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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Sunday, December 23, 2001

Sunday Focus
The Cayetano years: a retrospective

The governor spoke to reporters after the 2000 Legislature's opening session. Cayetano has never been coy about what's on his mind.

Advertiser library photo • April 18, 1985

 •  Lots of grist for the mill from governor's mouth

By David Shapiro

As Gov. Ben Cayetano wraps up his seventh year in office and heads into his final year, assessments of his tenure always come down to a debate of style vs. substance.

In the end, style and substance are inseparable in this complex and sometimes exasperating man, who is easily our most interesting governor since the legendary John A. Burns.

Some say, almost in a whisper, that Cayetano may also be Hawai'i's best governor since Burns — a proposition that could start a row at any bar, family picnic or office gathering.

Those who view Cayetano kindly say he's made difficult decisions to lead the state through its toughest economy ever against the resistance of timid legislators and entrenched interests in the government.

Cayetano, as a state senator, with John Waihee. One became governor during an economic boom, the other during a bust.

Advertiser library photo • April 18, 1985

Detractors scoff that Cayetano has talked a lot about change, but presided over seven years of gridlock that left little lasting change.

The argument always comes back to Cayetano's combative style, often lacking in tact and grace, that simply rubs many people the wrong way.

His public approval runs low and took a big hit this year as public school teachers and University of Hawai'i faculty demonized him in their long labor disputes.

In the recent special session of the Legislature, not a single fellow Democrat supported his plan for $1 billion in construction spending to boost the economy.

When Republicans wanted to defeat emergency economic powers for the governor, all they had to do was personalize it around Cayetano by derisively naming it the "King Ben" bill.

Never mind that the governor didn't ask for many of the powers lawmakers proposed to confer on him. Cayetano has become the all-purpose bogey man of Hawai'i politics.

"He gets almost no 'atta boys' from anybody for anything," said John Radcliffe, associate executive director of the University of Hawai'i Professional Assembly, who has been Cayetano's friend and foe. "His dourness pushes people away. He just can't sell — even himself."

The governor admits his flaws in style — almost embraces them.

"My shortcoming is — and I know this because my wife tells me — sometimes it's the way you say things," Cayetano said in a recent interview. "For a person like me, it takes so much effort to worry about that."

Inspired by Redford film

Before he first ran for the Legislature in 1974, Cayetano remembers seeing "The Candidate" with Robert Redford, about an idealistic politician who sold out to become a slick nominee who did everything by the polls.

"I said, 'I'm not going to be like that,'" Cayetano said. "That was one of the promises I made to myself."

The best that his admirers — and the governor himself — can say is that history will judge him better than current public opinion.

"In coming years, his standing will improve," said Rep. Ed Case, a Democratic candidate to succeed Cayetano. "He faced a really impossible task in being the first up to bat in changing 30 years of political culture in Hawai'i that needs to change."

Cayetano assumed office in 1994 with an even bigger handicap than he takes to the golf course.

His predecessor John Waihee, flush from the Japanese investment boom, went on a spending spree that ran up the cost of state government while also amassing a record budget surplus.

But Waihee, whom Cayetano served as lieutenant governor, didn't cut back fast enough when the Japanese bubble burst after the 1991 Gulf War.

By the time Cayetano took office, the economy was in recession, the surplus was gone and he faced staggering deficits that for the first time forced a governor to lay off state employees to balance the budget.

He had a weak mandate after winning less than a majority of votes in a three-way election against Pat Saiki and Frank Fasi. The Legislature was in denial, making for an uphill battle from Day 1 as Cayetano worked doggedly to turn the economy.

Any hope he had of leaving state finances in better shape than he found them went up in smoke with the twin towers of the World Trade Center.

Positive impact on state

While Cayetano's ship of state has often run aground on the shoals of misfortune and his own stubbornness, those who say he's made little lasting impact haven't been paying attention:

• He's run an honest administration with little sign of the favoritism and profiteering in state contracting exposed in the Waihee years.

• He courageously took down the corrupt trustees of Kamehameha Schools/Bishop Estate, cleaning up the rot at the heart of his own Democratic Party that had infected the state government and judiciary.

