FIRST OF THREE PARTS
Former Hawaii Lt. Gov. James “Duke” Aiona insists he has not made up his mind about running for Honolulu mayor, but the latest Hawaii Poll may give him encouragement.
Aiona, who on Friday acknowledged that he is considering a run, came out on top in a three-way poll question asking registered voters whom they’d select as mayor if the election were to occur today, beating out incumbent Kirk Caldwell and the second-most powerful person at Honolulu Hale, City Council Chairman Ernie Martin.
Martin, like Aiona, has not said he will challenge Caldwell. Prohibited by term limits from running for a third consecutive Council term, Martin said he wants to be mayor some day but not necessarily this year.
And like Aiona, Martin has not been shy to criticize Caldwell’s policies on rail, homelessness and other issues.
The Hawaii Poll, conducted by Ward Research Inc. Dec. 28-Jan. 9 on cellphones and landlines, included 433 registered voters on Oahu. The margin of sampling error is plus or minus 4.7 points.
The first election for the mayor’s seat is Aug. 13, and the deadline for candidates to file nomination papers isn’t until June 7.
Aiona, Caldwell and Martin all said it’s too early to say who could win the nonpartisan election seven months away.
So too did Jerry Burris, freelance writer and former Honolulu Advertiser editorial page editor, who said the poll may provide a good snapshot of how the electorate feels today, before the campaign shifts into high gear, but may not be the best signal of who will occupy the mayor’s office in 2017.
Burris said “it’s to be expected” that Caldwell would finish second to Aiona in a poll at this juncture when the latter is a fairly well-known political figure and the incumbent is the face of the $6.57 billion rail project, the most expensive construction project in Hawaii history.
“It’s almost inevitable when you’re at that tip of the spear on a highly contentious, and highly visible and highly covered situation like the rail project … you’re going to take some hits for that and if there’s softness in his numbers, it has to do with his high-visibility association with a project that has a lot of controversy,” Burris said.
Burris also said that any incumbent who’s been in office for nearly four years is bound to have a growing unfavorable rating.
“Every decision a chief executive makes and accumulates makes someone happy and someone unhappy,” he said.
As for Aiona, the Republican who in the 2014 governor’s race finished second to Democrat David Ige but ahead of independent Mufi Hannemann, his high numbers in a three-way race are likely due, at least in part, to his perennial anti-rail position. Last month, Aiona said he still opposes rail in general but does not have enough information to say he would try to stop the project, or cut it short, if he were to be mayor.
Burris said Aiona’s poll numbers also reflect the “genial image” voters had of him following the last election.
“So people have no reason to have strong negative feelings about him,” he said.
“If Duke actually runs, then (he) has to get into it, and then I think the numbers will shift around a little bit,” he said.
Burris said he was surprised with Martin’s numbers. “The numbers don’t look good for him,” he said. “Around City Hall, and among the chattering classes, he’s very well known. But out there in the general public … he’s not that well known.”
Caldwell, asked about his declining job approval ratings, said he has taken firm positions on lightning-rod issues, pushing forth with rail and instituting his “compassionate disruption” plan to take homeless people off the streets. “I am someone who has engaged in every issue no matter how controversial it is,” he said. “I have not ducked, bobbed, weaved or delayed addressing the issues of the day.”
No matter what the numbers show, “I’ve got to get out there and work hard for every vote,” Caldwell said. He declined to discuss potential opponents but said “it’s very early in the campaign; we have a really long way to go.”
Aiona declined to say if the poll provides incentive for him to run, although it might inspire some of his supporters, he said. Nonetheless, Aiona continued to criticize Caldwell’s decisions on rail, homelessness, affordable housing and other issues.
The former lieutenant governor said he was surprised that Caldwell’s job performance approval ratings were as high as they were. “The telling point is the approval/disapproval category,” he said, noting that the mayor’s disapproval ratings rose significantly. “Apparently, the general public is not happy in regard to the job he’s doing,” he said.
That the numbers show him beating Caldwell in a three-way race was also a little surprising, especially since he has not made any decision on his political future, Aiona said. But he also pointed out that the Hawaii Poll, in early 2014, also showed him beating then-incumbent Gov. Neil Abercrombie and eventual winner David Ige.
Martin said that this early in the political season, he’s not surprised that his numbers aren’t higher or that his name recognition is so low. “I’m not as fortunate as the two others, who’ve run islandwide or statewide,” he said. “It’s always been a hurdle I know I would have to overcome once I make a decision to run for mayor — to build that name recognition.”
Others, such as Ige and U.S. Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, have won despite being solid underdogs at the outset, he said.
Martin said Aiona’s strong showing in a three-way race is “not surprising, given both myself and Kirk have been more in favor of the rail project, although we have differences in how we move forward.”
Kahaluu resident Brian Benton, among those who participated in the Hawaii Poll, said he opposes rail and does not think either Caldwell or the Council has done a good job of providing oversight of the project. He’s frustrated with the growing number of homeless on Oahu streets, but said he supports Caldwell’s sidewalk enforcement actions.
Benton said he’s inclined to vote for Aiona or Martin before Caldwell, but that the challengers would have to prove to him that they have solid positions. As a result, he said, he wishes they’d hurry up and decide if they’re running.
Dean, a Kaheka area resident who asked that his full name not be used because he is friends with all three of the men polled, said he likes how Caldwell has dealt with both the rail project and homelessness lately.
“I thought the first couple of years, he wasn’t doing enough, but the last year, year and a half … I think the mayor’s stepped up his game,” he said.
Hawaii Poll — Mayoral Race
CORRECTION: The Hawaii Poll conducted in July 2015 found 70 percent of Oahu registered voters approved of Mayor Kirk Caldwell’s job performance, while 20 percent disapproved, and 10 percent said they did not know or refused to answer. A graphic on an earlier version of this story showed the responses of all residents polled, not just registered voters as was indicated in the footnote.