The Other Kirk Caldwell
Caldwell returned to Hawaii to marry Tanoue, attend law school at the University of Hawaii, and join Ashford and Wriston. “I liked the practice of law.”
“Kirk was a good lawyer,” says Cuyler Shaw, an 11-year former managing partner at Ashford and Wriston. “He did real estate law, banking and foreclosures. He was very serious, persistent and a good advocate for his client. But he was also careful to maintain good will with opposing attorneys.”
Still, Caldwell found time for politics, taking part in his Democratic precinct meetings and state conventions. Then wife Donna fueled Caldwell’s interest politics even further. She took her husband and their 5-year-old daughter back to Washington. Tanoue had served four years as Hawaii’s Commissioner for Financial Institutions during Gov. George Ariyoshi’s third term. In 1998, heeding President Bill Clinton’s desire to make his administration look more like the face of the country, Tanoue applied for the position of chair of the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation. With Inouye’s endorsement, she got the job.
“Washington, D.C., is like an adult Disneyland,” Caldwell says. “Most people have no interest in what goes on there, but the people there think it’s the center of the universe.” His law firm allowed him to spend one week a month in Honolulu, three in D.C., working from an office in the Caldwell-Tanoue household.
Caldwell reveled in it: the embassy parties, accompanying Federal Reserve chairman Alan Greenspan and his wife to a party, the whole D.C. ride. Daughter Maya, now a freshman student at Tufts University, attended the Sidwell Friends School; Chelsea Clinton was among her schoolmates.
The family returned to Hawaii in 2001, and Caldwell announced to his wife that he wanted to try politics. They were living in East Honolulu at the time, not fertile political ground for a Democrat, so in 2002 they moved into Manoa Valley, where he was elected to the state House of Representatives. “I found I liked campaigning – everything about it, the waving, walking the district, everything.”
In the House, Caldwell served on both the transportation and labor committees; in his third term his Democratic colleagues elected him majority leader. Among the issues he embraced were an increase in the minimum wage, the Superferry and a hike in the excise tax to build rail. House Finance chairman Marcus Oshiro noted Caldwell’s “special set of skills. He could bring people together from different walks of life. As chair of the Labor Committee and a real estate lawyer, he combined a strong interest in the problems of business with a Democrat’s appreciation of organized labor.”
Mark Bennett, state attorney general during Republican Gov. Linda Lingle’s two terms, appreciated another of Caldwell’s strengths as a legislator.
“Kirk is very intelligent, and he was always well-prepared,” says Bennett. “Sometimes we were on opposite sides of an issue, but with Kirk it was about the issue, not personalities. And we often found common ground. When we were on opposing sides he was a formidable opponent, but he was great to have as an ally for the same reason.”
In 2008, Ann Kobayashi announced her run for mayor, and Caldwell filed to run for her vacated City Council seat. In the process, he failed to withdraw from his House contest and was disqualified by election officials. “In politics,” he says, “you win some and you lose some.”
In 2010, Mayor Mufi Hannemann called, offering Caldwell the city’s managing directorship. A few months later,
Hannemann announced his candidacy for governor and Caldwell became acting mayor.
The Council set primary election day 2010 as the date for the special election to fill out the remaining two years of Hannemann’s term. Veteran City Prosecutor Peter Carlisle, who had run successfully Oahu-wide for more than a decade, announced for mayor, giving him an immediate advantage in name recognition over Caldwell. Caldwell may have felt momentum in the final days of the 2010 campaign, but it was not enough to win.
It was sufficient to persuade Caldwell that he could succeed in a run for the full term as mayor in 2012. He’d have plenty of time to prepare and go to “all kinds of people” in search of support. Says a Democratic Party insider: “Kirk is a very caring person with a passion for public service, but he’s also meticulous and calculating in his approach to business.”
In 2008, anti-rail candidates Anne Kobayashi and Panos Prevedouros challenged incumbent rail champion Hannemann. They stopped Hannemann from winning outright in the primary, but Hannemann won re-election. In 2010, Prevedouros alone carried the anti-rail banner; he ran third to winner Carlisle and runner-up Caldwell.
But with the announcement of his candidacy, former two-term Gov. Ben Cayetano changed the whole dynamic of mayoral election year 2012. He brought huge name recognition and a chunk of Filipino ethnic vote to an anti-rail cause that had drawn support primarily from East Honolulu and Windward Oahu, neither of which would be served by the $5.4 billion first leg of the rail project.
Cayetano’s anti-rail message gave him a healthy lead over both Carlisle and Caldwell in early polls – so healthy that some polls showed him winning outright in the primary. Caldwell ran third during much of the primary season. At one Leeward Oahu event, reminded that he was running third, Caldwell said simply, “Yes, I know, but were coming up.”
That he was. When the votes were counted on primary election day, Cayetano garnered 44 percent of the vote; Caldwell finished second, which meant a ticket to the general election. It also meant that 56 percent of the primary voters had supported Caldwell or Carlisle, both pro-rail candidates.
That number augered well for Caldwell. When the votes were counted on General Election day, Caldwell took 54 percent of the vote, beating Cayetano and giving the rail transit project an apparent mandate.
Caldwell’s not so sure: “Rail is never a done deal. People have real concerns. During the campaign, I was serious about ‘building rail better.’ We have to watch the money more carefully, and there has to be transparency.
“I think many people were voting against rail because of its visual impact. They feared visual blight. The perfect system would be underground, but that would cost $20 billion. We can’t do that.
“But an elevated system doesn’t have to cause blight. The Chinatown station in the current plan hangs out too much. We may need to change that. The impact on view planes could be softened by thousands of trees. We might look into lowering the height of some stations and facing the concrete.”
Caldwell admits concerns about the court case that has stopped construction. “The good news is that where trenching has been done along the route, few remains have been found,” he says. “But this is a huge project, and delays cost money. We have to watch the money, the burn rate of the financing we have: the excise tax funds, the $1.5 billion from the federal government.”
The news got better just six days before Caldwell’s swearing in. Federal appeals Judge A. Wallace Tashima turned down an anti-rail group’s request that would have shut down construction on the entire 20-mile transit route.
Tashima stopped construction only on the downtown section of the route, which is not scheduled to begin until 2014.
“It’s the city’s job to communicate with the public. People want to know what’s going on with a project this big. Sure, we gave a lot of presentations about the rail plans. But taxpayers and residents are busy people, and when something’s far away, they don’t listen.
“But we’re building now and they’re paying attention. We’re not out of the woods on rail. In two years there’ll be another referendum on it. We have to sit down with the Honolulu Area Rapid Transit authority and talk about the next hurdles, the next possible stumbling blocks. With big projects like this, there are always more.”
In the meantime, Caldwell will concentrate on all the duties of his new office.
“Being mayor is about the office, not me,” he says. “It’s all about what you do, what you accomplish. I want to build rail better, but I also want restore bus routes, rebuild the city’s sewage system, maintain our parks better and repave roads. Every politician makes promises, but success lies in what you do.
“And how we treat people – with integrity.
Government is a service business; at the city we have to deliver a good product in a good way.”