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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Wednesday, February 18, 2009

'Bungee cord' democrats give Cayetano 2nd term

Hawaii news photo - The Honolulu Advertiser

Cayetano says the campaign of his challenger in 1998, Maui Mayor Linda Lingle, was characterized by hubris and inexperience.


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Watermark Publishing

Copies of Ben Cayetano's memoir are available in local bookstores, or through Watermark Publishing. In addition, there will be signing events that will include a limited question-and-answer session:

Saturday, 11 a.m.-noon

Barnes & Noble, Kahala Mall

Saturday, 2-3 p.m.

Borders, Ward Centre

Sunday, 1-2 p.m.

Barnes & Noble, Ala Moana

March 7, 11 a.m.-noon

Borders, Pearlridge

March 7, 2-3 p.m.

Borders, Waikele

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Hawaii news photo - The Honolulu Advertiser

Gov. Ben Cayetano with his wife, Vicky, center, and Lt. Gov. Mazie Hirono at a 1998 campaign rally.


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In his new biography "Ben, A Memoir, From Street Kid to Governor," Gov. Ben Cayetano retells his story in the uncompromising style that guided him throughout his political career.

This is the last of four excerpts from Cayetano's memoir and chronicles his successful bid for re-election as governor in 1998.

Early polls showed that my approval ratings with the public were declining while those of Honolulu Mayor Jeremy Harris and Linda Lingle were rising. When pressed by the news media for comment, I gave the usual responses: "The only poll that counts is on Election Day," "This is not a popularity contest" and so on. Actually, I was very disappointed. Any politician who claims he doesn't care what the public thinks of him is being disingenuous.

Prompted by early negative polls, some Democrats feared I was likely to be beaten by Lingle and looked for other Democrats to challenge me in the primary.

Mayor Jeremy Harris emerged as a potentially formidable challenger. I didn't know much about him except that he was from Delaware and had first moved to Kaua'i to teach at Kaua'i Community College. He was elected as a delegate to the Constitutional Convention in 1978 and, in 1979, became the first Mainland haole elected to the Kaua'i County Council. Harris unsuccessfully challenged Democratic Mayor Tony Kunimura in the 1984 Kaua'i mayoral primary election. Honolulu Mayor Frank Fasi, who had quit the Democratic Party, saw Harris as a political comer and offered him a job in his administration. By 1994, Harris had become Fasi's managing director, the City & County's highest Cabinet post.

Harris had a lot going for him as Honolulu's mayor. Like Lingle's, Harris' approval ratings were high. He was well educated, young, articulate and smart. His biggest political asset was that, as one of the few haole Democrats holding a major public office, he could draw haole votes.

He showed his drawing power in the 1994 special election for mayor when he soundly beat fellow Democrat and City Councilman Arnold Morgado in the general election. In the flush of victory, Harris was a man on the move. He apparently began considering a run for governor as soon as it became obvious that my approval ratings were falling.

The news media had played up Harris as a potential challenger. At the State Democratic Convention in May 1998, U.S. Sen. Dan Inouye, apparently concerned that a primary battle between Harris and me would hurt the Democratic candidate in the general election against Lingle, asked to meet privately with both of us.

We met with Inouye in his hotel room. Media accounts of the meeting I have no idea how they found out about it generally portrayed Inouye as the Democratic guru reading the riot act to Harris and telling him to stay out of the Democratic primary. Inouye is a powerful force in Hawai'i politics, but I have never known him to throw his political weight around. The depiction of Harris as being forced out of the running was a creation of reporters who believed that the Democratic Party was a monolithic entity, with the old boys meeting in smoke-filled back rooms to groom and anoint favored Democrats for public office. Independent Democrats such as Abercrombie, Harris, Mink and Fasi anointed by the so-called "old boys"? It was hard not to laugh at the thought.

Our meeting with Inouye was brief and to the point. "I don't have to tell you two guys that a bitter primary can hurt us badly in the general against Lingle," Inouye said.

"Well, I'm running for reelection, so it's up to Jeremy. Jeremy, you can't beat me in the Democratic primary," I said, turning to Harris.

"That's not what my polls say," Harris retorted sharply.

"Well, then you should run," I said, daring him.

"Maybe I will," Harris replied.

Inouye, who had probably figured out by then that there was nothing more to discuss, said, "Well, I hope you two will talk it over and work something out."

