With all precincts reporting, Caldwell prevailed 53 percent to 45 percent.
“The people have spoken,” Caldwell told the crowd gathered at Aloha Tower. “We did it together. Not fighting, not blaming, not talking about problems caused by someone else, but by talking about solutions to problems.”
For months, Caldwell had been locked in a tight race with Cayetano to replace incumbent Mayor Peter Carlisle, who lost in the Aug. 11 primary.
The candidates are on opposite sides of the city’s $5.26 billion rail project. Cayetano wanted to kill it and Caldwell wanted to salvage it.
With so much at stake, the race had garnered more attention than any other in the state. It had also seen the heavy-handed influence of labor unions and big-business political action committees that want the project to stay on track.
Cayetano admitted defeat late Tuesday night but blamed his loss on the special interest groups that spent millions of dollars on attack ads and other campaign tactics to prevent him from becoming mayor.
“The election will usher in a new era in Hawaii politics,” Cayetano said. “Basically what it means is if you have money you have influence. You will be able to sway the way people vote.”
Much of the discourse in this election had involved Honolulu’s rail project, and whether it should move forward.
Cayetano, who was governor from 1994 to 2002, came out of retirement with the sole purpose of dismantling the project, which he believes to be too expensive and not worth the impact it will have.
City officials have said the 20-mile, above-grade guideway that will run from East Kapolei to the Ala Moana Center is expected to take 40,000 cars off of Oahu’s congested roadways. They’re also hoping for $1.55 billion in federal funding to help pay for the project.
Cayetano provided his own alternative to the rail project that he estimated would cost $1.5 billion. His proposal relied heavily on bus rapid transit and building a 2.2-mile “flyover” above the Nimitz Highway.
While Cayetano’s plan was initially light on details, he was able to ride an anti-rail surge throughout much of the election.
He was the immediate front-runner in a three-way race after announcing his candidacy in January. He pushed to win the election outright and had hoped to take more than 50 percent of the vote in the Aug. 11 primary.
He fell short, collecting only about 45 percent. Caldwell came in second with 29 percent and Carlisle third with 25 percent.
Since the primary, Cayetano’s support peaked, according to polls, while Caldwell consistently trended upward.
The race was surrounded by negative campaigning and attack ads, primarily by the pro-rail Pacific Resource Partnership, a carpenters union group, which conducted a major campaign to keep Cayetano out of office.
Caldwell was the beneficiary of independent efforts by pro-rail groups. Not only did PRP spend millions of dollars on its campaign, but another union-supported political committee, Workers for a Better Hawaii, also spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on Caldwell’s behalf.
Carlisle, too, endorsed Caldwell, mainly to make sure the Honolulu rail project gets done.
Caldwell did address all the negative attack ads funded by Pacific Resource Partnership, though he didn’t name the super PAC by name.
“This election was very divisive,” Caldwell said. “There was negative campaigning. I know Ben didn’t like it and I know I didn’t like it. I wish we could’ve just talked about the issues and we did to some degree.”
He urged people to not make this an “us-versus-them” or “bus-versus-rail” debate going forward.
The race highlights the political power structure in Hawaii that has been trying for decades to build a rail system envisioned to relieve traffic congestion in Honolulu. It’s also the biggest public works project in the state’s history, expected to provide hundreds of jobs and a significant boost to the economy.
But public opinion polls in recent months have shown that most residents have turned against the project, concerned that it costs too much and really won’t do much about traffic.
Still, the union and business community pushed to make it happen, providing Caldwell with much of his financial backing along with independent expenditure campaigns.
Caldwell also had the backing of U.S. Sen. Dan Inouye, who is an ardent rail supporter and the state’s most influential political leader.
Cayetano tried making these relationships a campaign theme, saying he was standing up to the behind-the-scenes machine that he says runs Hawaii.
Cayetano’s loss means the anti-rail movement lost its biggest weapon. Many looked to him as the only way to actually stop the project.
Two lawsuits have been successful in delaying construction and running up costs, but neither permanently halted the project. Cayetano is a plaintiff in one of those cases.
One of Cayetano’s closest transportation advisers, University of Hawaii professor Panos Prevedouros acknowledged the setback to the anti-rail movement Tuesday.
While he said the lawsuits can drive up costs, it’s ultimately up to Caldwell, the Honolulu City Council and others to decide at what point that becomes too much. Considering the fervent support behind Caldwell and rail, he doesn’t see that happening anytime soon.
“At this point the political stars are aligning in a pro-rail direction,” Prevedouros said.
But not everyone in Cayetano’s camp was as bleak.
Cliff Slater, who is another plaintiff in the federal lawsuit against the city, said he believes the legal challenges have a good chance of permanently stopping the project.
“We still have two lawsuits ongoing,” Slater said. “We really believe that we will prevail eventually and totally.”
U.S. Sen. Dan Inouye joined Caldwell on the stage to say a few words to the few dozen people who were still gathered at Aloha Tower Marketplace.
Hawaii’s senior senator called the Honolulu mayoral campaign one of the toughest and complicated he has seen since he first ran for office in 1954.
Inouye said often times in heated campaigns, people say things they regret.
“We say tough things. We threaten people,” he said. “Now is the time for all of us to roll up our sleeves — not just the winners, but both — and see if we can work together.”
Inouye said Caldwell will be a good mayor, but needs help from those who supported him and those who ran against him.
“Let’s work together for the common good,” Inouye said. “That’s the aloha spirit.”