• He broke up the cozy relationship between his party and public employee unions, feeling the state could no longer afford to run government for the benefit of public workers instead of the public interest.

• He advocated and, to some extent achieved, higher performance standards and tougher accountability throughout state government —particularly in education.

• He forced reluctant senators to accept a major income-tax cut that was sorely needed to boost the state's economy.

• He's been one of the few consistent advocates for poor and dispossessed residents battered by Hawaii's sinking economy.

• His aggressive pursuit of the state's legal interests forced owners of the Honolulu Star-Bulletin to sell the newspaper instead of shutting it down, put oil companies on the hot seat for milking the Hawai'i market, and saved taxpayers hundreds of millions of dollars in ceded-lands payments to the Office of Hawaiians Affairs.

The governor takes sharp criticism for failing to get a Democratic Legislature to approve more of his programs for economic revitalization, civil service reform, and rebuilding vital infrastructure such as public schools and prisons.

In the recent special session, it was apparent that the governor and legislative Democrats barely consulted one another.

In the last regular session, lawmakers overrode a governor's veto for the first time ever, overturning Cayetano's rejection of a bill to raise the age of sexual consent from 14 to 16 because he thought penalties were too harsh.

"He has not recognized that the Legislature is a separate and co-equal part of government," said Case, who served as House majority leader until this year. "He has not spent the time, energy or patience to build up credibility in the Legislature for the times he really needs it."

Weak at consensus building

Cayetano admits he's not very good at consensus-building.

He said he tried to work with the Legislature when he took office, but became frustrated when solutions that seemed clear to him "die for some of the dumbest reasons."

"I found that ... the most difficult thing to do is to make changes that affect your friends and supporters," he said. "When I saw that I was getting nowhere, I felt a sense of urgency and I said, 'OK, look, we're going to move and make changes, and I'm going to use the power of this office.' "

The bottom line is that Cayetano simply doesn't respect this Legislature, which he feels has changed since he served 12 years in the House and Senate. He said today's Legislature is driven by small-time politics.

"Very few things today, in my opinion, are ... decided by philosophical or ideological basis," he said. "The people I served with had more life experience. The Legislature is different today, which, in a way, is why I'm kind of glad I'm going to be leaving. I'm not sure there's a lot of people there who really stand for anything."

Public employee conflict

When he took office, Cayetano quickly concluded that previous administrations had given away too much to public employees in collective bargaining.

With the tight budgets he faced, he needed to slow pay raises, reduce overly generous benefits and reform work rules that thwarted efficiency and accountability in state government.

Legislative Democrats, many of whom owed their election to public employee unions, balked at new laws to reform civil service.

They told Cayetano to bargain with unions for the changes he wanted. When he did so, making for some bitter negotiations, lawmakers often didn't back him up.

The governor resolved that he would approve no further pay raises for public employees unless contracts included some measure of reform to help government become more effective.

It came to a head this year when Cayetano refused to pay arbitrated pay raises to Hawaii Government Employee Association units unless the union agreed to reduced new-employee benefits already accepted by the United Public Workers.

Lawmakers, including many Republicans, backed the HGEA, but Cayetano held his ground and won the concessions.

Lawmakers also interjected themselves into the governor's tense negotiations with public school teachers and the UH faculty, perhaps unwittingly making the strikes that followed inevitable.

Under pressure from the unions, the Senate passed a preliminary budget that would have paid state employees nearly all they wanted without the formality of bargaining.

Cayetano held firm, taking the strikes and ultimately settling for a total of $295 million in raises for all unions, more than $200 million less than the Senate was willing to pay.

He also made progress in linking teacher pay to performance and professional development rather than pure seniority.

Cayetano believes he could have settled with the teachers and faculty without strikes if the Senate had not unreasonably raised their expectations. "They made me look like a jackass," he said.

Lawmakers were sufficiently shamed by their kowtowing to unions that they tried to show backbone at the end of last session by passing bills Cayetano had long sought to allow privatization of government services, reduce state costs for pensions and end binding arbitration for the HGEA.

In a less politically charged environment, the governor would get credit for saving the state from financial disaster. As tax revenues decline after Sept. 11, the state is looking at either massive layoffs or raiding the $200 million Hurricane Relief Fund to balance its budget.

