SECOND IN A SERIES
On the wall of his office at campaign headquarters, Peter Carlisle has two autographed photos.
Both stem from his days as Honolulu prosecutor.
One is with President George W. Bush and first lady Laura Bush from their last visit to Hawaii in 2006. The other is with President Barack Obama, from when the Punahou graduate vacationed here last year.
"If you’re at the bottom end of the pole of law enforcement," he says, trying to sound modest, "any time a president comes out here, Secret Service will gather up some of the law enforcement leaders, and the president gets to come and have their picture taken or say hi and show their support for law enforcement."
It was just a quick photo op, he insists.
The photos are not intended, he says, to show his appeal across party lines, although a recent poll indicates such support is there as Carlisle sheds the prosecutor’s job he has held the past 14 years in an effort to be the next mayor of Honolulu.
Carlisle is one of four major candidates in the nonpartisan race to fill the last two years in the term vacated by Mufi Hannemann.
PROFILE | Peter Carlisle
» Age: 57
» Family: Wife Judy, daughter Aspen, son Benson
» Education: University of North Carolina (1974), University of California at Los Angeles (1977)
» Elected experience: Honolulu prosecutor, 1996-2010
» Other experience: Deputy prosecuting attorney, 1978-88; partner, Shim, Tam, Kirimitsu, Kitamura & Chang, 1989-96
"The reason to run now is because in my opinion, for the next two to 10 years, the most important job probably in the state of Hawaii is going to be the mayor’s office," he says. "That’s because of the transit situation, the sewer situation, the road situation, the infrastructure situation – all of those things are going to matter."
In a recent Honolulu Star-Advertiser/Hawaii News Now poll, Carlisle was the clear front-runner, leading his nearest challenger by a 2-to-1 margin. His appeal also cut across party lines, with high favorability ratings from Democrats, Republicans and independents.
"I’ve spent some time with the Republican Party, and I’m much more comfortable being a nonpartisan," he says.
Some of his recent statements distancing himself from the state GOP rankled party Chairman Jonah Kaauwai, who noted that Carlisle was a registered party member for four years and served as chairman for two state party conventions. "It is unclear why he feels it is necessary to mislead voters about his membership and involvement with the Republican party," Kaauwai said in a news release.
But Carlisle counters, "There was a time when a lot of people thought I was a Democrat, too. I’m neither."
He adds, "The one thing that’s been really interesting is that I’m getting support from quarters that I never got before. And there’s a lot more interest in the race than in the prosecutor’s race because the issues are so varied and it has so much impact on so many different people."
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Carlisle has built a name for himself as a tough prosecutor, personally arguing high-profile cases including the successful prosecutions of Byran Uyesugi, Kirk Lankford and most recently Matthew Higa, the last case he tried before stepping down to run for mayor.
Unlike your garden-variety comic book hero, his tough streak is not borne out of any childhood tragedy.
"I had a happy childhood and nurturing home with good parents. … I wasn’t the victim of a beating or anything else of that type," he says.
He developed an interest in law watching the Watergate hearings, and after graduating from the University of North Carolina with a degree in psychology, he chose a different path for graduate school.
"I gravitated to criminal law. I wanted to be on the side of the shining armor and the white horse," he says. "It also struck me that criminals have always been, in my opinion, sort of the bullies of the world, and those aren’t people who I would care to represent.
"I look at a lot of them as predators and people who are entirely self-possessed and self-absorbed. In my experience that’s not always the case, but it’s certainly the case far more often than not."
If he talks tough, that comes with the territory, says Jean Ireton, a deputy prosecuting attorney who has worked under Carlisle since 1989.
"Somebody has to advocate for our position, and it has to be us," she says. "To say that he comes across as being really harsh and tough – that’s his job. That doesn’t mean that given a different job he can’t do it a different way."
His leadership style is one of trusting people and not micromanaging, she adds, but he also brings another quality to the table she expects would serve the city well.
"I think he’d make an excellent mayor, and the main reason I say that is because the man is tighter than the paper on the wall," she says with a laugh. "He is the cheapest person I ever met. The budget with the prosecutor’s office is pristine – there is nothing wasted.
"If anybody is ever going to get a handle on the money in the city, it’s got to be him. Being a homeowner and city employee, I’m worried about where we’re going with all this money that’s being spent."
That includes the $3.7 billion in upgrades to the city’s sewer and waste-water treatment system scheduled over the next 25 years as well as the planned $5.5 billion rail transit system.
While Carlisle plans to press ahead on both, he also promises to do so responsibly.
"Step one, you’ve got to immediately put your fiscal house of the city in order," Carlisle says of his top priority. "That means taking an accounting of what’s coming in and what’s going out and finding out where that breaking point is where we’re no longer spending money that we can’t spend."
In other words, the job of mayor will be about making tough decisions on where to cut back on government spending while maintaining core services.
"To make those decisions, you’re going to have to be balancing what we need and what we can no longer afford," he says. "You have to be somebody who is, yes, willing to listen to people, but you’ve got to be somebody who can make decisions – and sometimes very hard decisions – and you’re all alone when you make them."
Despite the tough rhetoric, the tough-guy persona isn’t always the one that shows up for work.
"He has an incredible sense of humor, and most of it is directed at himself – it’s very self-deprecating," Ireton says.
Carlisle reveals as much when he tells the story behind the presidential photos.
The opportunity is basically a cattle call, giving dozens of members of the law enforcement community a meet-and-greet with the president. Each photo op lasts all of a couple of minutes, leaving time for no more than a token greeting.
With Obama, Carlisle remembers telling the president how grateful he was that Obama correctly selected his alma mater, North Carolina, to win the 2009 NCAA basketball championship.
He recalls the conversation with Bush starting with his introducing himself as the city prosecutor and then saying something to the effect of having to get back to work catching the bad guys.
To which Bush replied, "You go get ’em, then."
Telling the story now, Carlisle seems amused at his response: "With enthusiasm!"