanes, he said.

Caldwell also tried to strike a note of humility: “No politician has an answer for everything, but an honest politician will say ‘I don’t know the answer to that question and will work to find the answer.’ That’s called transparency.”

Cayetano wasn’t buying it. He cited facts and figures on the city’s decaying sewer and water lines and sought to connect Caldwell to that record of failure.

“Something is not right with the city,” he stated.

But Caldwell countered that he had only been a managing director of Honolulu for less than two years and, besides, it was he who helped negotiate a sewer consent decree with the federal government to help Honolulu’s system.

The candidates also clashed over regulation of beaches, with Cayetano embracing the ban on commercial activity on Kailua Beach and Caldwell saying a compromise could allow some activity without negatively impacting the community.

“We all benefit from tourism,” said Caldwell, who suggested commercial activity could be limited to weekday mornings.

“Keep Kailua for local use,” said Cayetano, who pointed to the example of Waikiki Beach, which he described as overrun with tourists and “virtually segregated” because locals don’t go there.

What did the high school journalism students think about the mayoral forum? Few were of age to vote, but it’s likely they’ll share their experience with their voting-age parents at the dinner table.

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