Imagine our fix if Cayetano had caved in to lawmakers and public sentiment and put the state on the hook for $200 million more in pay raises, compounding annually.

Confronted teachers

Professional labor negotiators say Cayetano blundered by becoming so personally involved in negotiations with the teachers and the UH faculty. He defends it as the only way a governor can affect education in systems controlled by independent boards.

"I had made a lot of promises on education, and I came to the conclusion that the biggest problem we have in education ... is that the system right now doesn't give the teacher any indication of how well they're doing and how well their kids are doing," he said. "I didn't feel confident that anyone else could really do it. I had to be there and exercise the powers of my office."

He said teachers became bitter because their union endorsed him in all of his elections — including the close 1998 race against Linda Lingle — and felt that "you should give us what we want because we gave you what you wanted."

Cayetano said he's kept his promises to teachers — and to public education.

He said he's raised pay for starting teachers from $25,000 a year in 1997 to $34,300 under the new contract, spared the Department of Education many of the budget cuts faced by other state agencies, built more new classrooms than any previous governor, and has pushed the Legislature to spend $600 million to repair schools.

"When I looked at it like this, I got so frustrated," he said. "I'm supposed to be anti-education? You have a system that's been in place for 50 years. You're trying to change it, but it's not easy — especially when you have a union that fights it tooth and nail."

Cayetano's greatest strength is that he always does what he thinks is right.

His weakness is that he's not always right — and his mind often is not open to that possibility.

Decision-making style

The governor brings trouble on himself by confining decision-making to a tight circle of aides and friends — primarily chief of staff Sam Callejo, attorney general Earl Anzai, budget chief Neal Miyahira and former campaign manager Charles Toguchi.

"Most of the time, in the end it's my gut," he admits.

"A lot of my decisions are made right there," he said, pointing to the ceremonial office where he holds his news conferences, "when one of you guys asks me questions."

That's not as comforting as he might think.

D.G. "Andy" Anderson, a Democratic candidate for governor, said he hopes Cayetano will finish his term more open to ideas of others to bring Hawai'i together and make it easier for the next governor to move the state forward.

He would like to see Cayetano end the dispute over teacher bonuses and conclude the Bishop Estate saga by dropping criminal charges (that have repeatedly been thrown out of court) against former trustee Richard Wong.

"He won. It's over," Anderson said.

Cayetano says he'll go out the way he came in — fighting for change.

He'll focus his final year on education, endorsing calls for a Marshall Plan to rebuild crumbling school buildings.

After slashing the University of Hawai'i budget under the moribund reign of Kenneth Mortimer, Cayetano is bullish on new UH President Evan Dobelle.

"The silver lining, I think, that's going to come out of Sept. 11 is that Hawai'i is going to benefit as the place that's safe, high quality of life," he said. "If we can get the educational infrastructure up higher, then this is going to be one incredible place."

Cayetano remembered

So how will Cayetano be remembered?

• John Radcliffe: "On balance, I think that history will be kinder to Ben than to any Hawai'i governor since Burns."

• D.G. Anderson: "He had to, and did, cope and cut and balance a budget and government that no Democrat or Republican governor ever had to face before him. He made the tough decisions, he led. Had his style and approach been different in the process, I think he would be viewed far more favorably."

• Ed Case: "He was talking about the right things. He's been a bridge to change, but he didn't walk across the bridge he built. We should have walked across it in eight years."

• Republican state Sen. Fred Hemmings: "He has been open and not afraid of new ideas. Unfortunately, he also is a product of the political status quo and nothing definitive has been done to really change the way the state of Hawai'i operates — that is, big government, excessive taxes and business as usual."

Cayetano is content to let history judge him.

"I'm just so grateful, and I feel so privileged that I've been given this opportunity," he said. "I've put everything I've got into this job. I don't think I could ... do it for another four years and still have the same fire."

He points to a space on the office wall where his official portrait will join those of Hawai'i's other governors. He'll be next to Waihee, who is portrayed wearing the cape of an ali'i.

Even in this final exercise, Cayetano wants it known that he was a different kind of governor.

"When they picked the artist to paint my portrait, I told them to make sure to include a computer in it," he said.

Reach David Shapiro at dave@volcanicash.net