Honolulu Mayor Peter Carlisle seems to be everywhere these days.
In the past month, he’s donned a hanbok at the Korean Festival in Kapiolani Park, demonstrated how to repair a crack in a roadway near the Salt Lake District recreation center and introduced new parking meters in Chinatown that accept credit cards as well as coins.
He’s even attended the blessing ceremony for a new ambulance unit in Ewa. In fact, city records show he’s doing more local public appearances than at the the same time last year.
A Civil Beat review of city records shows that Carlilse had 42 appearances listed on his weekly public schedules in March 2012. He surpassed that mark with 51 appearances in May 2012.
This is the same Peter Carlisle who spent a good amount of time traveling for official business when first elected, and who is now being criticized by at least one candidate running against him for being a hands-off mayor.
Carlisle says he’s not traveling as much. He has a campaign to think about.
But at every event, and each press conference he holds, his picture is taken and he often makes the news.
Some the official photos taken by a publicly paid staffer also appear on his campaign Facebook pages immediately after they’re uploaded on the city’s site.
It’s the advantage of incumbency — you always have an audience.
As mayor, Carlisle can glad-hand at events, hold press conferences and issue statements, even if it’s to congratulate an employee on winning an award.
Some of the advantages incumbents usually have include name recognition, voter habit and an already-built campaign organization. That’s why they’re so hard to unseat.
So why then is Carlisle struggling so much?
The latest Civil Poll shows him neck-and-neck with former Honolulu Managing Director Kirk Caldwell for second place but far behind front-runner Ben Cayetano. If one candidate doesn’t pull in more than 50 percent of the vote in the Aug. 11 primary then the top two move on to the November general election.
And according to the most recent campaign finance reports, Carlisle was dead last in fundraising from Jan. 1 to June 30. In fact, his opponents combined raised seven times as much as he did in those six months.
The only place where Carlisle leads anyone is in how much money he has left in the bank, where he has more than Caldwell heading into the stretch run, but far less than Cayetano.
Much of Carlisle’s advantage as an incumbent seems to have been undercut, partly because of rail and partly because of the person who’s running against it.
While Carlisle admits this, he said another reason his incumbency advantage is weaker than expected is because he wanted “politics as usual taken out of city hall.”
“Incumbency in Hawaii is a huge advantage,” said John Hart, professor and chair of the Hawaii Pacific University Department of Communication. “It’s said that we send incumbents back more than totalitarian regimes.”
Just look at the race for retiring U.S. Sen. Daniel Akaka’s seat, Hart said. It’s a historic event when considering that whoever wins has a good chance to remain until they retire or die.
“We only have open seats once a generation,” Hart said.
Akaka has been in office since 1990. His predecessor, Spark Matsunaga died shortly after being elected to a third term. Before Matsunaga, Hiram Fong, was the only other person to hold the office. He was elected in 1959, the year of Hawaii’s statehood, and retired in 1970.
This is true for pretty much every major elected office in Hawaii, from the state’s two congressional districts, to the governor’s office to Honolulu Hale, where the mayor usually leaves on his or her own terms.
Of course, there are anomalies, such as when Frank Fasi was unseated as Honolulu’s mayor by Eileen Anderson. He later came back to beat Anderson the following election, staying in office until he quit to run for governor.
In the 1st Congressional District, Republican Charles Djou lost his 2010 bid for reelection to Colleen Hanabusa. But Djou wasn’t the incumbent for long. He’d won the seat with 39.4 percent of the vote in a special election just six months earlier when Neil Abercrombie resigned to run for governor. Hanabusa, who came in second that time, pulled in 30.8 percent.
The same could be said for Caldwell. He took over the Mayor’s Office on July 20, 2010 when Mufi Hannemann quit to run for governor. Within a matter of months, Caldwell lost a close election to Carlisle in a special election.
Carlisle now has some of the same problems as Caldwell did back then.
Milner said Carlilse’s only been in office for about 18 months and hasn’t had the chance to develop into a “habit” for the voters the way someone who has been in the position longer might have. A 2011 Civil Beat poll also found that voters were lukewarm about the former prosecutor as their mayor.
Carlisle, however, is in a better spot than Caldwell was in 2010, Milner added, because he was the city prosecutor — an island-wide elected office — from 1997 to 2010. He was also elected as Honolulu’s mayor, something Caldwell can’t claim.
Aside from being acting mayor, Caldwell was in the Hawaii State House of Representatives, representing a small sliver of Oahu. He has admitted in the past that this puts him at a disadvantage. In terms of name recognition, specifically, he said he’d have to spend more money to make up the difference.
“Hypothetically, if it were just those two guys, the advantages of incumbency would be stronger in favor of Carlisle, I think, because people still don’t know Caldwell that well,” Milner said. “He’s not really presenting a policy alternative, so your average voter … is likely to say (Carlisle’s) doing a pretty good job and the other guy, he’s not all that different.”
