The engineer and sports car fan says all other issues in the mayor's race are tied to transit
POSTED: 1:30 a.m. HST, Sep 1, 2010
Back in the days of Hawaii Motor Speedway, Panos Prevedouros made a habit of going to the races.
Not for research on roads or cars, but to race.
As a licensed member of the Sports Car Club of America, Prevedouros was known to take his modified Mazda Miata out on the bends and straightaways of the Kapolei track.
Top speed on that Miata was about 115 mph.
"Racing, because of the intensity, it is truly every second you feel the sense of survival," he says. "You are going down the raceway at 100 mph, and there's a hairpin bend at the end of it -- that's a heck of a feeling.
"You have good chances of getting off the road and maybe having an accident or whatever, but you stay in control and you keep doing that lap after lap after lap. It's extremely challenging."
Since the track closed in 2006, the civil engineer has had to find other ways of spending his free time.
Now he focuses more on a different kind of race.
Prevedouros is taking his second crack at becoming mayor of Honolulu.
Two years removed from a campaign that was seen as little more than a primary novelty, Prevedouros is now among four major candidates in the special election to fill the final two years in the term vacated by Mufi Hannemann, who resigned in July to run for governor.
PROFILE: PANOS PREVEDOUROS» Age: 48
» Family: Fiancee Katie, stepdaughter Lesna, son Endie
» Education: Aristotle University, Thessaloniki, Greece (1985); Northwestern University (M.S. 1988, Ph.D. 1990)
» Elected experience: None; mayoral candidate, 2008
» Other experience: University of Hawaii engineering professor, 20 years
This time around, Prevedouros has some organizational support from a major party (even though the race is nonpartisan) and only needs a plurality of the vote in the winner-take-all election.
"Today is different," he says. "This election is for real, and we have a very real chance of winning."
He also is hoping to tap into voter anxiety over the price of the city's $5.5 billion rail transit system.
As it was two years ago, his objective is clear: Kill rail.
He continues to hammer at this point, even if it puts him at risk of being labeled a single-issue candidate.
But the way he sees it, all other issues fall into place once the rail project is ended.
"It's an engineer versus career politicians being able to do priorities versus just doing the most expensive project possible to collect as much political contributions as possible. It really boils down to that," he says. "Any way you look at it, the rail at $6 billion -- or near that -- is the elephant in the room.
"So pretending that it's not -- and to hear the other candidates talk about fiscal accountability -- come on. Deal with the elephant."
His ideas already have won the backing of the state Republican Party.
"Fortunately Republican candidate for mayor Panos Prevedouros embraces the principals of liberty, limited government, individual responsibility, fiscal accountability and equality of opportunity," state GOP Chairman Jonah Kaauwai said in a recent news release.
Prevedouros will need the support if he hopes to pull off an upset.
In a recent Star-Advertiser/Hawaii News Now poll, Prevedouros was garnering about 11 percent among the four major candidates. Two years ago, in a nine-member primary ballot, Prevedouros captured 28,792 votes, for about 17 percent of the total.
Friend Mark Hanington says one of Prevedouros' biggest challenges is the extent to which he is perceived as an outsider.
"If he became mayor he would have to work with a bunch of people who have been running the show for a long time," says Hanington, teacher at Punahou School who has known Prevedouros since the last campaign.
But the outsider status -- and his engineering background -- also is a reason to vote for him.
"I think from an engineering perspective -- engineers solve problems and he's very, very knowledgeable about the ins and outs of infrastructure," Hanington says.
It has always been about cars, Prevedouros says.
Growing up in Greece, he was always fascinated by cars, which in turn put him on his path to engineering.
"From cars I started liking roads and everything that had to do with cars -- from mechanical engineering to civil engineering," he says. "Then I decided that a civil engineer is actually much closer to cars and driving, because you make the roads, as opposed to a mechanical engineer, because those guys tinker with the insides of the engine.
"I wasn't that interested in the insides of an engine and thermodynamics and that kind of major."
After completing his undergraduate degree at Aristotle University in Greece, he traveled to Northwestern University in Chicago for graduate work.
He was in graduate school and returning from a conference in Japan when he first set foot in Hawaii in 1988.
Two years later, after completing his Ph.D. in civil engineering, the opportunity to teach at the University of Hawaii presented itself, and he has been here ever since.
While he wouldn't call himself an activist, he does see the call to community involvement, such as helping the Salvation Army around the Thanksgiving holidays.
As to what drove him into the political arena: "Overtaxation," he says matter-of-factly.
"I mean, I have a good salary as a professor after 20 years, yet there is no way that I have the same lifestyle as a similar professor in California, Illinois or New York," he says.
For his part, Prevedouros does not refer to himself as a politician, paraphrasing former New York City Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia to make his point: There are no Republican streets. There are no Democrat streets. There are only clean streets.
"In other words, the job of the mayor is to get the basic infrastructure and services done," he says. "It's not about politics and it's not about beliefs and ideology.
"There is no ideology in sewers -- either you get them right or you don't. So that's why an engineer is a perfect appointment for that."
His first priority -- after ending the rail project -- would be to "put our hard hats on and start digging up and fixing the city.
"We've got to start immediately with a sewer assessment and do projects that are immediately doable," he adds. "Most of our problems are pretty common and basic problems -- look at best practices everywhere."
He does not want to reinvent the wheel, but to "take the best practices" from other island cities, put them together and see what works in Hawaii.
Once a project has begun, he also would have a different approach.
"I am the kind of guy that I can go out there and inspect what's going on from experience," he says. "I can see something or I can infer that this doesn't seem right to me or it looks problematic. What can (the others) do on an open trench where they are putting a water main that is costing us half a billion dollars?"
If he doesn't win, he expects he might try one more time for mayor in 2012, but a run at higher office is likely out of the question.
He admits that politics has taken something of a toll on him personally.
"Sometimes I regret it, because it made me less fun," he says. "Because I learn more and I see that a lot of things are really not right. The bills are in the billions and we have to pay them and that's a very depressing figure."