On the final day to register to vote in the Aug. 13 primary, the three best-known candidates for mayor of Honolulu squared off for the first time this election season.

And if there was any doubt among participants as to what issue would dominate, it evaporated quickly.

Mayor Kirk Caldwell exchanged views on tourism, homelessness, affordable housing, ethics and vacation rentals with challengers Charles Djou, a former congressman, and Peter Carlisle, who preceded Caldwell in office.

But the one-hour forum was mostly about the Honolulu rail project — what went wrong, who’s to blame and how to fix it.

Honolulu Mayor Debate with Mayor Caldwell, Peter Carlisle and Charles Djou 14 july 2016
From left, Mayor Kirk Caldwell, former mayor Peter Carlisle and former congressman Charles Djou at the forum. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

Caldwell, who said rail was also the “hottest issue” when he ran for mayor in 2010 and 2012 — “and deservedly so” — defended his proposal to halt the rail line at Middle Street for now, citing insufficient funding to go farther. He reiterated his commitment to build the full 20-mile rail line from East Kapolei, where construction began, to Ala Moana Center.

But time will be needed to secure more funding, he said, adding that his appointments of Colleen Hanabusa and Colbert Matsumoto to the Honolulu Authority for Rapid Transportation board, where his transportation director, Mike Formby, also sits, was a good decision because it “takes politics out of the mayor’s office.”

Carlisle also wants to build the full rail line. He said litigation that happened during his term as mayor delayed the project and added to its costs. He expressed confidence in the professionalism and expertise of  Dan Grabauskas, the executive director and CEO of the Honolulu Authority for Rapid Transportation, whose performance was being discussed by the HART board Thursday.

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Djou repeatedly called the rail project a “mess” and a “disaster,” one that he warned could bring the City and County of Honolulu to financial ruin. He said he is open to stopping the line at Middle Street and to other suggestions, but he said no more money should be spent on the project other than the $6.9 billion that has so far been allocated. The real issue in the mayoral contest, he said, is that voters have lost trust in Honolulu Hale.

Caldwell’s campaign centers on his view that being mayor is not just about rail — it’s about the “nitty-gritty” work required such as attention to sewers, roads, parks and bus routes.

For Carlisle, it’s about competence. He believes he ran the city better than the man who took the job from him. He took credit for hosting the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation conference “flawlessly” in 2011, for cleaning up the Waianae Coast and for paying down debt and unfunded liabilities.

Djou’s campaign, meanwhile, is primarily about trust and rail. He argued that the person to dismiss over the rail fiasco is not Grabauskas but Caldwell.

“We were told we would meet certain numbers,” Djou said of rail projections. “Every number is wrong, every deadline missed, every promise broken.”

Kirk V. Charles

Much of the back and forth between candidates was between Caldwell and Djou — or Kirk and Charles, the way the candidates and moderator Howard Dicus of Hawaii News Now mostly referred to each other.

Carlisle (or Peter) was literally caught in the middle, his podium on stage centered between Caldwell and Djou.

City Council members Chair Ernie Martin, Council members Trevor Ozawa, Joey Manahan and Kymberly Pine watch as Mayor Caldwell, Peter Carlisle and Charles Djou slug it out during debate held at Blaisdell Exhibition hall. 14 july 2016
Council Chair Ernie Martin and Council members Trevor Ozawa, Joey Manahan and Kymberly Pine watched closely to see who might be the next mayor they will work with. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

Caldwell said that Djou used “soundbites” and “scare tactics” rather than propose his own solutions for rail. He pressed Djou several times about his expressed support for bus-rapid transit, but Djou did not provide an answer and indeed kept repeating his talking points, Marco Rubio-like — “fiasco,” disaster,” “ruin.”

But Caldwell was also put on the spot for some of his other positions that have drawn fire from other candidates and the media.

Asked whether he would seek to reform the Honolulu Police Department, given all the reports of misconduct and the legal battles of Chief Louis Kealoha, the mayor said he was “concerned about all the allegations made recently in the press.” But he said Honolulu is a very safe city, which supports his contention that HPD is managed well from the beat officer to mid-level to upper management.

Caldwell said the Honolulu Police Commission is the appropriate, and independent, body to address the chief’s job status.

The mayor said that, rather than “try someone in the court of public opinion” — something he called “reckless and irresponsible” — the city should instead rely on the process that is already in place.

“I do not support the mayor firing the police chief,” he said. “It brings politics into it.”

That said, if the chief is indicted, Caldwell assured the audience that there would be “swift action.”

Another Mayor In The House

To briefly summarize other issues that came up during Thursday’s forum:

  • Djou wants to empower nonprofit groups to help mitigate homelessness rather than leave so much responsibility to government. Carlisle said it’s largely a management and crime-enforcement issue while Caldwell said it it is a complex problem that requires coordinated efforts among multiple parties.
  • Djou attacked Caldwell over the resignation of longtime Honolulu Ethics Commission Director Chuck Totto, stating that previous mayors never had the kinds of problems with Totto that Caldwell had. But the mayor again asserted that he had little to do with the Ethics Commission other than the appointment of three commissioners he said had stellar legal backgrounds and that Carlisle appointed the other commissioners.
  • All three agreed that there is a natural tension between the executive and legislative branches, one that is natural and necessary. Djou and Carlisle said they would do a better job than Caldwell in fostering good relations with the City Council, but the mayor said he had done his best and that proof of that is the shared priorities and legislation approved by the mayor and Council to address those priorities.

Council Chair Ernie Martin and Council members Joey Manahan, Trevor Ozawa and Kymberly Pine sat in the VIP section at the forum, listening closely.

It appeared that the three-member panel of questioners (Rick Daysog of HNN, Allison Schaefers of the Honolulu Star-Advertiser and UH Political Science Professor Colin Moore) ran out of questions 15 minutes early, but it turns out there was some confusion over the program.

Dicus decided to improvise with a few “lightning round” questions of his own. But that left no time for candidate closing remarks.

Honolulu Mayor Debate Caldwell Carlisle Djou with 30 seconds warning sign. Blaisdell exhibition hall. 14 july 2016
The candidates had time limits and largely stuck to them. But there was also room for rebuttal, especially between Caldwell and Djou. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

The sponsor of the forum, held at the Neal S. Blaisdell Center, was the Hawaii Lodging & Tourism Association. Its president and CEO, Mufi Hannemann, is himself a past mayor of Honolulu.

Hannemann described the forum as “a fantastic opportunity” for the candidates to address issues impacting the state’s No. 1 industry, tourism — even thought rail dominated the discussion. Eleven candidates are in the running, but the lodging association chose to invite only what it described as the “major” three.

The forum was not open to the public. The lodging association live-streamed the event and was expected to post the completed recording on its website.

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