After two years of putting up with his antics, I was fed up with Harris. As he walked out of the room, I turned to Inouye and said, "That guy's such a liar."

"Well, Ben, just remember this he's our liar," Inouye replied.

On the final day of the convention, Harris, relying on the advice of his pollster and confidant, Don Clegg, relented and announced that he would not run. Harris told the news media and convention delegates that, for the sake of party unity, he would support me. He had little choice. Given our respective personalities and styles, it would probably have been a contentious and bitter campaign that would have drained the resources of both of us and left the supporters of the loser reason to be angry at the winner. Harris was young, and it was wiser for him to cultivate my supporters and wait for the 2002 gubernatorial election.

By mid-September, a new poll revealed that we had cut Lingle's 22 percent lead to 7 percent (47-40). The Japanese Democrats were coming home and, in a dramatic shift, the majority now supported me. I continued to enjoy a big lead among Filipino voters. The Neighbor Islands traditionally Democratic were shifting in our favor. I had a 20 percent lead on Kaua'i, and trailed Lingle by 4 percent on Maui and 10 percent on the Big Island. Don Clegg, Harris' pollster, described the voters who had flirted with the idea of voting Republican only to return to the Democrat fold as "bungee-cord Democrats."

"Lingle's got a big lead over you with the white voter," (Cayetano political consultant Joseph) Napolitan said, interpreting the poll results. "Right now you're getting about 22 percent of the white vote, and I doubt you'll get any more than that ... so we got to get the Democrats especially the Japanese voters to come back in greater numbers than they are now. We need about 65 percent of them."

About 10 days before the November 3 general election, (Cayetano consultant Jack) Seigle called for a meeting. Charlie Toguchi, Bert Kobayashi, Bob Toyofuku (an attorney running Hirono's campaign) and our co-chairs met with Seigle at our campaign headquarters.

"I just found out that Lingle has been canceling a lot of her television buys," Seigle said.

"Why would she do that?" someone asked.

"The word I got is that she is certain she's going to win."

"Really? What makes her think she's got it in the bag?"

"Well," Seigle replied, "I've been told that she's using a Mainland pollster out of Virginia or Maryland and her polls show her with a more-than 10 percent lead. Now, I think that's way off. I've talked to Barbara and Don, and they both feel very confident about our polls."

"What do you think we should do about it?" I asked.

"I called Joe (Napolitan) in New York this morning, and we both agree that if we have the money we should buy up the time slots she's giving up before she realizes her polls are wrong and tries to buy them back."

"How much are we talking about?"

"About $400,000."

I turned to Kobayashi. "Bert, how much do we have left for television?" I asked.

"Nothing; we already spent it for our television ads," Kobayashi replied.

"I think if we give up some of our newspaper ads, radio spots and other media costs, we can save perhaps $100,000 or so," Seigle said.

"Hold off on that; I think if I show people our poll results, we'll be able to raise the money, but it'll take some time," Kobayashi said.

"Well, the stations require payment up front, so we'll advance the money to buy the spots, but, Bert, I want your word that, win or lose, you'll help raise the money to pay us back."

"You got it," Kobayashi replied. Nothing else needed to be said. With him a handshake was enough. Those who knew him trusted him. (Armed with our latest polls showing that the election was a dead heat, Kobayashi was able to raise the money in a week.)

"Jack, how could her polls be so way off from ours?" I asked.

"The problem with using Mainland pollsters is that local people are very reluctant to answer questions from someone with a Mainland accent who often has a hard time pronouncing local names. Now, local pollsters deal with this by using a certain weighting formula to measure the votes of people from certain ethnic groups. And our weighting formula is based on years of experience and trial and error. Mainland pollsters often don't have this expertise. With the exception of Peter Hart (a nationally renowned Democratic pollster of the 1970s) for Jack Burns' campaign, I've always used Barbara (Ankersmit), who Hart himself recommended. Barbara has called every one of your statewide elections within 1 to 2 percent."

An advantage of using a Mainland pollster is that he or she provides greater security than local pollsters, who use local people to ask the poll questions. The disadvantage is that accuracy is sometimes compromised for security.

"Okay, let's go for it," I replied, delighted at the thought of our television ads dominating prime time while Lingle's were running on the Late Show.

Later that day, Seigle bought every prime-time television slot the Lingle campaign had cancelled.

