Hawaii’s 2016 primary election is just a year away, yet few are talking publicly about it and no major match-ups have emerged.

It’s nothing like last August’s primary, which included several big races and ballot issues. The 2014 primary’s outcome, followed by the general in November, effectively ended the political careers of a number of well-known elected officials.

It’s not surprising that things are so electorally quiet this time around. It’s August, it’s been insufferably balmy and there’s a hurricane in the vicinity.

But there are burning issues to address at home — Honolulu rail, homelessness and housing, to name three — and it’s time to start thinking about 2016. The Honolulu mayor’s race could be especially critical.

City Council Chairman Ernie Martin speaks with Mayor Caldwell before Gov. Abercrombie news conference on April 17, 2014

Will City Council Chair Ernie Martin, left, challenge Mayor Kirk Caldwell?

PF Bentley/Civil Beat

Based on the latest round of filings with the state Campaign Spending Commission, which had a Friday deadline, incumbent Kirk Caldwell looks to be sitting pretty.

As of June 30, he had almost $1.5 million in cash on hand, thanks to a heavy round of fundraisers and lots of powerful friends who have filled his coffers. They include Dan Grabauskas, the executive director of the Honolulu Authority for Rapid Transportation, who gave the mayor $3,500.

Council Chairman Ernie Martin, said to be mulling a challenge to Caldwell, has less than one-third of the mayor’s money, or $428,000 in cash on hand. Martin has lots of well-heeled friends, too, including bankers, developers and labor groups.

Kirk Caldwell has raised $1.5 million and has three times the campaign cash of Ernie Martin.

Pundits like myself tend to think large campaign chests translate into inevitability. But such a rationale is blown out of the water every once in awhile, as when David Ige ousted Neil Abercrombie in the Democratic governor’s primary last year.

The incumbent had a 10-to-1 fundraising advantage, but it didn’t save him from a landslide loss. Could the same thing happen to Caldwell?

Kirk v. Ernie

Unseating a Honolulu mayor is not unheard of. Just ask Peter Carlisle, who was booted from office after just two years in 2012.

In that election, former Gov. Ben Cayetano took the unusual step of coming out of retirement and challenging Carlisle and Caldwell, who had previously served as acting mayor and was a former managing director for the city. Caldwell lost to Carlisle in 2010 when Mufi Hannemann resigned to run for governor.

Carlisle placed third in the 2012 primary, but because Cayetano, who ran on an anti-rail platform, did not secure the 50 percent plus one vote necessary to avoid a runoff, the second-place Caldwell kept his chances alive. The election is remembered largely for the outsized role that the pro-rail political action committee Pacific Resource Partnership played in smearing Cayetano.

Like Caldwell, Ernie Martin supports rail, and it’s not clear whether an anti-rail candidate could emerge at this point, given that rail construction is heading toward town. Nor do we know whether a PRP-type PAC will try to determine the outcome in 2016.

Rail construction workers near guideway columns along Farrington highway in Waipahu. 21 july 2015. photograph Cory Lum/Civil Beat

Construction of the rail project is moving from Kapolei toward Honolulu.

Cory Lum/Civil Beat

But there are big issues that could help him or another candidate distinguish themselves from Caldwell.

For one, the state’s reluctant extension of Oahu’s general excise tax surcharge to help pay for the over-budget rail project has lots of people worrying that the cost to taxpayers will only increase. Caldwell was the chief lobbyist selling the surcharge extension, and some of his former colleagues in the Legislature feel that they were suckered into the deal.

The mayor of Honolulu has held 25 campaign fundraisers at various venues over two-plus years, from country clubs to the Houston Hilton.

The council has also yet to approve the tax’s continuation, and that could play to Martin’s advantage. As Civil Beat has reported, Martin and his colleagues still have a lot of concerns about the lack of accountability and financial transparency surrounding the $6 billion project.

The council has until July 1, 2016, to extend the rail surcharge another five years beyond its Dec. 31, 2022 sunset. The primary election is Aug. 13.

A Referendum on Caldwell

Homelessness and affordable housing — two issues that are intertwined — will also be at the forefront of voters’ minds. The growing homeless crisis is acute, with large tent cities in Kakaako and Kapalama and smaller ones popping up elsewhere.

Caldwell has not shied away from the issue and deserves credit for proposing solutions such as a temporary shelter in Sand Island and promoting Housing First. Gov. Ige’s forming of a team to tackle homelessness, which includes Caldwell, Martin and legislative leaders, may take the heat off of Caldwell because otherwise the mayor — rightly or wrong — seems to bear the biggest responsibility for homelessness.

Caldwell is also doing a much better job than Carlisle did in being seen as well as heard. He’s an everywhere mayor, most recently welcoming the Solar Impulse pilots to Oahu, kicking off a staff retreat and planting kalo in slippers and shorts in Manoa, and urging residents via social media to prepare for Hurricane Guillermo. In April, a Civil Beat Poll found that 52 percent of voters statewide had a favorable opinion of Caldwell while 27 percent did not.

Tents along Ohe Street in Kakaako in a picturesque image juxtaposing Waikiki and the homeless encampment. 3 july 2015. photograph by Cory Lum/Civil Beat

Can Caldwell clean up Kakaako? A homeless encampment has grown and flourished for years.

