Q&A with Honolulu Mayoral Candidate Kirk Caldwell

HONOLULU talks with mayoral candidate Kirk Caldwell about rail—is it over?—how we’re going to pay for sewer improvements, and being compared to Mufi Hannemann.

Honolulu City and County mayoral candidate Kirk Caldwell.

photo: mark arbeit

HM: Construction has stopped on the rail project. Is it over?

KC: No, it’s not over. I mean, if you look at many large construction projects like this rail project, or the H-3 freeway, there are always bumps along the way … But now that the court has ruled, we should follow that process. That means, do nothing to disturb the ground, proceed with the archaeological survey and, once it’s completed and accepted by SHPD (State Historic Preservation Division), then proceed with construction.

HM: Why wasn’t a complete archaeological survey done in the first place?

KC: Because SHPD has for years said you could do segmentation for large projects. There are any number of large projects that have been completed following that process. It’s a process that SHPD has been following for a long, long time, and that’s why the city followed that process also.

HM: Do you think former Peter Carlisle supporters will vote for you?

KC: I do think that I’ll be successful in earning the votes of many of the Carlisle supporters, but probably not all. I also believe I’ll be successful in earning the votes of some of the Cayetano supporters, but probably not all. It’s incumbent on me to find votes wherever I can. If Ben Cayetano says rail is dead—and I disagree—but if that issue is off the table, then people are going to want to look at a candidate who’s about all the other issues.

HM: If rail wasn’t such a big issue this election, why should voters support you over Cayetano?

KC: What I love about the job of being mayor—and I was the acting mayor for the city—is that you can make an immediate, significant, positive difference in people’s lives every single day, by dealing with things like taking away garbage, dealing with sewage, filling potholes, making sure your water comes on … making sure the grass is cut in the parks, bathrooms are clean in the public restrooms, all of those things. I love that stuff. Then we deal with the big legacy issues. If we can rebuild our sewer infrastructure system through our $4.7 billion consent decree, so we can have higher sewer capacity and live in the urban core in a more concentrated way; if we can rebuild our water system of about $200 million so that we live in a more concentrated way in the urban core, what do we have? We preserve our outlying lands for ag and just being open and we improve the quality of life inside our urban-growth boundaries for all of us.

HM: Ten unions have endorsed you. Cayetano says their support doesn’t mean what it used to. How confident are you that they will deliver votes?

KC: An endorsement opens the door to let me come in before their membership and talk about issues that they’re concerned about, care about, and more often than not, I’m going to get their support. They’re concerned about rail and its cost, they’re concerned about sewage and water, they’re concerned about parks, they’re upset about the bus routes, they’re concerned about the moratorium on buildings in areas where sewer infrastructure has exceeded capacity. They’re pretty much a snapshot of the rest of the community.

HM: You’ve vowed to restore bus routes that Carlisle cut, fill in potholes and build rail. How’s the city going to pay for all this?

KC: You’re going to need a couple of pages for this. Rail is already being paid for. You know that, right? We’ve been paying an excise tax of .5 percent since 2007; we’ve collected about $900 million, we’re going to collect about $3.4 billion off that excise tax.

HM: What about the delays?

KC: We have a contingency of $600 million, put into place for things like delays, cost increases because of the cost of steel. And one-third of the excise tax is being paid for by who? Wanna guess? What’s our No. 1 industry that’s going gangbusters right now? [Pauses to let us guess.]

HM: Tourism.

KC: One-third of the excise tax for rail is getting paid for by tourists. The rest comes from the federal government, $1.55 billion. Now, we pay part of that as the taxpayers, we pay federal taxes, but most of that tax is being paid for by the rest of Americans not in this county. Honolulu residents are paying for 48 percent of the entire project, less than half. And the tax expires in 2022, there’s no debt, there’s no 30-year mortgage. Our real-property taxes [won’t] pay for rail. Sewer, under the consent decree—we’re going to build $4.7 billion worth of sewer infrastructure between now and 2035, that’s a long ways away.

HM: Yeah, I was going to ask how the city is going to pay for all that, too.

KC: A 3.5 percent increase in our sewer fees over the coming years … And yes, who wants to pay for another 3.5 percent increase, but we need to rebuild our sewer infrastructure, it’s more than 50 years old. It’s necessary for public safety.

HM: Peter Carlisle has compared the homeless to a rat infestation. Do you remove them? A lot of homeless folks prefer not to go to shelters.

KC: As the managing director and acting mayor, I sat down with the providers on a regular basis. To my shock, the providers actually wanted the city to enforce or come up with legislation that kept the homeless from camping in parks and camping on sidewalks. They want the homeless in their shelters. Why? It’s safer in a shelter than being out on the street, particularly for teen homeless. The other thing I’d do, and the providers don’t like this as much, I’d create “safe zones,” property owned by the city, somewhere where it’s not around where other people live. We’d do some basic grading; we’d allow them to camp in this area. We’d put in basic services—not expensive—but there would be bathroom facilities, washrooms to wash your clothes. Yes, the police would come through on a regular basis. The providers would be in there working with the homeless. The final thing is for what they call the chronic homeless, the ones who have mental illnesses, or addictions. We call it Housing First. You allow these chronic homeless into shelters with their drugs and alcohol. If you go to Catholic Charities or IHS, you can’t come with drugs or alcohol, and that’s why they stay out on the street. But if you allow them to come in, you can treat them like they do on drug-addiction programs. While it’s expensive, it actually is less money than having them out on the street affecting businesses, the police arresting them and then they’re back out again.

HM: You’ve been compared to Mufi Hannemann. Are you truly independent or would electing you be part two of the Hannemann administration?

KC: I’ve had many bosses. But each one of those jobs that I’ve had I got through my own hard work, through my own abilities, on my own way to work collaboratively to solve problems. And I think I made a difference in every single one of those jobs. So it’s not just one person, it’s all of those people who have had a dramatic impact on my life and I think have made me a better person. It’s been excellent training to be a good public servant.

HM: What were the best and worst management lessons you learned during those 18 months as the managing director? 

KC: One, I learned that the best way to manage municipal government is to accept problems as they occur, embrace them, solve them. As far as the worst, I don’t know. I felt my experience in the city was nothing but positive from my own experience. I guess I wish there was always more time in a day. There are more problems than you can solve in any one time. Just read the paper right now, there are any number of city problems. I read the paper and I wish I was back there solving them right now, and I’ve got all kinds of ideas of how I can do it.