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