Honolulu Mayor Kirk Caldwell is quietly putting his political weight behind the re-election campaign of Gov. David Ige in an alliance that appears to have already shifted some key Caldwell campaign staffers into the Ige camp.
Caldwell’s decision is potentially important because Hawaii has relatively few well-organized and proficient campaign organizations. As the two-term mayor of the state’s largest city, Caldwell has been supported by an experienced and well-financed political crew.
Mitchell Imanaka, a Honolulu lawyer who was an effective campaign fundraiser for Caldwell, is now the finance chairman for the Ige campaign, and has staged two fundraisers for Ige since late September, according to state campaign spending records.
Glenna Wong, who handled communications for Caldwell’s 2012 and 2016 campaigns, confirmed she has joined the Ige campaign, and political insiders report that Caldwell supporter Mike Yadao also has joined the Ige organization.
Hubert Minn, who has supported both Caldwell and Ige in the past and was appointed by Ige to the state Board of Education, is also working on Ige’s re-election effort, according to people familiar with the arrangements.
Caldwell expressed his support for Ige over challenger U.S. Rep. Colleen Hanabusa in a recent closed-door staff meeting and let it be known he wants to be informed if anyone in his organization supports Hanabusa or any other candidate, according to administration sources.
Caldwell did not respond to requests for an interview on the subject. Imanaka, Minn and Yadao all either declined to publicly discuss their campaign involvement, or were unavailable for comment.
Rift over rail
Caldwell’s endorsement of Ige comes just weeks after a startling exchange during the special session of the state Legislature this summer in which Hanabusa publicly split with Caldwell over the best way to provide additional funding for the Honolulu rail project.
The rail bailout package proposed by state lawmakers included extending the Oahu excise surcharge for rail by three years and increasing the state’s hotel room tax to help fund rail, an approach Hanabusa endorsed because she said it will reduce borrowing costs.
Caldwell raised concerns that lawmakers’ bailout package might not provide enough money to satisfy the Federal Transit Administration, but Hanabusa asserted that lawmakers “calculated this in a very conservative manner, which will go over very well with the FTA.”
She was also openly skeptical of Caldwell’s estimates of how much money will be needed to complete the project.
“I can understand why the mayor wants all this money,” Hanabusa told lawmakers. “Why wouldn’t he, if he can convince you to give him money? But please remember, it is the people who have to pay this.”
Caldwell and Hanabusa were once on friendlier terms. When Caldwell appointed Hanabusa to the Honolulu Authority for Rapid Transportation board in June 2015, he told reporters they had known each other since they served in the Legislature together, and he praised her work in Congress securing federal funding for rail.
Caldwell described Hanabusa then as “a woman with a proven track record that all of you know, who has demonstrated through her service to the public that she’s someone not afraid to take on controversy, someone who’s not afraid to do the homework, to turn over every stone to find the answers.”
Hanabusa’s fellow board members elected her chairwoman of the HART board in April 2016, but Hanabusa resigned from the board later last year to make a successful run for the U.S. House. She then announced in September she is running for governor.
Colin Moore, director of the Public Policy Center at the University of Hawaii at Manoa, said he believes Hanabusa was using the special session debate with lawmakers to try to position herself as a critic of the rail project, and as “the person brought in to clean up the HART mess.”
Ige does not have direct control of the city rail project, but “there is just no way he can escape being tied to rail,” Moore said. “Certainly he’s not as intimately connected as Caldwell, but he’s the governor. People are going to blame him, whether it’s fair or not.”
He added: “Hanabusa is a smart and strategic politician, and this is going to be her campaign issue. I’m sure Caldwell didn’t appreciate her criticism of HART, and so there’s clearly been a break there.”
Others had a different explanation for the Caldwell endorsement. One Ige supporter who spoke on condition that he not be identified noted that Ige endorsed Caldwell in 2016 in his general election runoff against Republican Charles Djou.
“So obviously, that kind of reciprocal loyalty, it’s incredibly important for a mayor and a governor to work together, and they worked together on a few things and developed a relationship that really works for them,” the supporter said.
Caldwell’s effort to steer support to Ige in his campaign against Hanabusa could fill some important gaps in the Ige political organization at a time when it probably needs the help.
Many political observers agree that Ige’s Democratic primary victory over former Gov. Neil Abercrombie in 2014 was largely driven by voters’ unhappiness with Abercrombie, and not by political sophistication on the part of the Ige camp.
In fact, the tight-knit group of Ige political insiders is sometimes mockingly called the “Pearl City Mafia” by Ige’s critics, a reference to what some regard as an insular, mostly regional organization based in Ige’s home district that was abruptly elevated to statewide influence when Ige became governor.
Ige now faces a well-known and seasoned challenger in Hanabusa, who has served twice in the U.S. House and narrowly lost a statewide campaign for U.S. Senate in 2014.
A party divided
The early stages of the Ige-Hanabusa campaign already have highlighted divisions within the Hawaii Democratic Party, with former Gov. John Waihee endorsing Ige, and former Gov. Ben Cayetano publicly backing Hanabusa.
Moore said recent polling suggests Caldwell is not particularly popular at the moment, in part because many people hold him responsible for huge cost overruns in the rail project. That may explain the mayor’s decision to quietly support Ige.
“A public endorsement from Caldwell is probably more of a liability than anything at this point,” Moore said. However, Caldwell’s supporters may be quite helpful in other ways, especially when it comes to raising money, he said.
Caldwell received important political support during his mayoral campaigns from the construction trade unions, but it may not be possible for him to steer that support to Ige in next year’s race, according to several political observers.
The interests of the construction trade unions and the Caldwell camp were closely aligned in support of rail, but the rail project is no longer threatened as it was in the 2012 mayoral contest. That year, Cayetano’s campaign for mayor posed a threat to rail, and the construction industry and its unions provided critical backing to help Caldwell to victory.
That rail-crisis dynamic is not at play in the 2018 Hanabusa-Ige race, which means Caldwell’s influence over the craft unions may be limited, according to political insiders. Many in the construction trade unions like and respect Hanabusa, who practiced labor law on behalf of the unions for many years.
Ige, meanwhile has not aggressively championed large-scale projects such as airport construction or development in Kakaako that would boost construction in Hawaii, observers said. That may make it difficult to convince the industry and the unions to support him.