In debate, mayoral contenders spar over rail, homelessness

Published: Aug. 2, 2016 at 8:26 PM HST|Updated: Aug. 3, 2016 at 2:10 AM HST
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(Image: Hawaii News Now)
(Image: Hawaii News Now)
(Image: Hawaii News Now)
(Image: Hawaii News Now)

HONOLULU (HawaiiNewsNow) - In the last televised debate before the primary election, Honolulu Mayor Kirk Caldwell on Tuesday night sought to defend his record at Honolulu Hale, while his two major challengers criticized it, taking him to task for his handling of the beleaguered rail project and the homeless crisis.

"For me, it's about talking about everything I have done as mayor," Caldwell said, listing his efforts to address homelessness and road maintenance. "I want to continue to do this."

The lively, hour-long Hawaii News Now/Star-Advertiser debate touched on everything from Oahu's rail project to city ethics issues to the ongoing federal probe into Honolulu's police chief.

Throughout, challengers Peter Carlisle and Charles Djou said they'd bring markedly different approaches to city hall, though at times they appeared to agree with Caldwell or be unable to offer different visions for key problems.

Carlisle said he's running -- for a single term -- because people are "dissatisfied" after four years of the Caldwell administration.

Djou added that he's running to ensure Honolulu remains a "wonderful place for my children."

"This race is very important," he said.

A considerable chunk of the debate focused on the city's beleaguered rail project, which is facing cost overruns and delays.

Djou, who wasn't in favor of rail while on the Honolulu City Council, said he is not ruling out any options when it comes to the project, including converting a portion or all of the system to bus rapid transit or bringing rail cars to street level.

"We were told a fairy tale when it came to this project four years ago," he said. But, he added, "We have to acknowledge, we can't just stop and tear it down. The key here is we don't keep on spending to absolutely no end."

Caldwell and Carlisle pushed back against Djou, saying he has no plan for rail.

"I just wish you would level with the people," Caldwell said.

The contenders also disagreed over how to handle Honolulu's police chief, who is facing a federal probe over alleged civil rights violations.

As in months past, Caldwell said the decision on whether to put police Chief Louis Kealoha on leave or fire him sits with the Honolulu Police Commission. "The commission was created to take politics out of" the Honolulu Police Department, he said. "I believe that you need to let the process play out."

Djou and Carlisle, meanwhile, said they would seek to put the chief on temporary leave as the federal investigation continues.

"It's a disgrace to law enforcement," Carlisle said, of the allegations against the chief and his prosecutor wife.

Djou added, "We have to make sure there's a basic level of trust between the police force and the people."

On homelessness, Carlisle called the Caldwell administration's policy of "compassionate disruption" -- enforcement coupled with expanded homeless services -- a "failure."

Djou agreed, saying that homelessness is growing and that the city's efforts simply haven't worked.

But Caldwell shrugged off the criticism, saying that efforts to move more people into shelters and permanent housing have made a significant dent in the homeless population.

"This homeless problem did not spring up overnight," he said. "For the first time, we're starting to see everyone come together" to tackle the problem.

The debate comes less than two weeks before Hawaii's primary election on Aug. 13, and as the rhetoric surrounding the race gets increasingly heated. In recent days, the three contenders have offered significantly different visions for how they'd tackle the biggest problems facing Oahu.

Djou, a former Congressman, appears to be heading into the primary election with an edge.

A Hawaii News Now/Star-Advertiser poll released earlier this month showed Djou with an early lead in the race. Some 39 percent of likely voters said they would back him.

Meanwhile, 30 percent said they would vote for Caldwell. Carlisle trailed the pack, with just 15 percent of likely voters saying they would vote for him.

After the poll was released, Djou said he was buoyed by the poll results, but wasn't taking anything for granted.

He added the strong numbers are a "reflection not of me, but my campaign team's hard work and more importantly about the community really saying that they want change."

Still, Caldwell continues to enjoy favorability ratings above 50 percent, the Hawaii poll found.

Carlisle has said his high favorability "gives me the opportunity to be able to argue my case better in terms of getting the message out to them. That yes I am in the race, and yes I am the person who is going to do the most for rail and the most for homelessness."

Experts say with three major candidates divvying up voters, it is virtually certain that this mayor's race won't end in the primary.

A mayoral candidate would need to earn 50 percent plus one vote in the primary to win outright. Otherwise, the top two vote-getters advance to the general election in November.

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