The politician and the Skyline buzzsaw
by Stan Fichtman, PoliticsHawaii.com
No doubt if you have been watching the evening local news (Hawai‘i News Now, KITV, KHON), you have seen at least one news segment talking about the impending opening of the Honolulu “Skyline” rail system on June 30.
Just like with the arrival of Southwest Airlines to Hawai‘i a few years back, and the opening of a shiny new building downtown, the Skyline has elicited the standard amount of “oohs and aah’s” as the City previews the system with the press.
And the splash is all quite impressive. It looks slick and, at least with how the press portrays it, the system will do what it is designed to do. Whether the logistics on either side of the system or the connections to the buses there will work remains to be seen.
One thing, though that is not being talked about a lot is what it has cost the people of the State of Hawai‘i to have this new transportation toy. Just like a person who bought a new car and is taking delivery of it weeks later, the last thing on their mind is the amount of money they handed over for the car.
They, instead, just want to know how all the buttons work and get used to the drive.
But let’s be very clear, Skyline cost a lot, and the people who “drove the train” if you will – the leaders of Honolulu and even the state – paid pretty high prices for Skyline.
SINCE ITS INCEPTION in 2004, there have been four mayors that have been in charge of the city that had a direct touch on Skyline. They are Mufi Hannemann, Peter Carlisle, Kirk Caldwell, and current Mayor Rick Blangiardi.
Kirk Caldwell (L) and Mufi Hannemann (R)
Of the four, three are no longer in politics, and the fourth, getting in as Mayor after a long stint in the private sector, is still in office and the verdict on his chances is still out. Of the three others, two of them had dreams of becoming the first who served as Honolulu Mayor, to become the Governor of the State of Hawai‘i – Hannemann and Caldwell.
Both of them ran into the buzzsaw of the rail system during construction and the subsequent frequent financing and political crisis that emerged from the project. From cost increases that seemed to go up exponentially for months, to the various critics that would – rightly in some cases – call the Mayor out on their statements of “on time and budget, both Caldwell and Hannemann couldn’t catch a break.
It devolved, eventually, to Hannemann blaming Caldwell on the management of the project, and Caldwell being unable to inspire cohesion even at the City Council level, where leadership there was, at times, hostile to the mayor.
At the end of the day, Hannemann would run for Governor – twice – losing both challenges. He then ran for Congress in between and got beaten 2 to 1 by Tulsi Gabbard.
His most recent try was to run for Mayor of Honolulu (his old job) in 2020, coming in 5th place in the primary. Throughout all campaigns, the issue of how he handled the rail project, and its legacy of it, dogged him to where he is now – a former Mayor who ran four more times for office and got defeated each time.
Caldwell has less of a record of defeat, but his political career still got shredded by the Skyline buzzsaw due to a key statement he made during his 2012 run for Mayor in which he promised to “build rail better.” The electorate kept him to his word on that promise, declaring by 2022 that he didn’t.
Of course, there were other issues that Caldwell had to face that also took a toll on his reputation. But with the effect of the Skyline buzzsaw, he withdrew from the Governor’s race before the electorate had a chance to have their say. Although to this day you can still see a campaign website active for Caldwell, only time will tell whether his political wounds heal enough to have another try.
OTHERS had some touch with the Skyline that got pushed directly into the buzzsaw, taking out their political chances during various campaigns for offices. These individuals include,
Panos Prevedouros: Before other anti-rail candidates who ran for Mayor, there was Panos Prevedouros who campaigned on this platform in 2008. Although he was opposed to the project and maintained a focused approach toward the issue, his lack of other important topics for voters to consider ultimately led to his defeat. Unfortunately, this singular focus ended up consuming his political career instead of being a mere inconvenience.
Ben Cayetano: In 2012, following Panos’ defeat, former Governor Ben Cayetano announced his candidacy for Mayor with a promise to oppose the rail project. Although he garnered significant support, he also faced opposition from construction unions who feared his potential success. During the general election campaign, Cayetano was subjected to smear tactics in favor of his opponent, Kirk Caldwell, who ultimately won the election. Despite his other plans for the office, his stance against the rail project ultimately proved to be his downfall due to the strong support for it among his opponents.
Charles Djou: A former City Councilmember helped create the Rail Authority, despite opposing it at first. He briefly served in Congress before running for Mayor. His campaign’s inconsistency on the rail project led to his downfall, as he changed his stance on shortening the line. This cost him support and he left the Republican Party.
Colleen Hanabusa: The Congresswoman’s involvement with the Honolulu rail program (becoming chair of the Rail Authority) did not boost her reputation or lead her to higher office. Her unsuccessful mayoral bid in 2020 confirmed this outcome.
Observers of politics in Hawaii will notice that this list is not exhaustive, as there were numerous individuals who were not City politicians who also experienced the effects of the Skyline buzzsaw. This includes two critics, Cliff Slater and Randy Roth, as well as one Governor, Linda Lingle, and at least two Executive Directors of HART – Andrew Robbins and Dan Grabauskas. Each of these individuals was impacted for different reasons, and as a result, their political and professional paths were altered.
And anticipate further growth in the list of individuals associated with Skyline. As phase 3 construction continues and Skyline reaches completion, the extent of the project’s expansion remains undetermined. However, it is highly probable that additional parties will become involved in the future.
At least they have a better idea of where that buzzsaw is, to avoid it for their sake.