Cory Lum/Civil Beat

But the 2016 election for mayor will likely not be mostly about rail, homelessness and housing. It will be about Caldwell and how he has run the city — and whether someone can make the argument that he or she can do a better job.

Caldwell has held ambitions for higher office, and if he is re-elected he will be free to run for Congress or governor. But should he lose, it will be difficult to convince voters and donors down the road that he is a proven leader.

Rest assured, Caldwell is doing all he can to ensure his re-election. He has held 25 fundraisers since April 2013. The most recent one was July 22 at Wolfgang’s Steakhouse in Waikiki, and the asking price was $1,000 per person.

Check, Please

The mayor likes to ask for money in nice places. They include Waialae Country Club, the Trump International Hotel in Waikiki, the Halekulani, the Hilton in Houston and what looks to be the former mansion of actor Nicholas Cage (and Dean Martin and Tom Jones) in the swanky Bel Air neighborhood of Los Angeles.

Caldwell’s fundraisers have also been held at fine restaurants and nice private homes on Oahu, including 4191 Round Top Drive, an address listed for Caldwell’s communications director, Jesse Broder Van Dyke.

Broder Van Dyke gave $1,500 to his boss in the last reporting cycle, along with a whole bunch of other city workers who owe their employment to the mayor: Managing Director Roy Amemiya ($2,000), Deputy Managing Director Georgette Deemer ($3,500) and Chief of Staff Ray Soon ($2,000).

Dan Grabauskas HART rail

Dan Grabauskas, HART’s executive director, talks to reporters.

Nick Grube/Civil Beat

Martin, whose second and final term ends in 2018, has held only one fundraiser: It was in February at 3660 on the Rise on Waialae Avenue for $1,000 per head. Caldwell held a fundraiser there, too, in 2013, but asked for $2,000.

If Martin is seriously weighing a bid for mayor, his campaign finance records suggest otherwise, at least for now. In the past six months he spent little, just over $9,000, mostly for things like storage, communications and food and beverages for fundraisers

Caldwell spent 10 times that amount, including $22,331 to Waialae Country Club and $12,000 to SMS Research & Marketing Services for surveys, polls and voter lists.

Will PAC money influence the race, like it did with PRP in 2012? Probably. The era of super PACS is here to stay, until Congress or the U.S. Supreme Court decides otherwise.

Two local groups that want rail to succeed — the Hawaii Carpenters Market Recovery Program Fund PAC and the Hawaii Carpenters Political Action Fund, along with the Hawaii Laborers’ Political Action Committee have each contributed to Caldwell and Martin.

Where are the Challengers?

There is a mayoral contest in Hawaii County next year, too. The disgraced incumbent, Billy Kenoi, is term-limited, so the seat is open.

Talk is that state Sen. Russell Ruderman, who was iced out of a committee chairmanship in May when the Hawaii Senate reorganized under Ron Kouchi of Kauai, is thinking of running. Look for a County Council member or two to jump in as well, and likely others.

Besides the two races for mayor, the other major races could be snooze-fests.

Sen. Brian Schatz, Rep. Tulsi Gabbard and Rep. Mark Takai have officially drawn zero challengers in the 2016 congressional contests, either in the Democratic primary or from a Republican who could give them a run in the general.

LEAD CROP CD1 Candidates with Yunji de Neis KITV debate 7.23.14

There was no shortage of congressional candidates last year, in a race ultimately won by Mark Takai, right.

PF Bentley/Civil Beat

Colleen Hanabusa seems inclined not to seek a rematch against Schatz. Gabbard was unopposed in the 2014 primary and won 75 percent of the vote in the general. And Takai crushed his fellow Dems in the primary and held off Republican Charles Djou three months later.

While Takai’s margin of victory was a slim 3.8 percent, Djou would have to be a masochist (some might say that’s the very definition of a Republican in Blue Hawaii) to run for the 1st Congressional District seat for a fourth time in six years.

The latest filings with the Federal Election Commission show that Schatz and Gabbard in particular look to be formidable incumbents.

As of the end of June, Schatz had $2 million in cash on hand, having raised more than $650,000 during the previous three months. Gabbard was sitting on $1.3 million, up $200,000 from the previous quarter.

Brian Schatz and Tulsi Gabbard look to be formidable incumbents.

Both incumbents, especially Gabbard, have seen their national profile elevated. Takai, however, is a freshman Democrat in a Republican-controlled House of 435 members. About the only time he makes the news is when the media mixes him up with other Asian-American representatives.

Takai is doing OK in the fundraising department, however: He hauled in $270,000 in the April-June period, bringing his cash on hand to $307,000. Sure, that’s a pittance compared with Gabbard, but remember that Gabbard faced no serious competition last year and so did not have to take money from her war chest.

Takai, a lieutenant colonel in the Hawaii Army National Guard, is also likely to again draw the financial support of groups like Vote Vets, just as he did in 2014. And it doesn’t hurt that’s he’s friendly with Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi and close to U.S. Rep. Tammy Duckworth of Illinois, another veteran who is now running for the Senate in Illinois.

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