As we look ahead to next year’s Honolulu mayoral race, the fact that a couple of intrepid souls are considering challenging incumbent Kirk Caldwell is hardly a surprise.

Cheerleader for the Honolulu rail project, whose runaway costs are barely visible against a distant horizon, and leader of sometimes controversial efforts to fight Honolulu’s persistent and complex homelessness problem, Caldwell may have a few crosses to bear come Election Day 2016.

The bigger surprise is that the race until now has only seemed to draw significant interest from City Council Chair Ernie Martin, who has yet to declare whether he’s really in or out. But if his fund-raising totals are any indication — they’re a minor fraction of Caldwell’s, at this point — he’d likely lack the financial support to pose a serious threat to the mayor.

A more interesting possibility surfaced this week in the form of former judge, two-term lieutenant governor and loser of two gubernatorial elections, James R. “Duke” Aiona. Civil Beat got a recent tip that Aiona might be considering the race, and a conversation that political reporter Chad Blair had with Aiona only enhanced the tip’s credibility.

Former Lt. Gov. Duke Aiona with wife Vivian announces his bid for governor at the Hawaii State Capitol. 5.19.14
Former Lt. Gov. Duke Aiona with wife Vivian announces his bid for governor at the Hawaii State Capitol in 2014. PF Bentley/Civil Beat

Aiona, 60, would “neither confirm nor deny” his intentions, but came out swinging surprisingly hard at Caldwell, calling him a “terrible” mayor whose positions shift “with the direction of the wind,” pointing to the mayor’s actions on homelessness as illustration of that point. He also began differentiating himself from Caldwell on rail, calling the project “too expensive” and indicating as mayor, he might have tried to block the project.

Being an active non-candidate allows potential challengers to talk publicly about issues and begin building overall cases for change long before they officially toss their hats in the ring. It sure sounds like Aiona is sending up trial balloons.

But who would be interested in Gov. Linda Lingle’s former longtime second banana as the CEO of City and County of Honolulu government? Well, perhaps quite a few voters and substantial constituencies that could add up to a significant challenge for Caldwell. Here are a few.

Republicans. The mayoral race is non-partisan, but that doesn’t mean Democrats and Republicans won’t vote with party in mind. Democrat Caldwell, a former three-term state House of Representatives member and majority leader, endorsed Gov. Neil Abercrombie in last fall’s Democratic primary, so his inclinations are well known.

But so are Aiona’s, and Republicans in Hawaii have gone longer without a significant win than Norm Chow.

Currently, the Hawaii GOP holds zero federal offices, zero statewide offices, one state Senate seat and seven seats in the state House, where the party brand has come to be personified by rabidly anti-gay and anti-sex education zealot Bob McDermott. Winning Hawaii’s biggest mayoral race would mean a lot to a party that is increasingly irrelevant in state politics.

Many of the party faithful swore retribution after Abercrombie and Democrats passed marriage equality in 2013 (even against their own Rep. Cynthia Thielen, the one GOP leader to vote for the bill, trying to strip her of a key committee position). But their slate of challengers in more than a dozen races all lost, most by big margins, and at the head of that list was Aiona.

Aiona with 2014 running mate Pastor Elwin Ahu (right) and congressional candidate Charles Djou.
Aiona with 2014 running mate Pastor Elwin Ahu (right) and congressional candidate Charles Djou. Chad Blair/Civil Beat

His running mate was Pastor Elwin Ahu, part of the New Hope church network that sought vengeance at the polls over the marriage issue. After losing by more than 12 points to Gov. David Ige, Aiona joined stridently anti-gay Hawaii Family Advocates as president and CEO, spending the last legislative session opposing such issues as a pro-gay anti-bullying bill for Hawaii schools and legislation to make it easier for transgender individuals to get proper official identification.

Frustrated social conservatives could join small government proponents, anti-union voters, libertarian leaners and plain old GOP loyalists in a unified Republican coalition that could be potent for Aiona. Only about 35 percent of the state’s voters are Republican or lean that way, compared to Democrats who make up about 50 percent of the electorate. That sort of unity would be essential for Aiona to have a shot.

Rail Opponents. Caldwell’s high-profile advocacy before the Legislature and City Council for a rail project that was hemorrhaging red ink even as he was making the case left him wide open for potentially damaging criticism.

Costs continue to escalate, scaring voters whose party affiliation in this matter boils down to “Taxpayer,” so Aiona is on what seems to be increasingly solid political footing in calling the project just “too expensive.”

How Aiona might define exactly what he would do differently than Caldwell could make a difference in drawing votes from those who have lost confidence in Caldwell’s ability to make a positive difference on the troubled project.

Homelessness Empathizers. Caldwell’s actions on homelessness have appealed to business owners whose businesses have been positively affected by city efforts to move the homeless off their sidewalks and away from their shop entryways.

Despite calling homelessness a priority, Mayor Caldwell has promoted efforts that simply shuffle the problem from one area of the city to another.
Caldwell’s efforts on homelessness have pleased some business owners, but to critics have lacked humanity and effectiveness. PF Bentley/Civil Beat

To some others, his efforts to tackle one of the city’s biggest and most complex problems have sometimes lacked humanity, forethought and effectiveness.

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this column included criticism based on old information regarding Housing First and city efforts to address veteran homelessness. The information below regarding that work is new and corrects the previous version.

But the city has made important strides recently on temporary homeless shelter on Sand Island, its Housing First initiative and solving homelessness among veterans.

As Civil Beat reported last week, for instance, the city exceeded its permanent housing goal for homeless individuals this year, serving 465, well above its target of 400. Of those served, 173 were assisted through Housing First in its first year of implementation.

The city also housed 275 veterans as part of its participation in a national mayor’s challenge to end veteran homelessness, making progress in an area that has been particularly challenging.

But is that progress — much of it recent — enough to improve perceptions of how well the city is dealing with these issues? Some socially concerned voters who typically might line up behind the Democratic choice could be swayed by Aiona’s non-profit work and his service as a Family Court judge and Drug Court Program creator and leader. His highly visible crusade as lieutenant governor against crystal meth, abuse of which is often the cause of homelessness, might also attract such voters.

This is an incomplete discussion of demographic segments that have either been disappointed by Caldwell or might be delighted by the candidacy of Aiona, of course, but you get the drift. In the end, would a coalition that consists of these groups and perhaps a few others be enough to usher Aiona into Honolulu Hale?

One clue might be found in voting totals for Caldwell and Aiona in previous races.

Running as either the gubernatorial or lieutenant governor nominee in four elections going back to 2002, Aiona has been on tickets that have drawn 135,000 to 215,313 statewide votes. Last year’s race represented his low point, and the 135,000 votes he won was 22,000 fewer than he drew at the head of the ticket in 2010, when he lost big to Neil Abercrombie.

In the 2012 primary, Caldwell finished with 59,963 votes, well behind front-runner Ben Cayetano in a primary that saw neither reach 50 percent. Once incumbent and third-place finisher Peter Carlisle was out, though, Caldwell polled nearly 156,000 votes across Oahu in the general, winning in a PRP-assisted walk over Cayetano.

Clearly, both candidates can deliver the votes it would take to make this contest competitive.

But if Aiona is to be a contender, a broader coalition is probably more critical for him than Caldwell, who would begin the race with demographic and money advantages.

Still, the prospect of two familiar politicians with strong name recognition, experienced ground operations and success in running the sort of old-school, folksy ground game that an Oahu election requires — sign waving, stew dinners and respectful attention to the diverse ethnic cultures around the island — adds up to something that may otherwise be in short supply next year in Hawaii’s elections: an interesting race.

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