Honolulu Mayor Kirk Caldwell’s approval numbers continue to slip to new lows as he approaches his final year in office — probably not exactly what a guy who is expected to run for governor in 2020 would want to see.
Still, those who identified themselves as Oahu voters don’t see him more negatively than they do the Honolulu City Council, which drew about the same favorability ratings.
Meanwhile, a majority of Oahu residents who participated in the latest Hawaii Poll indicated they approve of the performance of the Honolulu Police Department even though they don’t appear to feel any safer or that the crime rate is any lower than they did three years ago.
Only 31% of those polled approve of Caldwell’s job performance while 59% disapproved, which means only one-third think he’s doing well as he enters his eighth and final year as mayor. That’s in stark contrast to the 70% approval and 20% disapproval rates he got from Oahu voters in January 2015, two years into his first term.
But while each successive poll has shown his job approval declining, the latest poll of 525 Oahu registered voters, taken Sept. 12-17 for the Honolulu Star-Advertiser by Washington, D.C.-based Mason-Dixon Polling and Strategy, marked the first time the mayor’s unfavorable rating topped his favorable percentage. The Oahu numbers have a margin of error of plus or minus 4.4 percentage points.
Caldwell told the Star-Advertiser that he’s disappointed by his low job approval numbers because his staff and city workers have worked hard on various projects aimed at making Honolulu better in the future.
Caldwell said he suspects that growing disenchantment about the delays and setbacks about the city’s now $9.2 billion rail project is likely one major reason for his declining numbers.
“I do think that big projects like rail or some of the other things we’re undertaking generate a lot of controversy, and controversy is never popular,” Caldwell said.
The mayor stressed that while other politicians “scramble to the corners of the room” when there is controversy, he’ll stay and give his position, popular or not. He cited his positions on the Ala Wai Canal flood mitigation project, renovations at Blaisdell Center and Ala Moana Regional Park, bike lanes and his position to hold the line with the first phase of the Waimanalo Beach Park improvement plan as examples.
“These kind of things create the type of poll numbers that you see here,” Caldwell said. “In the end the city’s going to be a better place.”
University of Hawaii political science professor Colin Moore called Caldwell’s 31% approval rating “terrible” and noted that Gov. David Ige scored a 35% approval rating even though mayors tend to be more popular than their governors.
“I suspect that Caldwell’s low ratings are due to a combination of factors, but rail, homelessness and the cost of living are probably the major issues,” Moore said.
Those polled gave the City Council a 29% approval rating and a 50% disapproval rating, somewhat comparable to Caldwell’s numbers.
Council Chairman Ikaika Anderson said the poll numbers reflect the public’s frustration about the corruption cases involving law enforcement officials, the rail project’s escalating price tag and a lack of information coming from the Honolulu Authority for Rapid Transportation.
“In contrast, I believe the 29% approval and 21% unsure reflect constituents who recognize and appreciate that their Council members have and will continue to inquire and investigate how taxpayer money is being spent,” Anderson said in an email.
“The Council will never please everyone, but we are committed to represent(ing) our communities to the best of our abilities,” Anderson said.
Coming up on her second anniversary as the HPD’s top cop, Chief Susan Ballard said in an email that she’s pleased with the poll showing 63% approval and 27% disapproval ratings.
Ballard replaced Louis Kealoha, who resigned amid an FBI corruption case that centered around him and his wife, former Deputy Prosecutor Katherine Kealoha.
“Since I’ve become the chief, I’ve been more open and am trying to respond as much as I can to the public’s concerns, especially when there are officer-involved incidents or allegations of misconduct,” Ballard said in a statement. “We hope that the public will gradually see that HPD has turned a corner under the new administration. We ask for their patience as we work to earn re-earn trust and rebuild relationships.”
Moore said Ballard should be happy about HPD’s favorable numbers, and said it might suggest that most people perceive the Kealoha scandal to be more of an isolated incident than a systemic departmentwide problem.
Both Caldwell and Ballard said it remains a head-scratcher why, despite the favorable HPD numbers, the poll numbers show people don’t feel safer and that the crime rate is getting worse even when it isn’t.
The poll shows 67% of respondents stating they feel about the same when it comes to being more safe, and 4% believe it’s less safe. When it comes to the crime rate, 49% believe it’s higher than it was three years ago.
FBI crime statistics published in HPD’s 2018 annual report show violent crime and property crime numbers relatively stable from 2014-2018.
“Even though crime has stayed about the same for the last several years, I think that part of the public’s perception that crime is increasing is due to a small number of high-profile crimes as well as social media,” Ballard said. “A fair amount of crimes involve homeless persons, either as suspects or victims, so we’ve been working with service providers and government agencies to get housing assistance and mental health services, but it takes time. We’re also continuing to address drugs and illegal game rooms because we know that these have a significant impact on the neighbors and nearby businesses.”
Caldwell said he previously also thought major crimes were on the rise until Ballard and her staff showed him the statistics and convinced him otherwise. One theory is that certain, heinous crimes affect the public more deeply and therefore present a perception that overall crime is worse than it really is, he said.
“We’re committed to getting her the support that she needs,” Caldwell said. “We can do a better job and perhaps shift that perception.”
Moore said he agreed.