Capitol View

By Richard Borreca

Wednesday, September 18, 1996

Harris as challenger to
Cayetano in 1998

THE third-floor office lights burn at Honolulu Hale, Jeremy Harris works into the night and union jobs are safe. So implies a glossy color hand-out mailed to union families last week by the Hawaii State AFL-CIO.

The copy reads, "Mayor Jeremy Harris worked overtime to save jobs. He balanced the budget without a single layoff. We are grateful. He should be proud."

There is nothing else, no date, no reference to the election this weekend, nothing to make you think this is about a municipality. You could take that brochure, save it for a year and stuff it into envelopes during the opening salvos of the 1998 governor's election.

The United Public Workers and their boss, Gary Rodrigues, the Carpenters and their honcho, Walter Kupau, plus the ILWU with Eusebio Lapenia are all endorsing Harris.

The page stands as an obvious comparison to Ben Cayetano. The governor who promised education and liberal administration, but wound up slicing jobs, chopping up political friends and running a government that just says "No," appears threatened by Harris' success.

In years past, unions pretty much did what the governor said. Former Govs. Jack Burns, George Ariyoshi and John Waihee had their own pipelines into the powerful unions. Governors used the unions' considerable political muscle for their own agendas.

This year, however, Ben Cayetano has been unable to direct union support to his own preferred candidate for mayor, former City Council Chairman Arnold Morgado.

Harris supporters have seized upon that weakness and interpreted it as a loss of the governor's clout. They talk of a fundamental shift in the balance of power.

The leap, so far unsaid but implied, is that the bright and capable mayor could jump into the power vacuum, plucking supporters so that by the time the election rolls around in 1998, Cayetano would be without allies and defenseless in a Democratic primary.

The flaw in that neat plan, however, grows daily as the state's economy continues to gasp and wheeze. The hidden problems for the city's next mayor burrow underground as Honolulu loses its tax base.

Average home prices are down around the 1988 level. Moody's, a major municipal bond rating service, is looking at Honolulu's ability to raise money and no one is expecting a tax increase for the city.

Since 1992 property tax revenues have shrunk because the value of Honolulu real estate has decreased.

WHILE city officials say the treasury is likely to again expand, the real estate figures don't show it. To make matters worse, the city is going through a round of tax appeals that could further weaken Honolulu's ability to live within present resources.

Given that scenario, can the next mayor raise taxes, lay off workers or further cut services without political penalties?

The result could be a mayor who enjoys the cheerful support and crowd-pleasing bonhomie that greets the governor.

Meanwhile, Cayetano still may be able to find a little wiggle room in future state finances and actually give public employees a new contract with a modest pay increase.

So today's union darling may be the scrooge of 1998, and even Cayetano, this year's political pariah, may be the powerful, influential and unassailable governor in 1998.

Even on an island, don't bet the ranch on a sea change in local politics.

Richard Borreca reports on Hawaii's politics every Wednesday.
He can be reached by e-mail at

©Copyright 1996, Honolulu Star-Bulletin. All rights reserved.

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