Chad Blair: Aloha everybody and welcome once again to the Pod Squad. Chad Blair with Honolulu Civil Beat. Today’s topic is the race for Honolulu mayor, perhaps the only interesting race at the local level in 2016. Joining me to discuss this hot topic are two of my favorite guests, two of the best political experts in town: Neal Milner, emeritus professor at the University of Hawaii. Hello, Neal …

Neal Milner: Hi Chad.

Blair: And Colin Moore, now associate professor of political science at UH Manoa, effective July 1, is that correct?

Colin Moore: That’s right. Great to be here, Chad.

Blair: So let’s just start right in here. I’ll give a little context. There’s been polls circulating around saying that Charles Djou appears to have a lead over Kirk Caldwell, the incumbent. Now this is all internal. It’s not publicized anywhere, but it’s come out from a lot of different sources. One has him up by six digits. Another has him up by double digits. Of course this has probably come as a surprise to the Kirk Caldwell campaign. Neal, we’ll start with you, is Kirk Caldwell in trouble?

Milner: Well, first of all, I never trust internal polls because I want to see them, I want to know how they’re done and the more internal they are the more they can be spun.

I think Caldwell’s in trouble for all kinds of reasons, not the least of which is rail. Djou, it’s not surprising to me that he’s doing relatively well, but I think his problem is not going to be the primary. I think there’s a good chance he’ll get through that. His problem is going to be in the general election because he’s a Republican.

Whatever else the election says about being nonpartisan, the strategy that you use — and the Caldwell people and PRP (Pacific Resource Partnership) used it last time — the strategy that you use, is to label a candidate a Republican and that you folks don’t normally vote for one. But I think, for now, and my own gut is that I would be surprised that he’s that far ahead, double digits — Djou over Caldwell. But Caldwell’s in trouble because he’s associated so visibly with rail.

Blair: We’ll talk about that in a second; but Colin ,jump in here.

Moore: I’m surprised that Djou would be up double digits, but he now is able to capture the entire anti-rail vote, which is growing by the day as the project becomes more and more disastrous.

What I think is likely to happen is that Djou will do quite well in the primary, and then when we get to the general election, when Peter Carlisle is very likely out of the race, you’re going to see the Caldwell people, who really do play hardball, you saw that in the last mayoral election, do everything they can to remind voters, like Neal suggests, Djou is a Republican.

Djou benefits by his name recognition. That’s what makes him a credible candidate. But it also means that it will be difficult for him to run away from that party label, which in Hawaii is kind of poisonous.

Blair: Very poisonous. And by PRP you mean Pacific Resource Partnership, affiliated with the carpenters’ union. And four years ago [they] essentially, effectively destroyed Ben Cayetano, the anti-rail candidate in 2012, and put Kirk Caldwell into the mayor’s office.

Colin, I want to follow up in this Republican label sticking to Charles Djou. You’ve got Ben Cayetano, the former governor, a Democrat. You have Walter Heen, the former party chair of the Democrats, Ann Kobayashi, who’s now in a nonpartisan council race, but also affiliated with the Democratic Party. And just the other day, five labor unions, ones that supported Kirk Caldwell just a few years ago, now supporting Charles Djou as well. Does that help take out that Republican taint?

Moore: Well, it certainly helps. And the labor union endorsements are crucial there. But at the end of the day, people aren’t going to be following the race that closely where it will make a big difference, where they’re going to be sitting in the voting booth and going, “Well, I guess Ben Cayetano supports him so he must be OK.”

What I think is likely to happen is that Caldwell is going to run ads about how public jobs might be threatened. Do we really trust this Republican to protect the rights of workers? They’re going to hit that hard.

Blair: Go negative?

Moore: Oh, they’re going to go negative immediately. We know that Caldwell is not afraid of that. He might get somebody else to do the dirty work for him, but I think for sure that’s going to happen.

Blair: And PRP, if I’m correct, is a PAC. They essentially have the money to spend independent of the candidate.

But what about Djou? He didn’t beat Mark Takai, but he came within a couple of percentage points just two years ago. [He] got a lot of votes and that’s urban Oahu, the CD1 seat. Might that help him? Some sense of, you know he’s a pretty good guy, veteran, he’s young, charismatic, family, so forth.

