Welcome Back Ben Cayetano?
We sat down with former governor and current mayoral candidate Ben Cayetano to talk about rail, old guys and why your commute isn’t going to get any better, no matter who wins.
HM: You retired in 2002.What have you been doing with yourself these past 10 years?
BC: I did all kinds of things that I didn’t have time to do when I was governor. I read a lot of memoirs. One of my favorites is The Power Broker, by Robert Caro, about Robert Moses, the guy who planned New York City, Central Park, all these different places. He became so powerful that when the mayors wanted to see him, they would come over to his office. He made New York what it is today, and the guy wasn’t elected. A fascinating story.
I wrote a book. And an excerpt was published in HONOLULU Magazine. Thank you very much. I toyed with the idea of going back to law practice, and I decided that I did not want to. I even considered the idea of opening a consulting business, although I couldn’t figure out what I would be consulting on.
HM: In your book you say you were never interested in running for Congress. You say: “Nor was I interested in city politics. I wanted to serve at the state level; public education, social services and economic development interested me more than parks, sewers and bus service.” You weren’t interested in the job then, but now you are?
BC: Sewers and parks were not the kinds of things that excited me. They excite me now because, first, I know more about it, and as I’ve matured and become older, I’ve recognized the importance of infrastructure to city growth. And, also, when I saw that rendering of what [rail] is gonna look like, the Bishop Street Station, I said I couldn’t believe it. You know, what the hell are these guys doing?
HM: You supported Peter Carlisle in the last election, and he was pro-rail. Why didn’t you just draw the line then?
BC: I knew Kirk Caldwell was going to do what Mufi Hannemann wanted to do. Push the project through. So I talked with Peter and I told him, I know you’re pro rail, but just promise me that you’ll take a look at the information on the other side. And if you see something wrong, or something that can be done right, better, then all I want you to do is consider doing it. You gonna do rail—which I don’t think you should do—then do it right.
Mufi Hannemann had been doling out personal service contracts like hot cakes—$150,000 here, $200,000 there. I know what the guy’s doing. He gave John DeSoto a $150,000 contract. John DeSoto was one of the five [Honolulu City Council members] that voted against rail. I don’t know what John DeSoto does to warrant that, but, you know. Mufi was sprinkling this stuff around. So anyway, I asked Peter, “Make some changes, man. Kick these guys out, for crying out loud.” He says, “I’ll do it.” He gets in, nothing changes. He changes the managing director. That’s all. Then he starts to drink that Kool-Aid, and all of a sudden he’s a pro-rail guy.
HM: You told Carlisle, If you’re going to do rail, do it right? What did you mean by do it right?
BC: Well first of all, try starting from inside the city rather than starting from an empty field out in Kapolei. And I wanted him to be truthful with the numbers. The numbers that have been coming out of the city are really suspect. Where does the information come from? Parsons Brinckerhoff [the city’s rail consultant], and they stand to make $400 maybe $500 million in soft fees off this project.
HM: Your alternative to rail is Bus Rapid Transit. Is your BRT plan essentially Jeremy Harris’ BRT plan dusted off?
BC: I would say that the regional part, where you can run the buses down the freeways, is good, because you’re already using an elevated structure that doesn’t have to be rebuilt. But when you come downtown, you’ve got to make some changes. If you want to run it down King Street, for example, on one side of King Street you might have to take some of the parking that’s there, take it out.
HM: Would it take away any lanes of traffic?
BC: Put it this way, you would have a dedicated lane. And in that dedicated lane you could have the bus, and maybe vans and stuff like that.
HM: So it would take a lane away? In some places, it would make traffic congestion worse?
BC: Maybe. But you know what, you gotta weigh all this stuff, right? It’s not going to run down Halekauwila Street and dig up the ground and block off the view planes. So the question is, What do you want? Do you want to block off the view planes, dig up the ancient burial sites, and all of those iwi, or do you take this lane and dedicate it during rush hour to buses?
HM: You’re saying, with rail, congestion will be just as bad in the future. Can’t you say the same thing about BRT?
BC: Yeah. The reality is this: Neither rail nor BRT is going to make things that much better. That’s being honest with people. It’s not a solution. You may mitigate the problem somewhat, but, according to the studies, the bus does it better than rail because it’s one-fifth the cost, and it actually has a higher ridership. And it’s flexible. You have a route that’s not productive, you change it.
HM: When you say that, if you’re elected mayor, you will stop rail, do you mean absolutely, unequivocally that you will stop rail, or do you mean you will be in a better position to stop rail?
