Just days before Saturday’s primary election, both Honolulu Mayor Kirk Caldwell and his challenger former U.S. Rep. Charles Djou are turning up the heat in television and radio commercials and other campaign material — attacking each other rather than touting their own attributes.
Djou for Mayor ads say Caldwell “threatened” to raise property taxes to support the $8 billion rail project while receiving hundreds of thousands of dollars in campaign contributions from its contractors.
Caldwell for Mayor ads point to Djou’s record in Congress, the state House of Representatives and City Council, painting him as someone who doesn’t “put people first.”
The stakes are high among the field of 11 candidates for Honolulu mayor. A person who finishes first Saturday with 50 percent of votes cast plus one vote would be declared the winner. If no one reaches that threshold, the two top finishers go head to head in the Nov. 8 general election. Recent polls, including one done for the Honolulu Star-Advertiser, put Djou running ahead of Caldwell but not reaching the “50 percent plus one” threshold needed to win outright.
The Djou ads claiming Caldwell threatened to raise property taxes for rail are based on a January 2015 meeting held jointly by the Senate Ways and Means and House Finance committees in which the mayor testified in favor of extending the 0.5 percent surcharge on general excise tax on Oahu. In the radio and television ads, Caldwell is heard saying, “To raise the money to pay and operate this system, we’re talking about raising property taxes in the 30 to 43 percent range.”
Caldwell has objected strenuously to the claim, pointing out that he only gave the estimate on how much would need to be raised because the question about property taxes and other possible funding alternatives was put to him by a lawmaker. A review of a videotape of the meeting backs up Caldwell’s comments.
Since the campaign began in June, Caldwell has also vowed, as have both Djou and former Mayor Peter Carlisle, that he would reject any plan to increase property tax rates.
Lex Smith, Caldwell campaign chairman, said Djou’s camp “cut-and-pasted totally out of context” the mayor’s comments on property taxes from January 2015. “Mayor Caldwell has never threatened to raise property taxes to pay for the construction of rail,” Smith said. “The mayor clearly stated that he would not want to raise property taxes that put too huge a burden on taxpayers.”
But Djou insisted that even if it came up in response to a question, lawmakers understood Caldwell would support raising property tax rates if the excise surcharge was not raised.
Rail clearly is the top issue for Oahu voters. Recent estimates show the project is $1 billion short and will not be able to stretch 20 miles to Ala Moana Center with current funding sources.
The Djou ads, as well as his recent campaign brochures, say that the mayor received more than $700,000 from contractors and subcontractors of rail. Djou gave the Honolulu Star-Advertiser a spreadsheet he said was derived by taking a list of names of contractors and subcontractors that the Honolulu Authority for Rapid Transportation gave to the media in 2015 and matching them up with the names of campaign donors found in the election financing reports the Caldwell campaign has filed since he began running for mayor in 2010.
A survey the Star-Advertiser did for a story that ran in April 2015 showed Caldwell received at least $566,196 in contributions from rail contractors and subcontractors from 2010 to 2014. The story noted that HART had not publicly released a full list of subcontractors. HART officials have said they are not required to do so.
“We do not keep track of which individuals from which industries have contributed what amounts to our campaign,” Smith said. “We presume people who contribute to our campaign do so because they agree with the mayor’s policies.”
Smith stressed that the semiautonomous HART, not the mayor or Council, is authorized to award contracts through a bid and procurement process.
Smith also suggested that other contractors who played key roles in fundraising for political candidates are now contributing to the Djou campaign.
A look at Djou’s most recent campaign financing reports show half a dozen top officials or employees of engineering firm Mitsunaga and Associates contributed to the former congressman’s bid for mayor. Company CEO Dennis Mitsunaga has long been associated with the campaigning efforts of various Hawaii politicos from former Gov. Ben Ca- yetano, who is now backing the Djou campaign, to former Honolulu Mayor Jeremy Harris. Mitsunaga officials also contributed to past Caldwell campaigns, but not in the past several years.
Djou, in response, said the number of contractors contributing to his campaign do not come near the volume of donations the incumbent’s campaign has collected.
The most recent Caldwell radio ads attack Djou, attempting to paint him as a conservative Republican in a largely Democratic state. The race is nonpartisan, and Djou has received the support of former GOP Lt. Gov James Duke Aiona as well as former Democratic Gov. Cayetano. Djou also has the support of a handful of trade unions that traditionally have shied away from Republicans.
“In Congress, he voted with Republican leadership nearly 90 percent of the time,” the Caldwell ad states. Djou voted against health care benefits for 9/11 first responders and “needed Wall Street reforms.” As congressman he also voted against extending unemployment benefits for those who lost jobs during the recession and funding that would have prevented teacher furloughs and firings, the ad said. “Yet he supported $690 billion in tax cuts for the wealthiest 2 percent.”
Djou sent to the Star-Advertiser a report from the Congressional Quarterly showing that in 2010 he had a “party unity” vote of 76 percent and a “presidential support” score of 52 percent.
Djou questioned the Caldwell campaign’s methodology, saying they “cherry-picked” from a sampling period, noting that the Congressional Quarterly report counted him taking part in 355 votes. In fact, he said, the Congressional Quarterly and other publications singled him out as being a centrist.
“My voting has always been with Hawaii’s best interest in mind,” Djou said.
Smith, in response, said his numbers came from a Washington Post Congressional Votes Database that shows that of 98 votes and two abstentions Djou cast in Congress, 82 were “with GOP leadership.”
The “party unity” description cited by Djou appears to be a subjective measure, Smith said.
During a series of seven debates and forums held in recent weeks, Caldwell and Djou have traded barbs about who has the better plan for rail and insisted that the other either has no plan or one that isn’t viable.