Lingle's decision to cancel her television buys was another indication of the hubris that permeated her campaign; plus it also revealed the folly of using a public relations firm (Communications Pacific) that had no previous experience in running a statewide political campaign.

On Election Day, Barbara Ankersmit and I met privately. "Governor, my poll indicates the race is very close. I think you'll either win or lose by 1 percent," she said calmly. "Our final poll shows you ahead 44 percent to 43 percent a statistical tie."

Ankersmit told me she felt we had the momentum and that I would win. Don Clegg, I found out later, thought I would lose by 3 to 4 percent, but agreed with Seigle that I should not be told. I knew it would be close, but there was nothing left to do but vote, thank our campaign workers, try to relax and await the evening television news for the final results.

I was cautiously confident. I thought about the seven elections I had gone through; about my 24 years in public service and what I had done or tried to do for what I believed was in the public's best interest. Would I have any regrets over some of the hard decisions and compromises I had made as a legislator and in my first term as governor?

If I lost I knew that I would have enduring regrets about the cuts I had made to social programs that served the poor and needy. If there was one reason I wanted to be re-elected it was to restore those services. That night I swore that, if I was re-elected, I would not compromise services to the poor and needy for the sake of business, labor unions or the special-interest groups that feed off the State coffers.

Lingle didn't take her loss well. Her reaction brought Napolitan's words to mind: "Under her glowing cheeks beats a Republican heart of stone." While the news media cast Lingle in an emotional, sympathetic light, the discerning person might have noticed she gave no concession, no congratulatory remarks; she made no offer to set aside differences and work together for the common good.

Instead she complained: "My one disappointment in the campaign is the way Gov. Cayetano tried to divide people, between parties, between labor and management, between newcomer and kama'aina."

As far as I was concerned, her complaint was a case of the proverbial pot calling the kettle black. Elections are all about making choices. Robust debate and probing discussions tend to divide voters along ideological and personal lines. The reality is that elections naturally divide people and parties; it is inherent in the process, and those who believe otherwise are naive.

Divide people? When Lingle exclaimed to her GOP faithful, "It's time for Republicans to take back this state!" she caused Democrats who remembered what it was like when the Republicans ran things in Hawai'i to have second thoughts, and many came back home to support me.

When newcomers including some of the editors of the newspapers that endorsed Lingle dismissed the words "local values" as a racist code for "non-white," it upset locals who viewed those words as a metaphor for the local culture that sets Hawai'i apart from the rest of the world. Some naturalized haoles like Barbara Ankersmit, who came to Hawai'i from the Mainland in the late '60s, understood what "local values" meant and realized that they were matters of the heart, not place of birth or skin color or manner of speech. Mainland haoles like Sam Slom and the newspaper editors just didn't get it.

Lingle's defeat was a bitter pill for even the National Republican Party to swallow. On February 27, 1999 four months after the election GOP National Committee Co-Chairman Patricia Harrison told a Lincoln Day dinner audience in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, that Hawai'i's "Democratic machine" had committed an anti-Semitic smear (Lingle is Jewish) by spreading the word that, if Lingle won, "Christmas in Hawai'i would be abolished."

It was that kind of an election.

(Mazie) Hirono had set her sights on running for governor in 2002. Since her reelection as lieutenant governor in 1998 and after eight long frustrating years in that office, the time had come.

The harsh reality is that a lieutenant governor's success rests on his or her ability to make something out of nothing. The lieutenant governor cannot be successful without some help from the governor.

Thus, Gov. George Ariyoshi, himself a former lieutenant governor, had assigned then-Lt. Gov. John Waihee to help negotiate a settlement of the United Airlines strike, a task in which Waihee seemingly enjoyed some success. Likewise, Gov. Waihee had given me the opportunity to create the A-Plus After-School Program, which proved highly popular. I had tried to do the same for Hirono by asking her to take the lead on cutting bureaucratic red tape (a program which she named SWAT) and later to establish preschools (Pre-Plus) in the public schools.

Sadly, by late 2002 little had been accomplished.

There was a growing perception that Hirono had just been biding her time.

Once when I suggested to Hirono that she run on "our" record (for example, the big tax cut, the record number of new schools we built), she abruptly cut me off, stating that she was "not the boy from Kalihi" and would run on her "own record."

Her big problem, I thought, was that as lieutenant governor she had no record of accomplishment to speak of. Still, I wanted to help, of course, and I told her to let me know how they wanted me to help and I would do it. Other than that, I never offered advice again.