Honolulu has been the seat of government in Hawaii since 1850, when King Kamehameha III proclaimed it the capital of his kingdom.
Honolulu remained the center of island politics even after the Hawaiian Kingdom was overthrown and Hawaii was annexed by the U.S. in 1898. Hawaii became a U.S. territory in 1900. It would be another five years before the Territorial Legislature created five counties in a law that became the basis for Hawaii’s modern municipal governments. Four counties, including the County of Oahu, were governed by elected Boards of Supervisors, with the state retaining control of most county functions.
In 1907, the County of Oahu was renamed the City and County of Honolulu and the office of mayor was added to the Board of Supervisors. Democrat James Fern, a self-taught shipping master for the Inter-Island Steamship Co. and a member of the Board of Supervisors, became Honolulu’s first mayor in 1908, winning over Republican John Lane by seven votes. Lane defeated Fern in 1915 and served for two years before Fern was re-elected, serving until 1919.
In 1959, Hawaii became a state and the Hawaii Legislature granted home rule to the counties. In Honolulu, this meant adoption of a city charter that created a mayor-council government structure. The mayor serves as chief executive officer of the city, with responsibilities that include supervision of the executive agencies responsible for public safety and welfare; culture and recreation; community and human development; citizen participation; and general government operations. A nine-member city council is responsible for legislative and investigative functions. All offices are nonpartisan and candidates are elected to four-year terms for a maximum of two consecutive terms. Elections are conducted by the city clerk every two years.
Because city elections are nonpartisan, the voters can choose from all candidates for each Honolulu office during the primary election. A candidate who receives more than 50 percent of the vote wins outright in the primary, otherwise the two candidates with the most votes advance to the general election.
Salaries of elected and appointed officials and are set by the Honolulu Salary Commission.
The City Council must approve each year’s budget by June 15.
The mayor, city council and their appointees hold much of the power in Honolulu. Public worker unions, which represent many of the city’s essential workers, also wield significant influence. Lobbyists for public utilities, prominent developers and large landowners also have a voice in city planning and growth. Elected neighborhood board members serve in an advisory capacity, bringing the issues that impact their communities to the attention of government officials.
Kirk Caldwell is the current mayor of Honolulu. In the August 2012 primary election, Caldwell, the former city managing director, received 29 percent of the vote, beating Peter Carlisle who received just under 25 percent. Caldwell then defeated Ben Cayetano in the November 6, 2012 general election.