Lt. Gov. James "Duke" Aiona leans forward as if he wants to share a secret.
"You know, Mufi and I go way back," Aiona says of Mayor Mufi Hannemann, his possible opponent in the upcoming general election for governor. "And I know Mufi’s family real well."
In his junior year at Saint Louis School, Aiona faced off against Hannemann, a senior at ‘Iolani School, in both basketball and football. And Hannemann was briefly ‘Iolani’s basketball coach while Aiona was an assistant at Saint Louis.
One of the two top Democratic candidates, either Hannemann or former U.S. Rep. Neil Abercrombie, is expected to run against Aiona in the November general election.
Aiona, 55, now has that easy ex-jock competitiveness about Hannemann, who turns 56 next month.
"Mufi and I coached against each other," Aiona says with a grin. "You ask Mufi what was the win/loss, because I don’t want him to say I’m piling on."
Aiona’s concern today is another win/loss record.
Three Hawaii lieutenant governors have gone on to win the top spot, while four, starting with GOP Lt. Gov. Jimmy Kealoha in 1962, have run for governor and lost.
Aiona sees himself winning in the fall, not just because of his eight years serving as lieutenant governor in the Lingle administration, but his prior 12 years as a district and circuit judge.
"I am objective, I am analytical, I am dispassionate, but that doesn’t mean I am not compassionate," Aiona says, added that his judicial training leads him to look for ways to bring warring parties together to find a compromise.
"It is always a better closure to a case, as opposed to having a judge or jury decide the case, because this way one party doesn’t feel cheated," Aiona said.
Under Lingle the Republicans in the Legislature have dwindled to just eight from 22, so Aiona says a Republican governor is necessary for balance.
"A two-party system is essential for the people, and the only option would be if I ran as governor," he says.
As a Republican governor, Aiona says he would be "fiscally prudent, balance the budget and not increase taxes or spending."
Asked to compare himself with Abercrombie and Hannemann, Aiona says, "Hawaii can’t afford either of those guys."
"The Democrats on the other side may be a bit more towards raising taxes and not reining in spending, like a Republican would," Aiona says.
But like Abercrombie and Hannemann, Aiona is a supporter of rail. And like Abercrombie, Aiona criticizes the Honolulu mayor for leaving Honolulu Hale in midterm.
"The criticism he’s getting is rightly deserved," Aiona says, noting that one candidate for mayor (Panos Prevedouros) has vowed to cancel the rail contract and the City Council will have four new members who might also be against rail.
"You are putting rail at great risk, for what reason? I don’t buy this, that he has to go to the next level to make sure the project gets done," Aiona said.
Hannemann has said that he is running for governor to make sure that the city’s environmental impact statement is approved by the governor.
If elected, Aiona would be the state’s second native Hawaiian governor. Asked about the actions of the first native Hawaiian governor, John Waihee, who on Jan. 17, 1993 — the 100th anniversary of the overthrow of the Kingdom of Hawaii — ordered that the American flag be lowered from the state Capitol while Hawaii’s flag still flew, Aiona said he did not remember it.
"I am not in favor of an independent sovereign nation, nor I am I in favor of seceding from the United States," says Aiona. "I want what is best for the people of Hawaii. I firmly believe that what is best for the Hawaiian people is best for Hawaii, because this is Hawaii."
Aiona said passage of the Akaka Bill in Congress, speeding up ceded-land payments and encouraging the work of the state Department of Hawaiian Home Lands would be priorities for him.
The state, he said, should not be discriminating against or favoring any group.
"I will always support both native Hawaiians and the people of Hawaii and any other ethnic group in the state of Hawaii," he said.