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.
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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]