UPDATED 9/30/2016: More than 15 years after 9/11, the terrorist attacks and their aftermath became the hottest point of contention at a Honolulu mayoral debate Thursday, even as the city is facing current and serious challenges like an over-budget rail project and a rise in homelessness.

Mayor Kirk Caldwell and challenger Charles Djou repeated many of their well-worn campaign stump points during the forum, which was sponsored by the Chamber of Commerce Hawaii and held at the Plaza Club downtown.

Caldwell said he believes he has done a good job taking care of the city’s infrastructure and so he wants voters to stay the course, while Djou argued that voters can’t trust the incumbent because of shoddy management, especially when it comes to the Honolulu rail project.

But arguably the two most pointed — and interesting — exchanges between the candidates came when each was permitted to ask the other a question.

Mayor Kirk Caldwell debates with Honolulu Mayoral candidate Charles Djou held at the Plaza Club. 29 sept 2016

Mayor Kirk Caldwell, left, debated with challenger Charles Djou at the Plaza Club on Thursday.

Cory Lum/Civil Beat

Caldwell accused Djou, a former congressman and city councilman, of voting against funding for first responders such as police, fire and emergency personnel at the local level, and also for personnel impacted by the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

“The highest priority of a mayor is public safety, bar none,” Caldwell said, insisting that Djou did not even bother to show up for the final vote in the U.S. House in December 2010 on a bill to help 9/11 responders.

Djou, however, used Caldwell’s complaint to illustrate what he believes is a fundamental difference between the two men: that Djou demands fiscal responsibility while Caldwell only seeks to “spend, spend, spend no matter the consequences.”

Djou then segued into reminding the mayor and the Chamber audience that he volunteered for the U.S. Army one month after 2001 terror attacks and was later sent to Kandahar, Afghanistan.

Zing!

The mayor was just as sharp in his response to Djou’s complaint that Caldwell receives at least $200,000 a year serving on the board of directors for Territorial Savings Bank. With rail over budget, homelessness on the rise, and both the city Ethics Commission and police department under scrutiny, is it appropriate for the mayor to hold down a second job?

Caldwell accurately pointed out that the very same Ethics Commission had given him the green light to work for the bank. He noted as well that Djou himself had helped OK Caldwell’s appointment as city managing director under Mayor Mufi Hannemann, even though the mayor had disclosed his bank ties back then.

Caldwell then accused Djou of “denigrating the good work of Territorial Savings.”

Zap!

In fact, Djou does have a record of voting against the very things Caldwell raised. It’s a not-so-subtle reminder that Djou has served as a Republican and Caldwell as a Democrat, even though the mayor’s race is nonpartisan.

Chamber of Commerce sponsored Mayor debate with Kirk Caldwell and Charles Djou at the Plaza Club. 29 sept 2016

The Chamber of Commerce of Hawaii sponsored the mayoral forum, drawing a full house.

Cory Lum/Civil Beat

Caldwell’s compensation from the bank in 2010 — the year he was managing director and then briefly interim mayor — fell in a range of $25,000 to $49,999, according to the mayor’s financial disclosure forms. The salary increased dramatically once Caldwell was elected mayor, something Djou managed to point out later in the debate.

Caldwell said the six-figure salary from the bank was comparable to what other directors at similar financial institutions are paid — for only one to two hours of work a month.

What the forum showed is that there is still a competitive race for mayor, one that is more compelling now because there is not a third candidate in the running. (Former Mayor Peter Carlisle finished a distant third in the primary while the top two advanced to the general.)

How Many More Debates Will There Be?

It also showed that Caldwell and Djou are in peak campaign form and that Oahu voters would be well-served by more appearances of the two men side by side. The Chamber and KHON live-streamed the event. AARP Hawaii is set to host its own mayoral forum Saturday morning.

But Djou has turned down a chance to appear at a PBS Hawaii debate next month and there are no debates scheduled on the major local broadcast stations.

The Chamber forum was a chance to remind people where the candidates stand on rail. Little new was revealed, as both candidates essentially agree that the full route to the Ala Moana Center must be completed.

The differences came in how to pay for it and who should lead the city and the Honolulu Authority for Rapid Transportation, which is overseeing the project.

Djou said he does not want to see taxes raised. Getting the state to give up its 10 percent “skim” of the general excise tax extension on Oahu makes sense to him, but extending the tax beyond its 2027 sunset date is a last resort for Djou.

Hawaii Elections Guide 2016

He argued a “fresh start” is what’s needed, comparing management of the city as well as the rail project to former University of Hawaii football coach Norm Chow and his 0-12 record, which prompted the school to can Chow.

Update: The Caldwell campaign on Friday provided a link to reporters revealing that Chow’s record during his last year as coach was actually 3-10.

Caldwell has offered more possible solutions to the revenue deficit. Despite the federal government’s rejection of giving HART more money, the mayor said that could well change after the election.

He said landowners along the rail route are “open” and “willing” to contribute to the project, although not in the billions of dollars. And the Legislature and governor might well come around to a tax extension, but only if the city can demonstrate that costs can be contained, Caldwell said.

The mayor also talked about his appointments of Colbert Matsumoto and Colleen Hanabusa to the HART board, which he said had put the rail project on the right path.

What Caldwell did not say was that Hanabusa will be leaving the board soon with her expected election to Congress, and that his own transportation director and the acting executive director of HART, Mike Formby, is reported to be stepping down soon.

Here’s a few more takeaways from Thursday’s debate:

  • Djou wants the feds to limit Micronesian immigration to the U.S., something allowed under the Compact of Free Association. He said COFA citizens in Hawaii comprise only a fraction of the state population but represent 30 percent of the homeless population. In fact, the more widely accepted figure is 20 percent. Native Hawaiians and other Pacific Islanders are also overrepresented among those living on the streets and in parks.
  • Both candidates oppose the City Charter ballot question to allow mayors, Council members and prosecutors to serve three consecutive four-year terms instead of two. But Caldwell only made that clear after Djou stated his own position. Asked earlier about the Charter questions, the mayor mentioned others that he supported. Djou also said there should only be five or six amendment questions, not 20.
  • Djou repeated the old Ronald Reagan line used effectively against Jimmy Carter in 1980: Are voters better off than they were four years ago? Caldwell repeatedly said all Djou does is complain and cast blame rather than offer serious solutions to the city’s myriad problems.

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