But, of course, this isn’t a two-person race. There’s a former two-term governor to consider. And he’s chosen a highly contentious issue as the centerpiece of his campaign.
“You’re running with a person who already has huge name recognition and who scores higher on positives than lots of people might think he would,” Milner said. “What you have with Cayetano is an exceptional candidate. … He carries a lot of weight, he’s well-known and he’s a terrific campaigner.”
And then there’s rail. The $5.2 billion political vacuum in the room.
When Cayetano entered the race and announced he was against the project, it changed the entire discourse.
While Milner was hesitant to say that this is the only issue voters are concerned about in the upcoming election, he said Cayetano was able to use his influence and pick up on the “grumbling anti-rail sentiment and make it work.” He captured the enthusiasm.
As an example, Milner points to UH civil engineering professor Panos Prevedouros, who ran for mayor on an anti-rail platform in 2010, coming in a distant third behind Carlisle and Caldwell. Prevedouros also lost a previous bid for mayor in 2008 against Hannemann.
“You can’t let the anti-rail people get control over what reality is here. They over-emphasize the groundswell of opposition,” Milner said. “I’m not saying people aren’t opposed — and I don’t know how many there are — but that’s less important when you have a candidate for mayor who has an incredible amount of political acumen, who is well-known, who has pretty good resources and who has a cushion of political support and legitimacy.”
Aside from name recognition, one of the more tangible advantages an incumbent has is an organized support group, Milner said. These are usually the people who helped a candidate get elected in the first place, and are the ones who will campaign or raise funds when it’s time to run again.
“If you have an existing campaign organization that’s worked in the past, and that is able to raise the money, and if you’ve been able to do the usual publicity in a usual sort of way and people remember your name … You’re likely to do okay,” Milner said.
The effectiveness of a campaign organization can be a hard thing to measure before an election. One way to do it is through campaign contributions.
Carlisle was able to raise nearly $600,000 for his 2010 bid for the Mayor’s Office. This election cycle he’s raised a little less, about $560,000.
He’s also lost the support of Cayetano, who contributed to his campaign in 2010 and is now the front-runner in the race to unseat him.
Cayetano said he believes Carlisle made a mistake when he took office that’s hurting him in the election today. Carlisle should have appointed his own cabinet instead of just replacing a few people.
This is one of the reasons Cayetano said he couldn’t back Carlisle in his bid for re-election.
“Peter is a good guy, but it was a little naive on his part,” Cayetano said. “If somebody else outside of the city still has influence they can pick up the phone and call a former cabinet member. That doesn’t help the mayor. Your cabinet should give you their undivided loyalty. Not unconditional, but their undivided loyalty, and I think that’s a problem for Peter because some of these guys may be helping Kirk.”
But campaign spending records don’t support that theory. According to campaign finance disclosure forms, Caldwell did not receive any donations from Carlisle’s cabinet from July 1, 2011 to June 30, 2012.
Carlisle started receiving donations from his cabinet members starting back in 2011. So far, 13 members of his 48-person cabinet have donated to his bid for re-election in the first half of 2012 alone. His chief of staff, Jim Fulton, and his press secretery, Louise Kim McCoy, are among the members of his staff who are active in his campaign.
Carlisle said that once he was elected he addressed his entire cabinet and told them that they shouldn’t be expected to get him reelected or help him run for governor.
The response has been great, he said, and now he has “a whole bunch” of people working on the campaign, from “secretaries on up.” He also notes that they’re not campaigning during the work day, which would violate ethics rules.
Carlisle said he believes the true benefit for an incumbent is their record. In his case, he points to bolstering the city’s rainy day fund, increasing transparency at Honolulu Hale and putting on a “superb performance” as the 2011 host of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit as a couple of examples.
“A track record helps because people can see how you’ve actually behaved as mayor,” Carlisle said. “That’s a double-edged sword that can be either a good thing or a bad thing. If you have a series of accomplishments that usually is an advantage for any incumbent.”
But Carlisle, who likes to bring up his surfing habit and isn’t afraid to poke fun at himself in debates, says he realizes Cayetano squashed the edge from incumbency when he got into the race.
“Now that the decisive factor — and divisive factor — seems to be rail, (the incumbency advantage is) less so than normal,” Carilisle said. “I would suspect that because everybody is very, very split on the rail issue that people who would never have voted for Ben Cayetano in their lives before are now voting for him because they don’t want rail. So that makes it that more significant of an issue than the incumbency.”
This makes it a tough go for Carlisle, who’s never lost an election.
Not only does he not have the money — Caldwell has taken away much of the pro-rail support — but he’s also seems to have lost the one sure bet in Hawaii politics.
Michael Levine contributed to this report.