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Peter Carlisle was the top prosecutor in Honolulu just six years ago. And even if he would like to run for the office again when it comes up for grabs in 2020 he can’t.
By that time Carlisle will no longer be qualified to be elected because of a city law that limits the pool of eligible candidates for one of the most important positions in local law enforcement.
Carlisle, who served for more than a decade as a deputy prosecutor before going on to become the city’s elected chief prosecutor and eventually its mayor, is perhaps exhibit A for how hard it is to become a candidate to lead the Honolulu Prosecuting Attorney’s Office and why the outcomes of elections for the position often end up being lopsided.
In this year’s race, incumbent Keith Kaneshiro is facing a challenge from a 33-year-old defense attorney, Anosh Yaqoob, who said recently he doesn’t really have a campaign platform and that his only promise to voters is that he’s not Kaneshiro.
City law spells out the qualifications to become the chief prosecuting attorney, which has only been an elected position since 1981 and these days has a $24 million budget and employs about 100 deputy prosecuting attorneys and nearly 170 support staff. Aside from being a registered Oahu voter, candidates must be licensed attorneys who are in good standing with the Hawaii Supreme Court and have been practicing law for at least five years.
They must also have been actively involved in criminal law for three years within the preceding 10 years of an election. It’s that last rule that would disqualify Carlisle from running for his former job in 2020 because he will have been away from criminal law for too long by then. He is an unabashed critic of Kaneshiro but decided instead to run for mayor this year and lost in the primary
“I don’t qualify for that position,” Carlisle said recently. “Would I consider doing it just to get rid of Keith Kaneshiro? Yeah, I would. But I can’t. I don’t want to go be a defense attorney for three years in the waning stages of my life.”
Despite his relative inexperience, Yaqoob does qualify for the position, in part because the 33-year-old has recently been operating his own criminal defense practice out of his home in Salt Lake.
Even though Carlisle is a prime example of how the city law disqualifies seemingly qualified candidates, he also represents a different problem critics see with the way the system is designed. Namely, he’s one of only three people who have held the office since it became an elected position.
Yaqoob cited that as the biggest reason for being in the race this year. He said there’s a problem when so few people have held the office for so long. Experience is impressive, he said, but it is not indispensable.
Yaqoob said qualified people often don’t run because they don’t think they can beat out a long-time incumbent like Kaneshiro, who has held office since 2010.
“For people who want to vote for Kaneshiro, that’s fine,” Yaqoob said. “But if they want someone different, there is a different person in the race. My name is Anosh. I am a different candidate.”
As history shows, the race for Honolulu prosecuting attorney usually hasn’t been very competitive.
When Kaneshiro ran in 2010 to replace Carlisle, who had stepped down as prosecuting attorney to run for mayor, he squared off against Franklin “Don” Pacarro Jr., a high-ranking trial attorney in the office at the time.
That was supposed to be a competitive race, but the results ended up being lopsided. Kaneshiro beat Pacarro 40 percent to 30 percent. A third candidate, Darwin Ching, received 15 percent. More than 30,000 voters, or about 15 percent, left their ballots blank.
“Would I consider doing it just to get rid of Keith Kaneshiro? Yeah, I would. But I can’t.” — Former Mayor Peter Carlisle
Then in 2012, Kaneshiro beat Kevin Takata, a deputy state attorney general and former prosecutor, in what many assumed would be a competitive race. Kaneshiro won 53 percent of the vote while Takata took in 37 percent. About 11 percent of Oahu voters didn’t even bother to choose a candidate.
Carlisle, who was prosecuting attorney from 1997 to 2010, doesn’t see 2016’s race being any different, despite the fact that he believes Kaneshiro needs to go.
Carlisle said he tried to recruit candidates to run against Kaneshiro this year but was unsuccessful. He said he did not recruit Yaqoob and does not know him personally. He added the newcomer is not a good choice for voters because Yaqoob doesn’t have a background in prosecution.
“As bad as Keith Kaneshiro is, this guy does not sound like he’s capable of doing even remotely well,” Carlisle said.
Carlisle said he had talked to several “high-level” lawyers, none of whom he was willing to identify, about running against Kaneshiro. He said he offered to publicly endorse someone’s candidacy and promised to donate the maximum amount of money possible to the campaign.
But the difficulty he had was that many of the people he approached had young families. They told him they couldn’t afford quitting their jobs to hit the campaign trail.
“Nobody was willing to do it,” he said. “That’s part of the political process. You have to have a mild screw loose to run for office.”
Longtime Honolulu attorney Ronette Kawakami echoed Carlisle’s assessment. Kawakami is an associate dean at the University of Hawaii William S. Richardson School of Law and worked for 26 years at the state public defender’s office, where she took on dozens of felony cases and argued in front of Supreme Court justices.
Kawakami said the job description isn’t appealing to most lawyers, especially if they value their free time. She said it’s a high-profile position that entails managing what could be considered the second-largest law firm in the state behind the Hawaii Department of the Attorney General.
Eighty-hour work weeks are common, she said, and not just because of trials. The city prosecutor works in the public eye and should be willing to meet with community organizations and other government agencies to discuss everything from the new legislation to pressing social issues, such as the high numbers of Native Hawaiians in prison.
“Like many positions that are high profile and that are extremely important to the community, it’s a thankless job,” Kawakami said. “It takes a person of great fortitude and integrity to do the job and to want to do the job. It takes somebody who’s willing to sacrifice their personal life to do it. That’s why you’re not going to get a whole lot of people clamoring to do the job.”
Takata said he was spurred to run against Kaneshiro in 2012 because of what he described as “an exodus” of deputy prosecuting attorneys and a lack of integrity in the office. Although he lost badly, he said he doesn’t regret entering the political fray.
“I didn’t enjoy running for political office because I’m not a politician,” Takata said. “I was a prosecutor running for office, not a politician running for office. For those who have similar traits there’s no appeal to running for office.”
Takata supported Pacarro in the 2010 race. After Kaneshiro won, Takata went to work in the Hawaii Department of the Attorney General, where he now supervises the criminal justice division.
He said a successful candidate should have a background in prosecution, but admitted that such a requirement could make it even more difficult to find a viable suitor. For instance, current prosecutors likely won’t run against their boss if they feel like they will lose their jobs for doing so.
Takata added that Hawaii’s political apathy — reflected in the historically low voter turnout in the Aug. 13 primary election — also seems to play a role in the dearth of prosecutor candidates.
“Frankly, the prosecutor’s race is no different than any other race Hawaii,” Takata said. “Unfortunately, it’s name recognition rather than the quality of a candidate that determines who the winner is.”