BC: I’d certainly be in a better position to stop rail. The Federal Transit Administration, which would probably be very happy not to dole out $1.5 billion, provided Congress and Inouye approve it, will recognize that they don’t have a cooperating partner in this city. The FTA has said itself, publically, that it needs all the parties working together, on the same page. I think the FTA will look at this election as a mandate that people have changed their minds.
HM: What other levers would you have as mayor to stop rail?
BC: If HART [Honolulu Authority for Rapid Transportation] wants to issue a bond, it has to go through the city. I think the mayor has to sign off on it. Otherwise the City Council would have to override the mayor’s veto. But let me ask you this: How plausible do you think that would be, if I get elected and the people have spoken, so to speak, through the ballot box? You think those guys are going to force it though? I don’t think anybody would have the guts to do that, frankly.
HM: What would your biggest obstacles to stopping rail be?
BC: If the City Council insists on voting it through over the mayor’s objections, and if HART continues to do what it has been doing. HART is the worst thing that’s ever happened to this city. The reason you elect people is you gotta hold them accountable by dis-electing them the next time. You can’t do anything about the people in HART. They’re not elected, yet they got all this power. And it’s supposed to be nonpolitical, which is bullshit. It’s political as hell, man. Everybody on that thing was appointed because they were for rail. That’s another reason I’m running. It pisses me off.
HM: You’ve said that, if elected, you will look into whether members of HART are guilty of malfeasance?
BC: The law usually gives people who serve on boards and commissions, from the public, a lot of protection. It allows them to make mistakes if mistakes were done with proper intentions and they relied on the information that was available to them at this time. I think HART has crossed the line. If I get elected, the first thing I tell the HART guys is, “Go get lawyers, because I’m going to have our lawyer look into whether you guys crossed the line.” And if they did, then we’ll file civil suits against them. What they’ve done, in my opinion, is outrageous.
HM: If you stop rail, aren’t you going to get the city’s butt sued off?
BC: I’m going to tell you what I did when I was governor. Somehow, the UH lobbyists had convinced the Legislature that there should be faculty housing on the corner of Pensacola and Kapiolani Boulevard. And I was always of the opinion that, if you want to help faculty with their housing, give them more money. I asked the attorney general, “What authorization or power do I have to stop this thing?” He told me, "You can stop it, but you’re going to have to pay them for work done, and maybe for some other things." This project was supposed to cost something like $11 million to $12 million, and we stopped it and we paid out about $800,000. Nothing’s there right now, which is what I think is better for the community.
HM: So it’s not guaranteed the city would be sued?
BC: You can’t guarantee anything. But after all, you sue the city, you might have a hard time getting work from the city again.
HM: We’re always hearing complaints about delays at the Department of Planning and Permitting in the city. Do people just like to complain, or is there really a problem there?
BC: It’s a problem, and I think it’s a leadership problem. Let me go back to my own experience as governor. When I became governor in ’94, we did an audit of all the different departments, and one of the things that came back that really blew my mind was that the Department of Health had between $300 million and $400 million in permits backlogged. My head of the Department of Accounting and General Services, Sam Callejo, he went to the state Health Department and chose the very best engineers that he knew, and they basically locked themselves in a room for two months, and they did all the permits in two months. If I get elected, we’re going to do something like that at the city.
The problem with the city is that too many of the employees, I think, don’t really appreciate the need for urgency when a developer comes for a permit, because maybe the guy has taken out a bridge loan, something like that, and it’s incurring interest all the time. The guy who’s running it now is a lawyer. I would put somebody in charge who understands what development means, and what it’s all about. I would use the same procedure to try to level the backlog. I did it at the state. I’ll try to do it at the city.
HM: Isn’t there a bureaucratic culture that’s so entrenched, simply appointing a new head isn’t going to change things?
BC: That is a problem.
HM: What do you do about it?
BC: You get people who manage it as it should be managed, and, if you can’t move people, you reorganize the place. That’s the thing about guys who are retired. We don’t give a shit. We’re retired, you know? We just want to make things better for our grandkids. I’ll bring in people like that, and we’ll take care of the problem.
HM: Kakaako is a place where the city could really change, but the state has the control through the Hawaii Community Development Authority. It seems like an area where we really could encourage more residential life. What does Kakaako mean to you as a potential mayor?
BC: Well, the history of Kakaako was born out of politics. It was done by establishment Democrats to get back at [Mayor] Frank Fasi, who was sort of an independent Democrat at the time. And that’s why Kakaako is under the state and not the city. But from the city’s point of view, that’s a good deal, because the state puts in all the infrastructure, and the city collects all the property tax. The state doesn’t get anything out of this whole thing. But Kakaako is too important to just let lay fallow because of state and city differences. I think I have an advantage the others don’t have. While the mayors in the past have always wanted the governor’s job, and they were fighting all the time, there’s no reason for me to fight with Neil Ambercrombie. I’m 72, he’s 73. He’s a geezer governor. And we have a good relationship. He wrote the foreword to my book. So we’re very, very close friends. I think that, whatever the state wants to do or whatever the city wants to do, there’s a better chance for cooperation between the city and the state if I’m the mayor.
