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Campaigns reset in wake of top court’s ruling on rail

By B.J. Reyes

LAST UPDATED: 6:10 a.m. HST, Sep 17, 2012

The campaign for Honolulu mayor, much like the rail project that is at the heart of the debate in the race, is in a holding pattern.

Since the August primary and the subsequent decision a week later by the Hawaii Supreme Court that led to the halt of major construction on the $5.26 billion rail project, former Gov. Ben Cayetano and former city Managing Director Kirk Caldwell have been regrouping and refocusing their messages as they prepare for the final stretch of the Nov. 6 general election.

Caldwell, the pro-rail candidate, has maintained a busy schedule of meet-and-greets and sign-waving to press his message that the campaign is about more than rail.

“While rail transit is an important issue, this election is about so much more,” he said. “It’s about public safety and protecting our people and their property, providing transportation to get people to and from work, TheHandi-Van and services for the elderly, filling potholes and repaving our roads, stimulating our economy and properly rebuilding our infrastructure to move Honolulu comfortably into the 21st century while we maintain our current real property tax rates.”

Cayetano, who has vowed to stop the rail project if elected, says it’s too early to assess how the court decision will ultimately affect the race, but he is preparing to face not only the campaign of Caldwell but that of other pro-rail interests as well.

“I think the other side will throw a lot of money into the general and the race will be very close,” he said. “Rail will continue to be a big issue but just one of many issues.

“At this stage we are finalizing our transportation plan in which we are investing some money to illustrate it in graphics, PowerPoints and video.”

But Cayetano’s campaign should be bolstered by the Supreme Court’s ruling, said one political analyst.

“It gives Cayetano another talking point, for sure,” said Neal Milner, professor emeritus of political science at the University of Hawaii. “It’s just another step in the direction of making people just a tad more skeptical about rail, and I’m sure that Cayetano is going to use that as another reason why rail is bad.”

The Supreme Court handed rail opponents a clear victory last month when it ruled a state agency violated its own rules by approving the rail project before an archaeological survey was completed for the entire 20-mile rail route.

“I think that a lot of people are going to miss the technicality of the decision and see it as more definitive than it is,” Milner said. “It’s going to delay rail for sure, whatever happens, but I think the way it works for the Cayetano campaign is that it gets him to have another way to frame the rail issue as being something that isn’t going to work.”

Caldwell said the ruling has not affected his campaign, and that it highlights that rail is just one of many issues that need to be discussed.

“Right now, the issue is still in the courts so there’s not much we can do except wait,” he said. “I’m optimistic that the project will get back on track. I also believe it is critical that all the proper environmental reviews are conducted fully. Simply put, the project must be done right.

“However, this also gives us a good opportunity to talk about all the other issues for which the mayor will be responsible. … I look forward to debating Ben on these issues so that people can judge for themselves who will be best to run the city.”

To date, only one televised joint appearance has been set: a forum Oct. 4 on PBS’ “Insights.” The Kokua Council also said Caldwell and Cayetano will appear at its Sept. 24 meeting.

Caldwell said he has agreed to all requests for televised debates and community forums. Cayetano said he remains undecided.

Meanwhile, Cayetano said he plans to deliver his transportation plan to the public in a series of 10 community meetings over the last seven weeks of the campaign.

Both candidates say they continue to work on fundraising efforts to help get their messages out.

Cayetano led all candidates in the primary, raising $995,000 for the campaign. He spent most of it, primarily battling the pro-rail group Pacific Resources Partnership, and had $108,000 at the end.

Caldwell’s fundraising got off to a slower start but he finished strong and caught up to Cayetano, raising $942,000 for the race. But he spent much of that early on just raising his name recognition. He entered the general election season with just $25,000 in cash on hand and he carries a debt of $244,000.

Cayetano hasn’t held a fundraiser since July, while Caldwell has held two this month and already is on the air with an ad featuring his wife.

Cayetano was the top vote-getter in the primary, but with 44.7 percent of the vote he fell short of the 50 percent needed to win the mayor’s office outright. Caldwell advanced to a runoff in the general by finishing second with 29.5 percent. Mayor Peter Carlisle, who also was a strong supporter of the rail project, was third with 25.1 percent.

The combined votes of the two pro-rail candidates would top Cayetano, and Caldwell has said he will work to win over Carlisle supporters. Cayetano said he can win an additional 7 percent in the general election to take the office.

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