Hawaii rail project motivated Kobayashi's run for mayor
By Peter Boylan
Advertiser Staff Writer
By Peter Boylan
Honolulu City Council member Ann Kobayashi wants to be known as the mayoral candidate of change, the individual with the experience to bring transparency and accountability back to Honolulu Hale.
After working to elect Mayor Mufi Hannemann in 2004, Kobayashi said she decided to challenge him this year in large part because of his handling of the proposed $3.7 billion commuter rail project and what Kobayashi views as inefficient spending of public money.
"The rail project is going to cause a lot of heartache for many people, especially those of low income," Kobayashi said. "I just had to do this. I love the city too much to just sit by and watch someone cause this kind of heartache for so many people."
The 71-year-old Kobayashi decided to run for mayor just before the filing deadline on July 22, giving up her uncontested seat on the council, which she has held since 2002.
She ran unsuccessfully for mayor in 1994, and, if elected, would be the second woman to serve as the city's top executive. Eileen Anderson held the post from 1981 to 1985.
Defeating Hannemann, a former friend and political ally who has an 80 percent approval rating and a $3 million war chest, won't be easy.
Kobayashi has to hope that she and University of Hawai'i civil engineer Panos D. Prevedouros can deny Hannemann more than half the vote in Saturday's primary election and force a runoff. The top two vote-getters would then go head to head on Nov. 4.
Kobayashi, who was a state senator from 1981 to 1994, has to overcome a late start in the mayor's race.
"She hasn't really been able to use her past political experience and her good name and reputation in an effective way because she got started too late in all this," said Neal Milner, an ombudsman and a political scientist at the University of Hawai'i.
"It takes more time and more money than she has," Milner added. "This always had the feeling to me that this was something at the last minute she was convinced to do by a group of politicians who didn't like Mayor Hannemann too much. That's a way to get into a race but not a way to win a race."
Kobayashi had told friends and colleagues that she had no interest in running for mayor. She surprised many when she filed on July 22, the last day to enter the race. She had met the night before with high-ranking members of the Democratic party, including state Senate President Colleen Hanabusa and former Gov. Ben Cayetano, who helped persuade her to go for it.
"I care about what is happening to our city," Kobayashi said. "I love Honolulu and I can't see it going in this downward direction. People are afraid; it's not a good situation."
Her decision to run created a mad scramble as candidates frantically worked for the right to replace her on the nine-member City Council. In the end, former Councilman Duke Bainum flew back from the Mainland, rented a condo in her district and filed nominating papers. He will run unopposed, and Kobayashi said during last week's mayoral debate that she had not coordinated with Bainum before deciding to run for mayor.
Kobayashi has focused much of her criticism of Hannemann on the rail project. She said the system for awarding transit-related projects lacks transparency and backed a resolution by the council asking the city auditor to perform an audit of all transit related contracts.
"The same engineers get the same contracts. We should give everybody a chance to make money," Kobayashi said. "It shouldn't be based on how many tickets you buy to a fundraiser. Everyone should have an equal chance to get a contract with the city."
She has long favored greater openness when it comes to awarding city and state contracts and was part of a bipartisan committee of state legislators that looked into the awarding of nonbid contracts during the administration of former Gov. John Waihee.
A staunch advocate of the public's right to choose, Kobayashi thought the public should have been allowed a greater opportunity to provide input on the rail project.
As a council member, Kobayashi voted against the city's current $1.9 billion operating budget and made it known she believed the administration could have trimmed more and offered greater relief to tax payers.
She is for mass transit but against the steel wheels-on-steel rail technology selected by a city advisory panel and favored by Hannemann. She instead favors the rubber tire-on-concrete option, saying it is more cost-effective and aesthetically preferable to running elevated train tracks through Honolulu.
But whatever the voters decide on the rail issue on Nov. 4 is what she will support, Kobayashi said.
Her supporters say she is one of the most honest brokers in Hawai'i politics, a woman with decades of legislative experience who shuns rhetoric and is adept at building consensus among opposing parties.
