As Honolulu’s five mayoral candidates prepare to square off for their first major debate this year, the rail issue is again likely to be at the forefront.

“I think rail is what will define the candidates,” said mayoral candidate and Honolulu Council Member Donovan Dela Cruz. “There’s obviously going to be pro- or anti-rail candidates, but it’s important to differentiate the pro-rail candidates for how they’re going to proceed.”

One of the reasons Dela Cruz sees differentiation as important is because he’s one of the four candidates popularly described as “pro-rail.” A University of Hawaii engineering professor, Panos Prevedouros, is thus far the only mayoral candidate who is running on a strong anti-rail platform.

Since Mayor Mufi Hannemann took office in January 2005, the divisive Honolulu High-Capacity Transit Corridor Project has been an essential part of his political persona. Especially in Honolulu mayoral races, which are designated as nonpartisan, issues tend to drive public opinion more than some of the partisan lines drawn in other elections.

For the anti-rail camp, the transit debate in Honolulu has largely been about staying on message. As the plan moves forward — most recently with the Federal Transit Administration’s release of the Final Environmental Impact Statement last month — those who oppose the city’s $5.5 billion elevated rail project maintain there are better, cheaper and more sensible options. Rail opponents weren’t deterred when 53 percent of Honolulu voters approved a ballot initiative giving the city authority to build a rail line in 2008, the same year voters re-elected Hannemann as mayor. And they remain committed to fighting rail through, and by way of, this fall’s mayoral election.

One of the city’s most persistent anti-rail voices, Stop Rail Now’s Cliff Slater, said it’s why he’ll vote for Prevedouros, whose position on rail is strong enough that he’s been called a one-issue candidate. Prevedouros, who didn’t return requests for an interview before publication, also faced that criticism in 2008 when he ran for mayor unsuccessfully against Hannemann. But in a winner-takes-all election, one local political scholar says being seen as a one-issue candidate may actually be a boon.

“We don’t know to what extent Panos, who is kind of known for one issue, the extent to which that’s powerful enough to pull him along,” said Neal Milner, a political science professor at the University of Hawaii at Manoa. “He’s a smart guy. He’s what you would call a political amateur, and probably in a good sense. But he’s never been anywhere close to being successful in running for political office. One reason is that there still is strong positive support for rail. The second thing is that a lot of the support for Panos, let’s say a disproportionate amount of the support, comes from Republicans.” Milner questioned whether Carlisle’s Republican history could hurt Prevedouros.(Carlisle wasn’t available for comment before publication of this story).

Unlike Prevedouros, though, Carlisle classifies himself as “pro-rail,” and has a winning political record. He was first elected to his post in November 1996, when he defeated the candidate endorsed by then-prosecutor Keith Kaneshiro. Carlisle was re-elected without opposition to a second term in 2000, then defeated Kaneshiro to win his third term in 2004. In 2008, he was again re-elected without opposition.

Milner says Carlisle is bolstered not only by name-recognition and a strong political record, but also by his professional record over four terms as the city’s prosecutor.

“There’s no better office,” Milner said. “If you’re doing a decent job as a prosecutor, and he is — evidently he runs a pretty good office and he is smart enough to take some high visibility cases and win them — it’s the greatest job in the world. Everybody loves you. I think he’s a real formidable opponent for [Honolulu Managing Director Kirk] Caldwell.”

Caldwell, however, says he has no interest in thinking about his political opponents, and is focused more on the fact that, come July 20 when Hannemann is required by law to step down in order to campaign for Hawaii governor, he’ll become Honolulu’s acting mayor.

“I’m very grateful to have the opportunity to be the acting mayor, as in the past I have been acting mayor when the mayor left town,” said Caldwell. “For me it was about taking care of the public, I look forward to doing that.”

Caldwell’s pre-election stint as acting mayor could be seen as a clear advantage, but political scientist Milner speculates two months won’t be enough to give Caldwell an incumbent’s edge, or to distance himself from the Hannemann administration.

“Incumbency is an enormous advantage, but you have to actually be an incumbent and it takes a long time establish that,” Milner said. “Caldwell is going to have to defend how Mufi runs the city and I’m not even thinking of explicit decisions but even Mufi’s reputation of not listening and moving too fast. I think Caldwell will become a surrogate Hannemann.”

Caldwell maintains his candidacy isn’t defined by his boss’ leadership, but by how Caldwell managed himself — and the city — in the Hannemann era.

“Whoever becomes the mayor inherits a system and an infrastructure in place, and you have to address those issues,” said Caldwell. “That’s not unique to me, it would be true for anyone taking over. The good news is, I’ve been the managing director for two years now. I think I’m very well suited to step right in.”

The two council members running for mayor also argue their understanding of the way the city operates, and how it should operate differently, ought to propel them to the mayor’s seat.

Council member Donovan Dela Cruz said much of his experience involved fighting against aspects of Hannemann’s leadership that he opposed.

“I don’t think people see me as part of the administration because we disagree on a lot of things,” said Dela Cruz. “I actually have a track record on city issues in regards to public safety, agriculture, expanding our revenue sources, transparency and accountability. I was council chair for over three years.”

Council member and mayoral candidate Rod Tam, who recently made headlines after being fined for illegitimately spending more than $11,000 in city funds, didn’t return phone calls before publication.

Prevedouros is openly campaigning on the hope that his pro-rail opponents will split the vote, allowing him to win. In the same vein, Dela Cruz explains the importance of voters discerning between the varied viewpoints and experiences that he and fellow pro-rail candidates boast.

“It goes beyond pro-rail or anti-rail,” said Dela Cruz. “It’s about how we’re going to integrate jobs, making sure we can support the infrastructure. You know I have the experience. I was one of the advocates for transit-oriented development early on. As time goes on, and people see how much experience candidates really have, and at what level, I think that will be really revealing.”

All five candidates will gather on Friday, July 9, for a lunchtime debate at the Filipino Community Center in Waipahu, presented by the Kapolei Chamber of Commerce and the West O‘ahu Development Association. The fee for the event is $45. To register, contact Barbie Rosario at 842-1600, or follow Civil Beat’s coverage of the event on twitter. Adrienne LaFrance will tweet the event using the #becivil hashtag.

About the Author