“This lady came up to me and she had something in her hand, and she said ‘Fuck you,’ and she hit me right between the eyes.”

That’s how Ben Cayetano this week described a memorable encounter with protesting University of Hawaii professors when he was governor.

It was ugly. He had to be hustled away by security.

But now, more than a decade later, he’s going back to the professors on his own two feet and asking them to help him win the Honolulu mayor’s race.

Cayetano revealed to Civil Beat this week that on Saturday he’ll speak to leadership of the University of Hawaii Professional Assembly, the professors’ union. UHPA Executive Director JN Musto declined to comment.

The news is surprising for a couple of reasons. First is the history of animosity. Second is that UHPA, which does jump into state races, doesn’t generally wade into county contests.

Cayetano, 72, said he thinks he can convince professors to back his candidacy because the Honolulu rail project, though a city initiative, could damage state finances.

“I have a problem coming out and saying ‘I hope you’ll endorse me.’ I can’t bring myself to it. But what I will do, I will tell them that on this particular issue, we have a common interest,” Cayetano said. “And that is that this rail project will not only hurt the city in terms of its ability to do other things, but not being in the public employees’ interest because it’s eventually going to require an increase in taxes.”

Cayetano downplayed the importance of union support in general.

“What I learned in the eight elections I’ve been through,” he said, “is that union endorsements count only so much.”

But where the union does give candidates an advantage, Cayetano said, is in communication with members through newsletters, campaign contributions, and manpower for phone banks and other labor-intensive tasks.

He’s spoken with or plans to speak with Unite Here! Local 5, the International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU) and the State of Hawaii Police Officers Union (SHOPO), the last of which he called “one union I respect.”

He noted that the Hawaii Government Employees Association has already told its members that as governor Cayetano reduced public worker benefits through civil service reform.

“So much for the HGEA,” he said.

But Cayetano is asking UHPA for help despite a similar rocky past.

When Civil Beat’s Chad Blair looked back at Cayetano’s legacy in a piece titled “Remembering Ben: The Cayetano Years,” he wrote:

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.

In his interview with Civil Beat this week, Cayetano explained that he’s against across-the-board cuts, “because I think any governor or mayor should set priorities about what’s important.”

After making education a top priority in his campaign for governor, he found there wasn’t enough money available. He was invited to speak to professors about his cuts, and “against my better judgment and against the advice of my staff, I went to speak,” he said.

“I finished my speech, and these guys were getting angrier and angrier,” he said. That’s when the woman cursed at him and threw what turned out to be a crumpled-up paper cup — which Cayetano said he briefly considered stuffing into the woman’s mouth before security guards picked him up off the ground and got him away from the crowd.

A similar telling of the episode appears in Cayetano’s book, “Ben: A Memoir, from Street Kid to Governor.”

Despite that less-than-friendly sendoff, Cayetano said the relationship has drifted back toward normalcy in his post-gubernatorial years. After he retired, Political Science professor Neal Milner invited him to speak to a class, and Cayetano said he got a “very cordial” reception from professors that he met.

“I think a lot of it has cooled down now. I think a lot of them understand now, and maybe it’s from reading my book, that it’s not like I wanted to cut the university,” he told Civil Beat. “I found myself in the same situation as Gov. (Neil) Abercrombie. Both of us are liberals, we cherish education. But when you’re governor, you have to work for everybody.”

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