Former Honolulu Mayor Mufi Hannemann wants to be mayor again.

The 65-year-old filed papers on Monday morning – the day before the deadline – in hopes of taking the mayor’s office back from his former managing director Kirk Caldwell, who is term-limited.

Hannemann said he felt the call to run because the city needs strong executive leadership to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic and rebuild the economy. Hannemann, the president and CEO of the Hawaii Lodging & Tourism Association, said that choosing a mayor without his level of experience would be a mistake.

“We don’t have time to do that because we are in an emergency situation,” he said. “I’ve been there and done that, and most importantly I bring to the forefront now experience, the knowledge, the know-how of the tourism industry.”

Mayoral Candidate Mufi Hannemann files at the City Clerk’s office.
Mufi Hannemann is seeking a third term as mayor. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2020

Hannemann served two terms as mayor from 2005 until 2010. At one point in time, he was quite popular with an 80% approval rating. In July 2010, he resigned to run for governor, a race he lost to Neil Abercrombie.

In 2011, Hannemann ran for the U.S. representative seat vacated by Mazie Hirono, but he was defeated by Tulsi Gabbard. Three years later, he announced his candidacy for governor as an independent. He came in third after Republican James “Duke” Aiona and David Ige.

In the 1990s, Hannemann was a Honolulu City Council member and chair. He previously served in federal roles during the administrations of U.S. Presidents Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton and George W. Bush.

In his campaign, Hannemann will have the advantage of name recognition among voters but the risk of a long record of service that is open to scrutiny.

As mayor, Hannemann was the catalyst for the Honolulu rail – a project that has ballooned from $3 billion to over $9 billion and is under investigation amid concerns about possible improper use of federal funds. Hannemann noted that the voters of Honolulu approved the construction, and the project was on time and on budget when he left the mayor’s office a decade ago.

“This is not Mufi’s choo choo,” he said. “This is not Mufi’s train. This is our train.”

A 2019 state audit however noted that the city, under Hannemann, “prematurely entered into contracts under an artificial timeline and a fragile financial plan.” Delay-related change orders related to one contract for the “West Oahu Farrington Highway guideway segment” would total $108.32 million, the audit states.

UPDATE: After this story was published, Hannemann said he was taking advantage of a down economy during the recession, and all decisions were made with Federal Transit Administration approval. He said cost overruns happened because of lawsuits that caused project delays.

Hannemann said there was “lax oversight” of the project after he left, but he is committed to “fix it and complete it” in a way that is less dependent on taxpayer dollars.

During his tenure as mayor, Hannemann also made the controversial decision to release millions of gallons of sewage into the Ala Wai Canal. The mayor said an underground pipe had broken and he had no choice. The alternative would have been to back up the waste into Waikiki residences, hotels and businesses, his administration told the Honolulu Advertiser at the time.

One decision during Hannemann’s mayoral tenure may have seemed solid at the time but hasn’t aged well: the police commission’s appointment of Louis Kealoha to be the chief of police in 2009. Kealoha, along with his wife Katherine Kealoha, was convicted on federal obstruction and conspiracy charges last June and later pleaded guilty to additional charges last year. Kealoha was tapped to head HPD years before the start of the so-called mailbox scandal.

Hannemann said he no longer has a professional relationship with Mayor Caldwell, his former managing director.

Hannemann called the mayor a “well-intentioned individual” but said Caldwell’s priorities are not always in sync with the community. He cited unpopular projects like the sports complex in Waimanalo, the playground at Ala Moana and the Blaisdell renovation – all projects Caldwell’s administration tried to push forward despite community opposition and from which they ultimately backed down.

“Some of those things I would not have done,” Hannemann said.

Hannemann could be entering a race that is still largely up for grabs, according to a recent Civil Beat/Hawaii News Now poll.

If the mayoral primary were held last week, former Hawaii News Now executive Rick Blangiardi and former U.S. Rep. Colleen Hanabusa would be the top choices who face off in the November general election.

They were followed by businessman Keith Amemiya, Councilwoman Kym Pine and activist Choon James in the poll.

However, 30% of respondents said they were unsure who they’ll vote for. Another 12% said they wouldn’t vote for any of the candidates they were asked about.

Primary election day is Aug. 8. It’s Hawaii’s first election that will be conducted almost entirely by mail.

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