Would Ernie Martin make a good mayor of Honolulu?

Ernie Martin thinks so.

The Honolulu City Council chair shared that view with me last week, when I asked him the big question directly.

“I think so, I think so,” he said, before holding a “talk story” session in Moanalua last week. “You know, of course, I think one is the fact that I have served on the executive branch, I served while Kirk Caldwell was managing director.”

Honolulu City Council Chair Ernie Martin looks on as Council member Carol Fukunaga speaks during 2016 Talk Story Tour held at Moanalua Village Community Center. 5 april 2016.
Honolulu City Council Chair Ernie Martin looks on as Council member Carol Fukunaga speaks during a talk story event at Moanalua Village Community Center on April 5. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

Martin continued: “But the fact now that I have the legislative experience — and I don’t want to boast — but I am very fortunate that my membership have selected me as the chair of the Council, and I’ve been the chair for quite a long time, I think more than any previous chair in recent history.”

Martin concluded this way, boasting: “So, that shows internally I can work very well with my colleagues, and I think if I can bring that experience to the executive branch, I am very confident we probably could do significantly more than currently what’s being done.”

“I am very confident we probably could do significantly more than currently what’s being done.”— Council Chair Ernie Martin

The last four words of that previous sentence, of course, refer directly to the last four years under Mayor Caldwell, who is sitting on a pile of campaign cash, running radio spots talking up his efforts on infrastructure and actively running for re-election. Martin has a lot to say about Caldwell’s leadership, and it’s not flattering.

For example, the same week that Martin concluded his brief talk story listening tour — which in ways resembled a political campaign (plenty of local grinds, a yellow banner with hibiscus, Martin’s wife Melanie in tow) — he wrote a letter to the honorable mayor to complain about dishonorable leadership.

“You have admitted that the rail project has placed your reputation on the line,” Martin wrote. “On time and on budget has gone from an unrealistic goal to an impossible one. The goal of on time and on budget is no longer realistic as we are woefully behind schedule and in the red. Although the project has floundered, new leadership can help to get it back on track.”

Honolulu City Council Chair Ernie Martin looks on as Senator Donna Mercado Kim speaks during 2016 Talk Story Tour held at Moanalua Village Community Center. 5 april 2016.
Martin looks on as state Sen. Donna Mercado Kim speaks during the talk story. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

Martin then urged Caldwell to join him in calling for the resignation of the chair and CEO as well as the board of directors of the Honolulu Authority for Rapid Transportation. They are copied on the letter, dated April 7, as are Martin’s Council colleagues.

You can read Martin’s full letter below and decide for yourself; but to me, when Martin calls for “new leadership,” he seems to imply that a new mayor might be appropriate as well. Remember that Caldwell promised to build rail better and affordably.

Who Will Challenge Caldwell?

And yet, less than two months before the June 7 deadline to file to run, Martin has not officially declared his intentions.

As of this writing, Caldwell has not drawn a high-profile challenger, though Martin, former Mayor Peter Carlisle and former Lt. Gov Duke Aiona are mentioned often.

Compare that with the race for mayor of Hawaii County, where 13 people have pulled papers to run and eight already have filed, including former Mayor Harry Kim and former Managing Director Wally Lau.

Food spread at Honolulu City Council Chair Ernie Martin's 2016 Talk Story Tour held at Moanalua Village Community Center. 5 april 2016.
Martin’s campaign paid for the food at his talk story, while space at Moanalua Village was granted by a resident of the complex. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

Martin said he does not feel any pressure to make a decision on running and instead talked about how good he feels where he is in his career right now.

“I just feel very fortunate to even have this opportunity to serve as an elected official,” he said. “I’ve had a long career in public service, I find it very rewarding, and I am very fortunate that now I am at a level that I can effectuate change.”

“Although the rail project has floundered, new leadership can help to get it back on track.”— Council Chair Ernie Martin

Martin then offered some insight as to what’s on his mind.

“But it’s like anything else, you always think you can do more,” he explained. “I remember my first year in office someone told me, ‘You know, Ernie, this is some of the frustration you are going to fight. The mayor always thinks he could do more if the City Council wasn’t there, and you serving on the Council will probably (make you) come to the realization that we could do so much more if the mayor wasn’t there. So there will be a time when you are going to contemplate that decision.'”

Martin’s main argument, should he run for mayor, is that he has been on “both sides of the table” — in the Council now, and previously in the administrations of Mayor Mufi Hannemann (where Caldwell was managing director) and a stint under Mayor Jeremy Harris.

Translation: With a Mayor Martin in charge, relations between the Council and the mayor will not be dysfunctional, as they often seem now.

Mayor Caldwell State of State1
Mayor Caldwell delivering his state of the city address Feb. 29. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

The other main argument for his candidacy is that rail, homelessness and affordable housing — the very issues that the Council has clashed over most intensely with Caldwell — are the top issues in the city and county. And Martin is not satisfied with how Caldwell has addressed each issue.

As Civil Beat reported just last month, some say that the communication breakdown at Honolulu Hale hurts efforts to address homelessness and affordable housing.

But rail remains the most contentious issue. And as costs continue to rise, the concerns become more pronounced.

HART Audit Coming

The mayoral contest may gain new urgency this Friday, when the city auditor’s office is tentatively scheduled to release its report on the finances and contingency plans of the rail project. The audit was requested by the Council as HART announced a $910 million shortfall in late 2014.

HART’s management of rail was very much top of mind when Martin spoke at the April 5 talk story in Moanalua, where he made his disdain over how the project is going even clearer than he had expressed in the letter to Caldwell.

Martin pointed to “more bad news” about budget shortfalls and said residents keep hearing “the same answers over and over. … That kind of attitude I find very distressing, and if this continues to occur, if we do not get the answers we demand, this is no joking matter. If they are not willing to make tough decisions, we will make them for them. Some people may have to step aside, and I am not afraid to do that.”

Bottom line, said Martin, when it comes to rail: “We need to stop the bleeding.”

Martin's invite for his talk story resembled an invite to a political event.
Martin’s invitation to his talk story resembled an invitation to a political event. 

Will Ernie Martin run for mayor in 2016? I don’t know, but three things make me skeptical.

The first is that, by law, he would have to resign from the Council, a job that he clearly relishes (his second and final term ends in 2018). Not only that, the Council is in the middle of the budget process, one that does not conclude until mid June.

The other question is whether Martin has enough name recognition, campaign money and clout to make voters “feel the Ern,” so to speak.

We’ll see. For now, count on Martin to carry on his critique of Caldwell.

A Moanalua resident asked Martin whether he would challenge the mayor.

“I challenge the mayor every day,” Martin replied. “That’s my job.”

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