Forget about third-party attack ads, Honolulu mayoral candidate Kirk Caldwell had his own barbs for former governor Ben Cayetano during their first televised debate since the Aug. 11 primary.

Caldwell’s main criticisms centered on Cayetano’s recent transportation proposal that is heavily reliant on bus rapid transit, and is now his alternative to the $5.26 billion rail project that has divided the two candidates.

But the former acting mayor and managing director for the city also went after Cayetano’s past, saying that in his two terms in governor he took money from the Office of Hawaiian Affairs and raided state pension funds to help balance his budget and provide a tax return that he now brags about.

“It makes you look good in the short term and it allows you to praise yourself in your book,” Caldwell said. “But you kicked the can down the road and placed an incredible financial burden on all of us, the taxpayers of this state, for years to come until this very day.”

It took until the end of the debate, but Caldwell also evoked “pay-to-play” politics, an issue that has become a hot topic during this campaign season. Pay-to-play is the idea that individuals who give candidates money for their campaigns can expect future government contracts in return.

Allegations that this occurred under Cayetano’s administration have dogged the candidate during his run for the mayor’s office. This is mainly because of a series of political ads paid for by the Pacific Resource Partnership, which a consortium of the Hawaii Carpenters Union and local contractors that supports the rail project.

In many ways, Caldwell had go on the offensive during the KITV/Civil Beat-sponsored debate.

The latest Civil Beat poll shows him lagging behind Cayetano by nine points. Caldwell now must do whatever he can to convince those voters who haven’t already made up their minds on rail why he’s the best candidate to lead the city.

Cayetano fought off many of Caldwell’s attacks — particularly those that were aimed at his time as governor — by pointing to his past record and his experience as a leader. When it came to taking money away from pensions, he said it was something that needed to be done at the time even though it wasn’t the best option.

“You know, Kirk, those are tough decisions I had to make,” Cayetano said, “and I don’t think you’re capable of making those types of decisions.”

Dichotomies Take Center Stage

The debate started off chippy as both Caldwell and Cayetano attacked each other over their transit plans. But that’s not the only place where their differences shone through.

Caldwell tended to be more rigid than Cayetano, keeping his jacket buttoned and arms by his side as he answered questions. He also delivered many of his answers straight to the camera.

Cayetano, on the other hand, was a little more loose. He smiled while Caldwell spoke, and left his coat open while gesturing with his hands.

One thing that seemed clear during the debate is that both candidates have refined their talking points on many of the issues, allowing the moderators to ask more questions than anticipated because of the crisp responses.

Among some of the topics that were discussed during Wednesday’s debate were the future Waikiki Natatorium and how the public relations were handled, a bill that banned commercial activity on beaches in Kailua and the candidate’s thoughts on the much-maligned Public Land Development Corporation. They also discussed how they would fund road maintenance as well as how to balance the influence of outside business and labor groups that have historically had a heavy hand in Hawaii politics.

But as has been the case throughout much of the campaign, the topic always seemed to circle back to rail.

Getting Back on Track

Caldwell pushed Cayetano for details about his new plan, and challenged the former governor to reveal more about the budget for his proposal. He didn’t divulge much from his earlier criticisms of the proposal, calling it “half-baked,” which is the same description he used in a recent press release.

Cayetano’s plan, which includes building a 2.2 mile viaduct over the Nimitz Highway in addition to constructing tunnels at congested intersections, is estimated to cost $1.5 billion. This includes money for financing and contingency funds.

But Caldwell said he wanted more detail. Specifically, he wanted Cayetano to provide numbers on each component of the project. When Cayetano provided price ranges Caldwell pounced on the plan.

“You can’t really give us an accurate number and there’s only two weeks before people start to vote and I think they need much more information that is accurate, not just general figures or ranges,” Caldwell said. “We know that it’s actually going to cost much, much more than just your figures of today.”

In fact, Caldwell estimated that Cayetano’s plan would cost at least between $3 billion and $5 billion more, saying the former governor underestimated the cost and didn’t take into account the legal battles that would ensue after cancelling the rail contracts.

Cayetano had a short response to this, in part because he was cut off by the moderator.

“Those are made up costs,” he said.

One More Match

Caldwell and Cayetano are only scheduled to square off on the television once more before the general election. The two will duel again Thursday on PBS, meaning it could be the last time voters can watch the candidates explain themselves on important issues such as infrastructure, rail and Cayetano’s newly revealed transportaion proposal.

Cayetano has refused to participate in debates sponsored by Hawaii News Now and KHON. This is a change of heart for the former governor, considering he took part in forums hosted by both networks leading up the primary when Mayor Peter Carlisle was still in the running.

According to a report in the Honolulu Star-Advertiser, Cayetano’s camp told Hawaii News Now he would participate in the TV news conglomerate’s general election debates only if the candidates were allowed to sit, there was no live audience and no questions came through social media.

Cayetano told the newspaper he no longer wanted to be a part of the debate after a Hawaii News Now reporter broke a story about the negotiations. The former governor said Hawaii News Now “broke the rule” of making the negotiation details public.

The Star-Advertiser also reported Cayetano declined to appear in a KHON debate after a breakdown in negotiations, although the reasons were less clear. KHON did not reveal any details to the newspaper, and a representative from the Cayetano camp said the candidate was too busy to participate in the Oct. 11 debate.

Thursday’s forum will air at 8 p.m. on PBS Hawaii’s Insights with local political pundit Dan Boylan moderating.

The last time the two mayoral candidates appeared on Boylan’s show the discussion became heated after Caldwell criticized Cayetano for illegal campaign contributions he received in 1998 while running for his second term as governor.

Cayetano responded to Caldwell with a stare and a challenge.

“Come on, look at me,” Cayetano said to the former managing director and acting mayor. “Are you saying I did something wrong?”

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