Jack Burns? Party patriarch who walked on water.
George Ariyoshi? Tall, quiet and effective.
John Waihee? First Hawaiian governor.
Ben Cayetano? How about one tough S.O.B.?
Ten years after the nation’s first Filipino governor left politics, Cayetano, 72, is back in the arena, doing something that most former governors — save California’s Jerry Brown — would never do: run for a lesser office.
Cayetano, after all, was reviled by many of his fellow Democrats and labor union supporters when he completed his second and final term in December 2002.
So sick of the Democratic Party machine was Hawaii’s electorate that it rejected Cayetano’s sitting lieutenant governor, Mazie Hirono, and gave the reins of the state to the first Republican in 40 years, Linda Lingle.
But there is another side of Cayetano, one perhaps forgotten by many or not known to younger voters.
He is a smart student of politics and history; a principled man who does his homework and thinks through positions; an independent not afraid to buck his own party nor alienate the people who put him in office; a Filipino-American who courted and won heavy Japanese-American support; and a fighter who never lost an election and was twice elected governor despite trailing strong opponents by large margins.
Let’s revisit the Cayetano years, 1994-2002.
Few expected Cayetano to be elected governor 18 years ago.
Gruff, unsmiling, largely quiet as Waihee’s lieutenant governor (a notable exception: his establishment of the After School Plus Program, or A+), Cayetano was not — and is not — a natural politician: not slick, not scripted, not back-slapping, not an orator.
As with many Democrats of his era, his first government position came in the tail end of the Burns years, when he was appointed to the Hawaii Housing Authority. He later represented Pearl City in the state House and state Senate.
His strongest characteristic — the thing that his suporters most admire about him — is that he will tell you exactly what he thinks, and why. To some, however, who believe the art of politics involves a certain finesse and knack for winning over doubters, Cayetano’s frankness and tendency toward inflexibility are flaws.
But Cayetano knows how to win elections.
Cayetano easily bested his primary opponent, the charismatic Jack Lewin, Waihee’s health director. Yet, he badly trailed Republican Pat Saiki in early polling.
Then, when Honolulu Mayor Frank Fasi entered the race as an independent, the general election race was split three ways. Cayetano, who campaigned tirelessly, slipped in with 36 percent of the vote compared with 30 percent for Fasi and about 29 percent for Saiki.
Four years later, in 1998, Cayetano trailed Maui Mayor Lingle until near the end, when the incumbent pulled off the closest election in Hawaii gubernatorial history: 49.5 percent to Lingle’s 48.2, a difference of just over 5,000 votes.
In “Ben: A Memoir, from Street Kid to Governor,” Cayetano titled the chapter on the 1998 race “Victory from the Jaws of Defeat.”
Bottom line: Cayetano should not be underestimated on the campaign trail.
Like most Democratic candidates for governor, Cayetano was strongly backed by public-sector labor unions. But the support did not last through his governorship.
The primary reason was the economy.
While Burns, Ariyoshi and Waihee presided over a state that benefitted financially from the phenomenal growth of tourism, development and overseas investment, the 1990s marked the burst of the Japanese economic bubble and a California recession. Few states suffered more than Hawaii.
Cayetano’s term also included the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorists attacks, which depressed the tourism industry for months.
In the biography on his campaign website, Cayetano is said to have “confronted the worst economic crisis in Hawaii history by developing a recovery plan with the help of business, labor and legislative leaders.”
His remedies included civil service reform, trimming of employee benefits and cutting the size of government. Critics called him a “Republicrat,” but in many ways what Cayetano had to deal with foreshadowed the challenges — and some of the solutions — of the Lingle and Abercrombie administrations.
Cayetano especially angered the University of Hawaii Professional Assembly — he argued they didn’t work hard enough — and the Hawaii State Teachers Association. The animosity reached critical mass in 2001, when HSTA went on strike with UHPA support.
Cayetano believes he won that fight, telling Civil Beat last summer that the strike worked against them: “It will be a long time before the striking teachers earn back what they lost during the strike. Looking back, the strikers and the public should ask themselves ‘was the 2001 strike worth it?'”
