Peter Carlisle and Ben Cayetano focused many of their attacks on Kirk Caldwell in the KITV-Civil Beat debate Wednesday night, offering a window in the strategies the candidates are implementing a month before the Aug. 11 primary.

The debate focused on a wide range of issues, from rail and transit alternatives to public restrooms, union negotiations, land development, taxes, the Waikiki Natatorium, Occupy Honolulu protestors, sewer infrastructure and more.

The tone of the debate started out a little prickly but was largely civil. Cayetano in particular was subdued compared to his performance in the last televised debate, when he demanded that Caldwell look him in the eye when discussing an old campaign finance controversy.

(For more up-to-the-minute updates from City Hall, read the Inside Honolulu blog.)

The first instance of Carlisle and Cayetano ganging up on Caldwell came about 15 minutes into the 90-minute debate. Both said Caldwell would be unlikely to get a good deal for taxpayers in negotiations with unions because he’s too friendly with them.

“Kirk has been endorsed by the unions because they know that he will go along with what they want,” Cayetano said, pointing to civil service reforms implemented during his time as governor. “They will not come without hard bargaining, and so far I haven’t seen that in Kirk. He basically goes along to get along.”

Carlisle agreed.

“The previous wisdom had it so that you’d always cave in to the public workers and the police and the fire and then ultimately you would automatically get elected because of their power,” Carlisle said. “That no longer exists as a paradigm, and as a matter of fact it’s better for the taxpayers in general that city employees are not getting unreasonable benefits.”

Caldwell said his inclusive style would help get people to the table and would ultimately lead to a fair deal for workers who only want to help serve the public.

“I will find a balance. That’s my style,” Caldwell said.

Carlisle and Cayetano also used their opportunities to ask questions largely to poke at Caldwell, isolating him a little.

  • Carlisle noted that the city is moving closer to selling its affordable housing portfolio for $142 million and asked Caldwell why he “failed” to move the ball forward.
  • Cayetano asked Caldwell how, after raising so many taxes and fees while in the Mufi Hannemann administration, he’d pay for increasing bus costs.
  • Carlisle asked Caldwell how many years he paid the minimum $300 tax on his million-dollar historic Manoa home.
  • Cayetano asked Caldwell about his role in raising the city’s debt limit to pay for rail.

Cayetano and Carlisle eventually asked each other a question or two, but the focus was squarely on Caldwell. It’s an interesting dynamic because at least one of the candidates will be eliminated at the Aug. 11 primary.

Cayetano has said he hopes to win outright by securing 50 percent of the vote, so he might be targeting the candidate he believes has softer support. Cayetano, who sat at 44 percent in the most recent Civil Beat Poll, said at a campaign press conference Tuesday that he believes he can secure some of the undecided voters that had previously been in his flock during earlier polls that had him over 50 percent. Caldwell had gained ground in the intervening months at Cayetano’s expense.

If Cayetano is unable to hit that 50 percent threshold but is able to survive to the Nov. 6 general election, either Carlisle or Caldwell would be on the chopping block, giving each some serious motivation to go after the other.

The tag-teaming seemed to irk Caldwell.

Civil Beat’s Chad Blair, who was among the panelists asking questions of the candidates, shared this observation from the KITV studio:

For much of the debate, Caldwell stood very straight, almost stiffly looking straight ahead, with body language of a man on an island. He wouldn’t even flinch, even when criticism was leveled at him. Cayetano and Carlisle seemed to interact with each other more. They’d tap each other on the shoulder, whispering together once or twice.

When Blair asked the candidates what they most admired about their opponents, Caldwell’s irritation showed.

He said he liked Cayetano’s thick, lustrous hair and Carlisle’s surfing skills. Cayetano, who endorsed Carlisle against Caldwell in the 2010 special election for the job, said he admired the mayor’s honesty, but had nothing nice to say about Caldwell. Carlisle was the most magnanimous, saying he appreciated Cayetano’s willingness to speak his mind and that Caldwell did an “admirable job” in the Hawaii Legislature.

Beyond the politics, there were some noteworthy policy revelations:

  • Caldwell said he’d like to implement “tax-increment financing” on landowners near the rail line that would stand to see their property values increase. TIF often establishes a defined district. Caldwell talked about that proposal as part of a broader comment on transit-oriented development and affordable housing near rail stations.
  • Carlisle revealed that he’s been in discussions with Abercrombie about potential new sports uses for the decrepit Waikiki Natatorium. There’s been decades of hand-wringing about whether to tear the structure down or revitalize it.
  • Cayetano said he does not favor of merging the Honolulu Fire Department with the Emergency Services Department, as Caldwell has advocated for. Carlisle, picking up on Civil Beat’s reports about the Ethics Commission’s investigation into the merger, said the process was “tainted by skewed scores.”
  • Carlisle said he’d like to evict the Occupy Honolulu protestors from Thomas Square. “If I had the opportunity, I’d pull a Frank Fasi and when they’re out there bulldoze down all of their tents, but you can’t do that anymore.”

Because of a contract dispute between KITV’s corporate parent and Time Warner Cable, the debate was simulcast on Hawaii News Now networks and Clear Channel Communications. PBS Hawaii also rebroadcast the event.

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