Described as fiscally prudent, they say her time spent as chairwoman of the Senate Ways and Means Committee and as city finance chairwoman could help heal Honolulu as the economy stumbles.
"She's transparent and not one to use rhetoric. What you see is what you get which is why I'm really supporting her. I don't think the other guy (Hannemann) is like that," Cayetano said. "Ann is one of the few politicians who basically tells you what the score is."
A YOUNG VOLUNTEER
Ann H. Kobayashi was born to Mori and Florence Hayashi, on April 10, 1937, in Honolulu.
Kobayashi grew up in Punchbowl with her brother, Roy Hayashi, and the family later moved to Nu'uanu.
She graduated from Roosevelt High School and later attended Pembroke College (now Brown University) in Rhode Island and Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill.
From age 5, she helped her mother at the Red Cross and as a teenager, volunteered at Kuakini and Queen's hospitals.
She remains active in numerous charitable organizations and even spent time helping former prisoners re-enter society.
Her parents "always taught me to always give back to the community and to do as much as you can for those who cannot help themselves and to be grateful for what we have," Kobayashi said. "There are so many people with less. We should share and do what we can for those who have less."
Kobayashi was married to Dr. Paul Kobayashi, with whom she raised three children — Mark, Dale and Susan. She later divorced and is now single. She has six grandchildren.
LONG POLITICAL CAREER
Kobayashi represented the Manoa area in the state Senate from 1981 to 1994.
She developed a reputation as a caring Republican, then switched to the Democratic Party in 1988, partly because of the Republican position on abortion.
She sat for seven years on the Senate's powerful Ways and Means Committee, serving as chairwoman from 1992 to 1993.
When she ran for mayor in 1994, she finished third to Jeremy Harris with 19 percent of the vote. Harris was mayor from 1994 to 2004.
After a brief stint as an executive assistant to Harris, she served as a special assistant to Cayetano from 1997 to 2002.
Former state Sen. Matt Matsunaga, who said he looks favorably upon both Hannemann and Kobayashi, described Kobayashi as "fiscally prudent" and lauded her ability to build consensus across partisan lines.
"Ann is a veteran politician with terrific people skills. She can bring together opposing factions to achieve a consensus, which is an absolute necessity in today's political word of opposite views," Matsunaga said. "One person whose word you can always trust is Ann Kobayashi's. She's always kept her word; that's what I remember about her."
Kobayashi has served on the boards of at least a dozen nonprofit organizations, an experience that she credits for shaping her fiscally prudent approach to legislating.
Her links to nonprofits brought criticism in 2002 when it came to light that the Fresh Start structured living facility for prison parolees and others — an organization she once did volunteer work for — was under criminal investigation by the state attorney general's office for allegedly pressuring their clients and families for money and threatening to have them returned to prison or jail.
When Kobayashi was campaigning in late 2001 for the City Council seat vacated by Andy Mirikitani, as many as 50 Fresh Start residents were transported in the program's vehicles from Waipahu to the Manoa-Makiki area to wave political signs for her.
In 2004, Kobayashi and City Council member Donovan M. Dela Cruz campaigned for Hannemann. The pair appeared in advertisements for Hannemann and supported his run against Bainum.
Kobayashi said one of her goals as mayor would be to make the city more sustainable.
Kobayashi received the endorsement of the Sierra Club and supports the creation of a seven-year tax holiday for businesses that use green technology and a majority of recycled materials.
"We should try and make businesses flourish by offering incentives for companies that specialize in recycled items," Kobayashi said. "We need new technology that reduces waste and doesn't send 30 tons of waste to the landfill each year. There is a lot of new technology out there for getting rid of waste, and if we find the right technology for H-power and beef up our recycling, we can continue to start to look to closing the landfill."
Kobayashi would like to settle the city's long-standing dispute with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency by working with the EPA and the Sierra Club rather than continuing to pay a San Francisco law firm to fight the case.
"We should start working with them to see if there is a compromise," she said. "We've spent millions in attorneys' fees and we're still in the same spot."
Reach Peter Boylan at firstname.lastname@example.org.