HM: Abercrombie’s disapproval ratings are way up. Looks like he’s doing everything he can to be a one-term governor. If you’re elected mayor, you might have only two years to work with him. If you were going to give him some advice on how to turn things around, what would you tell him to do?
BC: The thing about politics is once a trend starts, it’s sometimes hard to reverse. And he’s going to have to do things to reverse it quickly. I think people would look kindly upon the city and state working together on projects to try and make things happen. I can’t tell him how to run the state. I’m available if he wants to benefit from my experience.
HM: Where did he go wrong, though?
BC: You want to get me in trouble? This is my good friend. What should I say? [laughter]
HM: You could help him.
BC: Well, I think he’s learning fast. I think that, him being a very strong pro-labor guy, always having the interest of the workers at heart, that’s his calling card. I think he’s learned and he was disappointed by the things that he tried to do with the unions, that he did in good faith, and they took advantage of him. That’s my take. It’s a hard lesson for him. I would have never given the unions favored-nation clause. That’s nuts. But he did. Favored-nation clause is—OK, say you got four unions. You negotiate with three, and then the fourth one you negotiate a contract that’s better than any of the other three. With the favored-nation clause, they all get the same thing. It has to be a union guy to think of something like that.
HM: You don’t really have substantial union support, do you?
BC: The unions are important for their organization. The unions are important for phone banking, and they can give you a little bit of money. And then they've got their newsletters. But when I ran, in all my citywide races, we said, “Oh, we gotta have union support.” And we did have union support, but the polls we took showed that the rank and file, except maybe 1 percent or 2 percent, voted like the general population. People shouldn’t expect the rank and file to march lockstep with what the union leadership says.
HM: You’re getting a lot of Republican support in this election. As a long-time Democrat, how’s that feel?
BC: It feels strange. I’ve had many of them come up to me and say, “I’ve never voted for you before, but I’m going to vote for you this time,” because they’re against rail. These are guys who used to boo me, you know?
HM: What’s your take on the Occupy Wall Street or Occupy Honolulu movement?
BC: I think they made their point. They exercised their right to free speech. And they’ve been there too long. Thomas Square? Those guys are still on the sidewalk there. The First Amendment didn’t say you have the right to camp on government property forever. I can agree with many of the things they said, at least the ones that I heard in New York, about these guys on Wall Street. But here in Honolulu, whenever I go up Ward Avenue to go home, there they are. I would find some way to politely tell them, you gotta leave.
HM: Politely tell ’em that, and they’ll be gone?
BC: No, they won’t be. They’ll probably say: “Eff you, Cayetano. You just like those guys on Wall Street.” Then we just leave it to the proper authorities to figure out a way to get them out. Actually, I’d like to offer these guys, the so-called homeless who aren’t really homeless but just mooching off the system, have them go clean the parks or something. Charge ’em with vagrancy, and when they get convicted the penalty is not to go to jail—pick up a rake or something.
HM: Do you have any new ideas on how to deal with homelessness in Honolulu?
BC: It’s a difficult problem, and I had difficulty dealing with it when I was governor. But this is the way I look at the problem—studies indicate that, roughly speaking, a third of the homeless have mental issues, emotional issues. The government’s got to help these guys. Then you have the people who are down and out because they lost their jobs, or things like that. And the way you try to help them is to try and find them jobs, and try to grow the economy. And then you got the other third, and these guys just want to mooch off the public. There’s that element in there, you know. I would wipe those guys out.
HM: On Nov. 6, one week after the general election is scheduled, you’ll turn 73. How do we know you’ll have the energy and the stamina to do the job?
BC: [Gesturing toward his head] Up here, I think I’m better than ever. The years and maturity have helped me to reason better. Physically, I don’t hit the golf ball as far as I used to, but I’m still pretty fit.
We said a name, Cayetano said the first thing that popped into his head:
HM: Neal Blaisdell.
HM: Frank Fasi.
HM: Eileen Anderson.
HM: Mufi Hannemann.
BC: Ed Case got it right: One of the most dangerous politicians there is in Hawaii. Some of the ruthless things that he does—run over people, bully people. But smooth, articulate. Incredible. That’s what I’ve concluded about this guy. I see how he’s hurt people. The guy’s got no class.
HM: Peter Carlisle.
BC: Friend. I would describe him as a friend. I like Peter. He just hasn’t done the job, that’s all. Politics is like boxing. When you get into the ring, it’s all business.