The first mayoral debate of the 2010 election took place in Waipahu Friday afternoon, and from it emerged the distinct political personae of five men who say they’re best suited for the city’s top job.

Sponsored by the West Oahu Economic Development Association and the Kapolei Chamber of Commerce, debate centered around issues that affect West Oahu. The moderated forum before a crowd of about 150 people entailed six questions for each candidate to answer, with none of the questions provided to any of the participants beforehand. Candidates were asked about:

None of them are officially on the ticket yet — Mayor Mufi Hannemann is expected to step down on July 20 so he can run for Hawaii governor. But it was clear Friday that the candidates have, for the most part, crafted their images and tuned their campaign messages.

Meet the candidates, based on what they said on stage and in interviews before the forum.

Kirk “The Engine” Caldwell

You don’t have to ask Honolulu Managing Director Kirk Caldwell what he’s doing on July 20 because he’s probably already told you three times.

“When Mayor Hannemann resigns on July 20, I become the acting mayor,” he said in his closing remarks. “I will be honored to serve all of you.”

Caldwell said he’s viewing his upcoming stint as acting mayor as a “gigantic humungous job interview” and that he hopes it culminates with an election — expected to take place September 18 — in which the people of the City and County of Honolulu decide to offer him that job.

Like his boss, Caldwell’s political name is inextricably tied to rail. His involvement in moving rail forward is a point of pride for him, and he says his priority as mayor would be to see the project through so that the people of Honolulu can begin to work in the jobs the city has promised rail will provide.

“It’s all about jobs, jobs, jobs,” said Caldwell. “It’s about making our city better by pulling the best of the past forward and of course moving forward at the same time.”

Caldwell tends to offer a long list of priorities, but finishing rail and fighting homelessness are consistently among the first he mentions. And he never forgets to explain why he thinks he’s the best candidate for the job.

“I am someone who has worked in all three branches of government in real jobs,” he said. “I have worked in the private sector for 30 years. Not many politicians can claim all that.”

Peter “The Straight-Shooter” Carlisle

It won’t be pretty, Honolulu Prosecuting Attorney Peter Carlisle says, but the city is broken and he’s going to fix it. You don’t have to like it, but it’s for your own good. Carlisle is comfortable with — even relishes — his tough-guy image.

“Stop worrying about yourself and start worrying about others,” Carlisle says.

He says he doesn’t want to hear complaints about furloughs, since furloughed workers would have lost their jobs had they been in the private sector. He also slams the city administration for the way it grew government over the course of the recession.

Mainly, Carlisle says the same approach that led him to success as city prosecutor — “blood, sweat and tears, yours and mine” he says — is what makes him an ideal candidate for mayor.

“The great enemy is inertia,” said Carlisle. “If you want and are committed to the status quo, then I am probably not going to be your candidate. If you are only going to vote for a Republican or Democrat, I am definitely not your candidate. If you are so anti-rail that that’s the only thing you’ll see, I’m not your candidate either.”

A local political scientist speculated earlier this week that Republicans might be drawn to Carlisle, for his fiscal approach and for a previous affiliation with the GOP. But Carlisle minimizes that.

“I was in the Republican party ‘for this long,’” he says, allowing about an inch between his thumb and index finger. “Honolulu needs somebody who is nonpartisan as mayor.”

For all of his candor about the seriousness of the economic situation, Carlisle says he’s actually an “exceptional” optimist.

“I’ve seen the worst, and what the worst brings out is often the best,” he says. “We have a very, very bright future. But in the short term, we need change. Plain and simple.”

Donovan “The Dealmaker” Dela Cruz

Donovan Dela Cruz has spent eight years on the City Council, including three years as its chair. In that time, he says, there’s been a lot of disagreement.

“Doing what’s right for Honolulu is not always easy,” he said. “I have demonstrated that I can make tough decisions to make the city better, to move our city forward. My top three priorities are to eliminate waste, improve city services and create jobs.”

Dela Cruz likes to emphasize that he’s adept at negotiating compromise, and in a way that benefits taxpayers. For example, he says his suggestion that the city lease land for the construction of cell phone towers bumped up revenue at no cost to tax payers.

“It shows innovation, and it was a multi-faceted approach,” said Dela Cruz. “It’s about reducing costs, and finding new and creative ways to generate revenue.”

Among a field of candidates who all say their specific experience is the best experience, Dela Cruz argues that spending nearly a decade at the council level means he’s familiar with what it takes to move initiatives forward, and already has a hand in some of what’s to come.

“The Public Transit Authority that is going to be on the ballot is my version, and I was one of the advocates for transit-oriented development early on.”

Panos “The Pragmatist” Prevedouros

Panos Prevedouros, an engineering professor at the University of Hawaii at Manoa, wants voters to see him as sensible. After an unsuccessful run for mayor against Mufi Hannemann in 2008, he’s back with the same message: “Stop the insanity.”

“As a first step as mayor, I will stop the rail,” said Prevedouros. “Not for some of you, not for most of you, but for all of you. We cannot afford it.

Prevedouros says Honolulu would be better served by improvements to its bus system, which would in turn help congestion. Mostly, he says, the city can’t afford a $5.5 billion rail system that he predicts won’t be used.

“Rail is a boondoggle,” said Prevedouros. “I am a traffic engineer, and one of the best in the nation. Railroads is what made America great, and we grew out of them like we grew out of phones into cellular phones.”

He likes to remind people that he’s just a regular guy among a group of smiling politicians, and one of his mantras emphasizes what he says sets him apart:

“If you want a mayor who knows how to add and subtract,” he says. “Choose an engineer.”

For someone who touts his pragmatism, Prevedouros has his quirks. When asked about whether he’d support a fireworks ban, he said he thought the city ought to ban fireworks on July 4, 2011 as a social experiment to see how people might react.

Prevedouros likes to compare himself to former Honolulu Mayor Johnny Wilson, just a regular guy and engineer like him. Interestingly enough, Wilson came to a career in civil engineering after taking a construction job for the Oahu Railway and Land company. Mention that to Prevedouros, though, and he changes the subject.

Rod “The Politician” Tam

He’ll talk your ear off about his 32 years in local politics, but Rod Tamdoesn’t like to get bogged down in the messiness of details. When a supporter approached him before the debate, saying he had been contacted about a front-yard campaign sign displayed incorrectly, Tam told him to read between the lines of the rules.

“It’s semantics,” said Tam. “You know, like how if an apartment says ‘no dogs,’ that’s different than no pets. You could still have a parakeet or a cat.”

Tam is known for trailing off topic, but the metaphor is telling in the wake of an ethics scandal in which he was fined $2,000 for what fellow City Council members deemed was inappropriate use of nearly $12,000 in city funds. He was also ordered to pay back the money.

When asked how he’d regain voters trust during his run for mayor, Tam smiled.

“Right now we are working so that people are not puzzled by it,” he said. “I do things differently. I spend the money on constituents. I know most of my colleagues stay in the office, buy office furniture and so forth. It’s not that I didn’t understand, it’s that people don’t understand my style.”

When asked if his decision to treat his wife to a Valentine’s day dinner on the city’s dime was because he saw her as a constituent, he says something about dinner with dignitaries, not having a charge card, then trails off.

The Debate Ends

The five characters were at the forum. They shook hands at the end. They smiled for the cameras together. But it was a non-debate. At least so far, the gloves haven’t come off. But we’re starting to know who’s in the ring.

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