Richar Borreca

On Politics

By Richard Borreca

Sunday, October 14, 2001

Crisis casts Cayetano
in a new light

FOR MONTHS now, if you asked Gov. Ben Cayetano about his legacy as chief executive of Hawaii, he would politely brush you off.

His stock reply: "People will judge," and there's nothing to do about it, so there is no use worrying about it.

Ben Cayetano may not be a worrywart, but you can bet as the days of his last term dwindle, he's mulling over how he will be remembered.

After nearly eight years at the top, Cayetano is writing his legacy today.

While most politicians ending a career have little chance of changing the scorecard, Cayetano can recast the score because of the terrorist attacks in New York and Washington and the resulting local economic crisis.

Cayetano has been one of Hawaii's least popular governors, and Harry Truman was one of the nation's least popular sitting presidents, but when weighed in the balance of history, Truman's legacy grew. Now Cayetano has the chance to do the same.

In 1948, Truman appeared sure to lose re-election. The Democratic Party was split when southern Democrats were driven away by Truman's calls to end segregation. But his last-minute nationwide whistle-stop campaign gave him an overwhelming 2 million-vote victory.

But the Democratic Congress bitterly opposed Truman's civil-rights legislation, and although the Truman Doctrine was a key point in the start of the Cold War, Truman's critics called him soft on communism.

It was only after leaving office that Truman's stock rose. His "The Buck Stops Here" sign became the emblem for the gutsy leader.

In 1994, the Cayetano administration was poised to open as a socially progressive continuation of the Hawaii Democratic Party, but the 1991 economic downturn wrecked his chances of pushing costly improvements to state social policy.

Instead of spending, Cayetano entered office by slashing. He proclaimed the economic crisis the worst in the state's history and started cutting programs. Within two years the cuts would grow to include jobs, and the state policy of not laying off workers would end.

Cayetano tried a coalition of business and labor to look at the state's big picture, but the Economic Recovery Task Force became a political disaster because it called for raising the general excise tax. The plan and the economy haunted Cayetano through his 1998 re-election campaign and contributed to his tiny 5,000-vote margin of victory.

Cayetano now finds that the crisis of 1994-95 was nothing compared to the looming problems facing Hawaii today. Unemployment is sure to rise, and layoffs in the hotel and tourism industry are expected to flow to other sectors of the economy as money is withdrawn from the economy.

The situation facing Cayetano and the state is difficult because many of our problems come from events and forces outside of Hawaii. So just as we can't force people in Oakland and Osaka to leap on a plane to Honolulu, we cannot sit and wait for the passenger terminal to fill up on its own.

America went to war on the morning of Sept. 11, and Cayetano was one of the first chief executives on the firing line. It was our National Guard pilots flying cover on dozens of international flights ordered to land in Honolulu. It was Cayetano who had to scramble a statewide workforce, state education system and transportation system with minimal knowledge if the attacks in New York and Washington were just the opening salvos.

We learned later that Hawaii's enemy would be an economic crisis that has seen more than 12,000 people file for unemployment since Sept. 11. Cayetano called an emergency session of the Legislature and brought in the unions, bankers and hotel leaders to organize a trip to Japan. Now he is calling for emergency powers to bulldoze government red tape to rush state help to industries and people in need.

The other sign on Truman's desk was a quote from Mark Twain that Cayetano might want to consider as he joins the battle: "Always do right. This will gratify some people and astonish the rest."

Still to be rallied is the bulk of state government. For example, after Hurricane Iniki, Gov. John Waihee moved big parts of the state bureaucracy into crisis mode so that state workers were going in shifts to help on Kauai.

It now falls to Cayetano to rally the state troops to dig out the needed information, to work every day and night to prepare the best ways to meet the economic crisis, to demand the best from the entire state work force and halt the crisis before it spirals out of control.

The Cayetano legacy will then be not parks nor buildings or highways, but a recovering state.

Richard Borreca writes on politics every Sunday in the Star-Bulletin.
He can be reached at 525-8630 or by e-mail at

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