Moore: All those things. I’ve always said that Charles Djou is a great candidate and I’ve always thought that. When Republicans say that we don’t win because we don’t get great candidates, I think Charles Djou is the perfect counter-example. But he does have that R next to his name and it won’t be there this time. So if he’s going to be competitive in any major race, this is the race for Charles Djou to win. The question will be: Will voters forgive his Republican party ID?

Blair: OK, let’s bring up rail here. What you have is one candidate, Charles Djou, who says “I’m open to options. If it goes to Middle Street, that’s fine.” What he has said though is he will veto any tax increase. He doesn’t want another dime spent on something that’s already twice the original estimate. It’s now in the $10-$11 billion range, depending on who you ask.

Then you have Peter Carlisle, the former mayor, who says, “We have to go to Ala Moana. We have to go to the end of the line, the 20 miles. That’s what we’ve got to do.”

Then you have Kirk Caldwell suddenly saying, “I’m okay with Middle Street, maybe at a later date we can go to Ala Moana.” But this is the guy that said, “build rail better,” four years ago. Is this a flip-flop?

Moore: It’s absolutely a flip-flop. It’s an extraordinary one, but I think it’s a foolish one, frankly. Kirk Caldwell is more connected to rail then virtually anybody else in the state. He can’t run away from that issue, and if he thinks he can, then it’s foolish.

Charles Djou doesn’t have to come up with a well-defined plan to fix rail. He’s the challenger. He just has to say “We’re going to do it differently and I’m going to look into it and and we’re not going to raise taxes.” Some of that may not be true. Who knows? But he doesn’t have to do that as the challenger.

Milner: Well, the whole thing about rail is that it is such a disaster right now — things are at best uncertain and at worst disastrous — that you have to trust what any of these candidates say as an act of faith. I don’t think a whole lot of people are going to have a strong act of faith about what anybody says.

Which brings me to Djou’s position. I think Colin is right, it’s a sensible one. It’s a careful one. And it may be a political one.

But I want to remind people that one of the difficulties that the anti-rail people had in the last campaign, and I think this was one of the problems with Ben Cayetano’s campaign, is that they really didn’t have much of an alternative. When you looked at what they were offering, it was kind of like vanilla. And I’m not talking from the standpoint of someone who is ardently pro-rail and wanted to see these cars running all the way out there. There wasn’t much there and I think that’s essentially what’s going on here. Djou is going to have to influence people and tell them that being prudent is really an important policy position, but it certainly isn’t the way out.

Blair: What if Caldwell had done this? What if he had said, “I know I said I’d build rail better. I realize that we’ve fallen short dramatically. I realize there are alternatives. But as someone who sees the vision for this city, I’m going to stick with the plan, I’m going to stick to my guns.”

Sort of a Frank Underwood approach in “House of Cards” — you’re not going to make me flip-flop.

By the way, you can’t see this unless you’re watching the video, but Colin and Neal are going, no way. They’re shaking their heads back and forth.

Could he have done that, said, “I’m going to stick with rail,” and that might have gotten him some support because then he’d show principle? Then he’d shown spine?

Moore: No. Absolutely not. That’s not what voters want to hear. I mean it would have been a principled move. He certainly would have played the statesman that way, but I don’t think it’s the way to win an election.

Milner: The other thing about Caldwell here is that that’s not the way he rolls.

Moore: That’s right. That’s right.

Milner: I call him the guy who sees it’s never rainy in Honolulu. That’s how he sees it. So his flip flop is dramatic. What is really annoying about the argument that he flip flops is that when Charles Djou says it, he’s complaining about Mayor Caldwell coming around to Charles Djou’s position. Since when is it better to be wrong than to change your mind and possibly be right?

But I agree with Colin, there’s no way. Caldwell couldn’t even roll that way even if it was the political thing to do.

Blair: Shameless opportunism is what he’s doing. He’s saying, I know which way the wind is blowing, I’m going to go in this direction.

Milner: As opposed to the other candidates? You look for your opening here. This is a disaster that’s not waiting to happen. It happened. You do your best how to figure out how to put your finger in the hole in the dyke.

Blair: Two more issues I’ve got to bring up.

