Former Hawaii First Lady Vicky Cayetano is “definitely considering” running as a Democrat for governor next year, a move that could give her an advantage as a perceived political outsider in a primary race that until now has been populated by well-known, longtime elected officials.
Cayetano, 65, is the wife of former Gov. Ben Cayetano, who was Hawaii’s first Filipino-American governor and served two terms as the state’s chief executive.
Vicky Cayetano is president of the Hawaii region of PureStar, which now owns several Hawaii laundries including Cayetano’s former company, United Laundry Service Inc. Prior to the pandemic she oversaw operations on three islands with about 1,000 employees, although company staffing was reduced as COVID-19 erupted.
She was co-chair of the campaign that propelled Honolulu Mayor Rick Blangiardi into Honolulu Hale last year in his first campaign for elected office, but said she generally had not been politically active before then.
Of the Blangiardi campaign, she said that “watching him look at things with a new perspective and bringing his experience, made me revisit my desire to be in public office.”
Cayetano said in an interview Wednesday she is in the process of putting together a team of people who would help lead her campaign in the event that she finally decides to run. Mail-in voting for the Aug. 13, 2022 primary election will begin a bit more than a year from now.
Cayetano, who is ethnic Chinese, was born Vicky Tiu in Manila, and grew up in Chicago and San Francisco. She moved to Hawaii in 1982, and was president and chief executive officer of United Laundry Service from 1987 until she sold a portion of her ownership interest in the business in 2016.
She married Ben Cayetano at Washington Place on May 5, 1997 during his first term as governor, and Cayetano said she was a Republican until then. She changed parties to become a Democrat after the couple were married.
Cayetano said she learned most of what she knows about politics and government service in her five years as First Lady, and said she would bring to the upcoming race “a new perspective on the problems that we face.”
Until now, the two best-known, presumed candidates in the 2022 race for governor were Lt. Gov. Josh Green and former Honolulu Mayor Kirk Caldwell, who are both Democrats.
Caldwell hasn’t officially announced he is running, but confirmed in a public appearance Wednesday he is in the planning stages of a gubernatorial run, has been meeting with community groups, and is holding fundraisers to build support for his candidacy.
“It’s in my blood. I’m not ready to retire. I want to run for higher office,” he said.
Green said in a written statement that “Hawaii voters benefit from having multiple candidates to choose from as their next governor.”
“With the election over a year away, I’m focused on helping our state recover from the COVID crisis and building a healthier future for ourselves, our keiki and kupuna,” Green wrote. He said he and his wife Jaime will make an official announcement about the race “when the crisis has passed.”
Neal Milner, former professor of political science at the University of Hawaii Manoa, said it appears Cayetano is trying to position herself as a vigorous new player on the political scene, but that can be hazardous.
“If I had to guess, I would say that what Vicky has learned from Blangiardi is that one of the ways you run is to stress your freshness in political life, and your … nonpartisanship,” Milner said.
But Milner warned that “people claim to want fresh new faces more than they actually vote for fresh new faces.”
“People may be fed up with politics as usual, but we’ve heard that before in this state, and we keep electing politicians as usual,” he said.
He also cautioned that it may be more difficult for Cayetano to be nonpartisan in a Democratic primary for governor than it was for Blangiardi in the mayoral race, which is a nonpartisan city election.
Well-established civic organizations that tend to support Democrats — including public worker and other unions — will be very active in next year’s gubernatorial primary, which may have a relatively low turnout because it does not fall in a presidential election year.
New candidates also often stumble once the race begins, Milner said.
They may generate buzz and public interest at first, but “because they’re new candidates, they make mistakes. They don’t know how to spin, they don’t know how to cover themselves, they don’t know how to do press conferences, and whatever she did for Blangiardi, she was not actually running for office.”
She will also face well-funded candidates such as Green and Caldwell, he said.
One of the intriguing components of the race is the role that Republican-leaning voters and independents might play. Milner noted that Ben Cayetano has been supported by Republicans in the past, including during Cayetano’s unsuccessful campaign for mayor of Honolulu in 2012.
Ben Cayetano made that race a referendum on the Honolulu rail project, and was supported by a number of Republicans and independents who long opposed the rail project. However, Cayetano lost that election to Caldwell, who was a committed rail supporter.
Milner said Vicky Cayetano was a successful businesswoman long before she married Cayetano, and that might also appeal to the Republican base.
“She is definitely a heavy hitter. It’s just that the kinds of things that could work for her are also the things that could work against her,” Milner said.
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