Here’s how Cayetano today characterizes the HSTA battle on his campaign website:
Ben kept his promise to make public education his highest priority by sparing schools from budget cuts at the expense of other state departments. He sought reform through the collective bargaining process, and in 1997 negotiated a contract that increased teacher salaries in exchange for adding seven days to the school calendar.
Bottom line: Whether you agree with him or not, Cayetano will vigorously defend his views.
Cayetano’s tenure as governor was also distinguished by battles with the Office of Hawaiian Affairs over ceded-land revenue.
In 1996, a Circuit Court judge ruled that that OHA was entitled to 20 percent of gross revenues from all ceded lands.
In his memoir, Cayetano writes that the ruling “caught me, and many State officials, by surprise.” Cayetano had wanted a global settlement with OHA that “was fair to both sides.”
OHA was led for much of the 1990s time by Clayton Hee, now a state senator and along with Abercrombie a colleague of Cayetano’s from his legislative days. But new leadership took over OHA in 1997, and OHA rejected a settlement that had been five years in the making.
Meantime, the Bishop Estate scandal erupted in August 1997 when five well-respected leaders accused the estate’s five trustees of gross mismanagement in an essay called “Broken Trust.” One of the authors was Randy Roth, a UH law professor who today is leading the fight — along with Cayetano — to halt Honolulu rail, though Roth leans rightward.
Cayetano ordered his attorney general, Margery Bronster, to investigate the $11 billion trust. Cayetano today takes credit for “changing the manner in which the estate is managed and depoliticizing the way trustees are selected.”
But Cayetano’s stand on Bishop Estate cost him.
Bronster, up for Senate re-confirmation in Cayetano’s second term, was rejected by senators with ties to the trustees. In defiance, Cayetano replaced Bronster with Earl Anzai, his budget director who had also been rejected by the Senate for a second term appointment.
Bottom line: Cayetano will persist in what he sees as doing right no matter the consequences.
Ben Cayetano may hold the distinction of being the only Hawaii governor to have both Native Hawaiians and public school teachers hold signs of protest reading “F–K Ben.”
He also has the habit, as a local political writer once put it, of carrying around a pocketful of “f–k you’s.”
In other words, Cayetano doesn’t care much what critics think of him. But there is another side of Cayetano that reveals a more complex character.
For example, during his governorship he held views in support of same-sex rights, doctor-assisted suicide, gambling and medical marijuana that put him at odds with many of his contemporaries.
He also angered lawmakers with a veto of a 2001 bill that would have raised the age of consensual sex from 14 to 16. The veto was overridden in a special session called by the Hawaii Legislature, the only time a Democratic governor has had that happen.
Reviewing his eight years as governor, details emerge about Cayetano that help flesh out his persona.
Cayetano, for example, was hospitalized at one point for a bleeding ulcer. He went on the Waianae Diet. He guested on the bikinis-and-beach TV series “Baywatch.” He divorced while in office and married businesswoman Vicky Liu, for whom he shaved his mustache just so she could see what he looked like without it.
Remember, this is a guy who used to sport a Prince Valiant haircut.
For a man whose immigrant parents divorced when he was 6, who worked to support his family in a rough Kalihi neighborhood (including as a service station attendant and truck driver), who didn’t fly to the mainland until he began college in Los Angeles in 1963, who graduated from Loyola law school and who today lives quite comfortably in one of Honolulu’s wealthiest neighborhoods, Waialae Iki — Ben Cayetano is a Hawaii and American success story.
And his most interesting chapter may just be beginning.
Cayetano may face the risk of being seen as a one-issue candidate — i.e., rail — but in fact he has broad legislative and administrative experience and a deep understanding of how the city and state work.
He may also lack the broad union support that helped him in elections past. But, in the press conference Thursday announcing his mayoral bid, he said, “I’m going to speak to the public unions. I’m speaking to SHOPO tomorrow. I intend to speak to the HGEA and the UPW.”
He said he will tell the public workers unions that money spent on rail will weaken the state’s ability to make good on its commitments, such as the billions it owes for pensions.
“That’s my pitch to them,” he said. “I’ve had some tough battles with them, and hopefully that will be set aside and they will look at this rail carefully.”
Bottom line: Prepare for one of the most interesting and unusual elections in Hawaii history.