Ethics. As you know, Chuck Totto now gone, the long time Honolulu city ethics commissioner. The talk, the reporting that we’ve done has strongly linked it to Kirk Caldwell’s administration, the people that he’s appointed. You hear Djou and you hear Carlisle — who by the way is the lawyer for Chuck Totto — saying that you can’t trust city hall. They’re corrupt. There’s no ethics there. Does that resonate with voters?

Moore: Absolutely. I think that it’s worked against Ben Cayetano, this suggestion of corruption.

Blair: A false suggestion?

Moore: A false one. But in this case, if I were Charles Djou, I’d hit Caldwell hard with this, because in this case I think it’s true. Maybe not corruption, but Totto was clearly bullied out of his job through these bizarre requirements, like documenting what he was doing every six minutes.

Blair: I am now writing down what I did the last six minutes before I got to this six minutes.

Neal, ethics, does it matter?

Milner: I’m not sure it matters as much as Colin says, because people forget about it. Djou is a good guy to do that because he’s so honest that it takes on a certain amount of integrity.

I’m sympathetic towards the argument. I think that Totto did get run out of office. The only thing that I never really understood is this committee that gets set up to investigate him, which is chaired by a very trustworthy person, Vicky Marks, who comes up with this cockamamy every-six-minute kind of rule.

Blair: OK, the last issue.

Even as we speak, there’s a new report out on homelessness. It’s gone up 4 percent statewide. Not a dramatic jump compared to the 9 and 10 percent jumps we’ve seen. Here on Oahu it’s 1 percent. Immediately after the Point in Time count came out, Andrew Pereira as well as Caldwell said, “Only a 1 percent increase in homeless on Oahu!” Of course that’s 37 more people without a home, but on the other hand, some good marks on veterans numbers, veterans being placed in homes and Caldwell taking care of this. How much will the homelessness, and by extension affordable housing, relate?

Milner: Well, if Andrew was still working for KITV, he would not have run his story by saying, “only,” I guarantee you.

I think it will be an issue. Whether it’s “only” or not, the fact of the matter is that it’s still a visible issue. To the extent that there has been an improvement, it’s incremental, and it’s not always that visible. There are certainly fewer people down around Kakaako area, but you still see them. As my little granddaughter has said, “How come these people are all camping there?” I think that’s still going to be an issue and it shows how difficult it is to deal with it through conventional means.

Blair: Camping, not with Airbnb either.

Moore: I agree with Neal. This is a very complex issue and I think that the Caldwell administration has made some progress. But it’s still the sort of issue that will hang the highest-level candidates, the governor and the mayor. Because people still perceive it as a huge problem and they don’t blame the city council, they don’t blame the Legislature so much as the top executive. Caldwell, this is troubling for his campaign, maybe unfairly, but I think voters are still going to hold him accountable.

Blair: OK, real quickly, any issues that we’ve missed in the Honolulu rail? Excuse me, the Honolulu mayor’s race? Any final thing you want to say that we should keep an eye on? Colin?

Moore: You know I think this is a race about rail. Fundamentally you just called it. I think that for voters, that’s what’s going to matter.

Milner: That’s right, except people are going to work very hard to make it not matter as much as it’s going to. But you’re right, this time rail is much more the monster to be dealt with than it was during the last mayoral election when people still had some reasonable optimism that you could build this for less than the gross national product of a large country. I think that rail will still be there, but I think you have to watch the way the other kinds of issues get worked in here.

The other thing of course is that we don’t poll here. We don’t poll regularly. We’re not going to have much idea. You’re going to get Colin and me making up a lot of stuff based on what’s not very reliable data.

Blair: Speaking of making up. Prediction 2017: Who’s mayor of Honolulu?

Milner: I’m going to say Kirk Caldwell.

Moore: I’m going to make a bold prediction and say Charles Djou. I think Caldwell might go down.

Blair: OK, you heard it here first.

Visit us at www.civilbeat.org and follow us on Twitter and Facebook. Neal Milner and Colin Moore, always a pleasure. We’ll have you back again during this election season.

Milner: Sure, glad to be back.

Moore: For sure.

Blair: OK, great. Well, everybody, once again another Pod Squad in the can. Chad Blair with Honolulu Civil Beat, take care and aloha.