POSTED: 1:30 a.m. HST, Nov 7, 2012
Starting from a distant third place behind two well-known challengers at the start of the year, Kirk Caldwell completed his surge Tuesday by topping former Gov. Ben Cayetano in the race for Honolulu mayor and earning the right to continue overseeing the progress of the city's $5.26 billion rail transit project.
With all 156 precincts reporting, the former city managing director who has pledged to "do rail better" came away with 53.9 percent. Cayetano, who came out of retirement to give the anti-rail movement a legitimate contender, earned 46.1 percent of the vote.
"I want to let everyone know that we're going to work together to move this city and this county forward," Caldwell said in his victory speech to a boisterous crowd of more than 300 supporters packed into a ballroom next to Aloha Tower. "You have my total commitment — total commitment — to work hard every single day, 24/7 on all the issues."
It was Cayetano's first loss in his three decades in public office, and he blamed it on negative campaigning.
"I thought if the issues were discussed fairly, openly in a debate, that we would win this election," Cayetano said in his concession speech to a thinning crowd of about 400 gathered at Neal Blaisdell Center. "Never in my wildest dreams did I even contemplate that an organization like PRP (Pacific Resource Partnership), whose members are anonymous, would come out and spend $3 million to attack me."
Cayetano, who turns 73 next week, said he has no plans to seek elected office again.
"I am a two-term governor, retired, I've been through nine elections. I'm 8-1 now, that's not too bad, is it?" Cayetano joked. "This is my last election. I'm too damn old to run anymore, frankly."
Caldwell celebrated into the night and took time to meet briefly with Gov. Neil Abercrombie and U.S. Sen. Dan Inouye, who both stopped by his campaign rally.
Inouye said Caldwell will be a good mayor, but that he can't do it alone.
"Now it's time for all of us to roll up our sleeves, not just the winners but both (sides), and see if we can work together," Inouye said.
Caldwell said he, too, would like to reach out to rail opponents and address their concerns to improve the project.
"Even with my own family, they don't all agree on rail, but we don't break apart as a family," Caldwell said. "We agree to disagree, but we also listen, actively listen, and try to address some of the concerns that people who don't support the system have. And perhaps we can address those concerns and as a result build rail better, and maybe get them to support the project."
Caldwell said he defeated Cayetano because he stayed positive and focused on all the issues affecting the city and county.
"You never heard me once accusing anyone of causing a problem," he said. "What I did is I talked about solving problems about solutions, and I talked about all the issues, from sewage to water to garbage to road repaving. But I think these things made a difference in the end because people realized whoever is mayor, whether you build rail or kill it, all those other issues remain and those are the issues that a mayor deals with."
Caldwell will succeed Mayor Peter Carlisle, the popular former prosecutor who served just two years in office. Carlisle, who defeated Caldwell in a special election in 2010 to fill the second half of the term vacated by Mufi Hannemann, lost his bid for re-election in the August primary after finishing third behind Cayetano and Caldwell.
Cayetano was the top vote-getter in August with 44.7 percent, falling short of the 50 percent majority needed to win the office outright and forcing him into the November runoff. Caldwell finished second with 29.5 percent and Carlisle third with 25.1 percent.
But Caldwell, a tireless campaigner who began the year a distant third in the race, was backed by most of the state's largest labor unions and pro-rail groups, which poured more than $3 million into the race to take down Cayetano.
Cayetano, the former two-term Democratic governor, was backed by a coalition of rail opponents, many of whom had supported Republican candidates and causes in the past.
The race had been marked by big money going to both sides with the fate of the rail project at stake. Caldwell raised $1.6 million, a shade above Cayetano's $1.4 million.
Among the more visible outside spenders in the race was the Pacific Resource Partnership, a pro-rail group that spent $2.8 million for ads attacking Cayetano.
Cayetano has called the ads character assassination and part of a smear campaign to discredit his candidacy. The ads centered on illegal donations to Cayetano's last gubernatorial campaign and his pardons as governor, and included a mailer trying to link him to the state Republican Party.
Cayetano has sued PRP for defamation, alleging that some of its advertisements are false and defamatory.
PRP is a trade name for the Carpenters Market Recovery Fund, which is an alliance between the Hawaii Carpenters Union and contractors that use unionized workers. Its executive director, John White, has said the campaign is simply pointing out parts of Cayetano's record that have been documented publicly.
"This election will usher (in) a new era in Hawaii politics and basically, what it means is that if you've got money, if you've got influence, then you will be able to sway the way people vote," Cayetano said.
Opponents criticized Cayetano as a one-issue candidate, while the former governor said all other city issues — roads, sewers, bridges, parks — hinged on the money that would be saved by the city if the rail project was halted.
In four televised debates before the primary, the conversation repeatedly circled back to the necessity or lack of such for the rail project.
Carlisle said he felt the project was too far along to be stopped, while Caldwell conceded that he felt Cayetano would be successful in stopping the project.
Cayetano had been the favorite for most of the race, announcing his campaign in January and immediately surging to the lead.
A February Hawaii Poll conducted for the Star-Advertiser and Hawaii News Now showed Cayetano with 44 percent, Carlisle at 35 percent and Caldwell a distant third at 16 percent. Caldwell — backed by the support of unions including the Hawaii Government Employees Association and United Public Workers — chipped away at Carlisle, also a strong rail supporter, to ultimately overtake him in the primary.
Some of Carlisle's pro-rail support was expected to transfer to Caldwell, and a more recent Hawaii Poll indicated virtually all of it had. In the October Hawaii Poll, Caldwell led by 11 points — 53 percent to 42 percent —over Cayetano.
Star-Advertiser reporters William Cole and Sarah Zoellick contributed to this report.