(Picture of Cayetano waving) Parting words: Now in his final days in office, Governor Cayetano reflects on his successes and failures


Editor's note: Gov. Ben Cayetano, the underprivileged Kalihi boy who reached the pinnacle of political life in Hawaii, invited Star-Bulletin editors to his office last week for a final editorial board session before leaving office. These are excerpts from that conversation.

Star-Bulletin: What did you think about a Republican winning the governor's election?

Ben Cayetano: On a personal note, I felt bad for Mazie Hirono. In 1998, I said that if it (Democratic control of the governorship) doesn't end with us, it's going to end soon down the road because that's the nature of the American people. Who was it, (Thomas) Jefferson who said, 'I believe there should be a revolution every 20 years,' or something like that?

In 1986 and every election since then, the business community beat down on the Democrats for making Hawaii a poor place to do business. When you have economic problems, that message has some impact.

If you look at the numbers, it's not so much that people turned Republican. But maybe some Democrats didn't turn out, because Mazie got 25,000 less votes than we got in 1998 and Lingle got 2,000 less. People apparently were just not voting.

S-B: Doesn't the state need a two-party system?

BC: That argument is very powerful, but the reality is we've had some kind of a two-party system. It's just not Democrats and Republicans. The Democratic Party itself was two parties.

When I was in the Senate, hell, we (the liberal faction) were one party and the other guys were the other party. The other guys were cutting deals with the Republicans -- you know, Andy Anderson and people like that. It's kind of ironic that after I became governor we took on the Bishop Estate, which was a watering hole for Democrats over the years.

S-B: You and Neil Abercrombie were considered the liberal wing of the Democratic Party, but once you became governor didn't you become a centrist?

BC: I'm a centrist? In fiscal matters ... I'm kind of conservative. The difference between me and a Republican is that I'm not reluctant to spend money if it can be spent wisely for the right purpose. Whereas some of these guys just want to give the money back to the people who paid it, I'm willing to spend it for a social purpose.

Guys write letters to the editor, you know, (saying) 'We've been betrayed,' and 'Cayetano should join the Republican Party.' People don't see outside their own self-interest today because people don't read enough. They get information in little bits and pieces watching television. They never get the full story.

S-B: How has your view of the governor's job changed over eight years?

BC: I had the benefit of 12 years in the Legislature -- chairman of the Ways and Means Committee, chairman of the Economic Development and Transportation committees. When I was lieutenant governor, I had some inkling about what the job was all about, but I never thought it would be what it was when I finally got into it.

That's why, when Lingle won, I thought it was really important for her to get up to speed. We wanted to be helpful. She's already wasted some time, like on this double-decked freeway. It's not going to happen for all kinds of reasons.

I tried to abolish the lieutenant governor's office one time when I was in the Senate. The only reason I ran for it was I thought it was time for me to leave the Senate.

Neil Abercrombie did, too. Neil told me, 'Ben, I'm going to run for Congress. I can't run for lieutenant governor. I can't win as governor.' So, he said, 'You run for lieutenant governor.'

I ran, but I had no plan, like: OK, I'll run for lieutenant governor, then I'll be the governor one day. I just didn't think that far ahead. I said, I'm going to see what it's like to be in the executive department. If I like it or if I think I can do something good, I'll go on.

The eight years I spent as lieutenant governor were the most frustrating of my entire life -- they might have cost me my (first) marriage. That's how grumpy I got.

But then I always like to think about A+ (the after-school care program engineered by Caye-tano when he was lieutenant governor). It was so gratifying because right off the bat 24,000 kids enrolled. The approval rating was, like, 98 percent. I said, OK, maybe I can do better in the governor's office.

After learning victory was assured in a close race with Republican Linda Lingle, the Cayetano team finally gave a victory cheer on election night in 1998.

S-B: What is your biggest regret?

BC: I don't know about the worst thing. I know I did some not-so-smart things. I have a list of those. I don't want to give you too many -- I want you to be positive.

I regret not building the second campus for the University of Hawaii. Economically, it would have been the catalyst for the planned growth in West Oahu. Educationally -- I keep telling (Sen.) Colleen Hanabusa this -- forget about giving those guys a tax break to build an aquarium out there. Build a college, because people in Waianae and Nanakuli need a college.

I thought we could pass the Death with Dignity bill, too. I wish (the Star-Bulletin's late contributing editor) Bud Smyser had been around; he would have been a tremendous force because he was one of the big proponents of it. It came close, but politics killed it.

The governor-elect is opposed to it. I hope that if it ever makes it out of the Legislature she'll consider doing what (then-Gov.) John Burns did on the abortion bill: Say 'I don't agree with it,' but let it become law.

S-B: Will you leave Linda Lingle a message -- a hand-written note in the desk drawer?

BC: After the election we offered our help and I was perfectly willing to sit down and talk to her, one on one, and give my impressions on what she should watch out for. The invitation was never accepted. She will have to learn on her own.

For example, I wish it were a situation where she said, 'Oh, someone came up with this idea for double-decking Nimitz Highway. Do you have any information?'

I've got lots of information. We actually looked at it, you know? OK, here's that information, you make up your mind. That would help her, but apparently that's not going to happen.

S-B: Have you spoken to her since the election?

BC: I haven't had the opportunity.

S-B: She doesn't take your calls?

BC: I'm not going to call. I made the offer on statewide television! Listen, I beat the lady (in the 1998 election), you know what I mean? Maybe she still hasn't gotten over that. But if she is busy, and even if we don't talk, I think it's really important that her chief of staff really get up to speed.

I rely on my chief of staff a lot ... You can't believe the number of papers I get that I just sign because somebody else -- my chief of staff -- briefed it, read it and it went through several checks. I cannot read everything. I'd be here at midnight every night.

S-B: Are you going to retreat from public life?

BC: I don't think I'll ... I'm pretty sure I'm not going to run for anything. I think 28 years is enough. I just made 63 on Nov. 4. I filed for Social Security.

S-B: What do you plan to do with your time?

BC: I'm going to go into business, do some consulting work, maybe a little law. I don't want too many clients, just a select few. I'm thinking of writing a book, although I don't think I'll be the guy doing the writing. I don't want to do a memoir -- I've read the other (political) memoirs and they aren't particularly exciting. Maybe a historical novel for the period I was in, set in Hawaii.

S-B: What is your proudest achievement?

BC: It's not any one thing. I'm pretty proud of my cabinet. The people I chose were honest people.

I'm happy and I feel proud about what we did in education. People criticize me ... but the fact is, we gave the teachers a big pay raise and we did it at the expense of others. It frustrates me when they don't understand it. Maybe it's the nature of people today who don't look beyond their own particular circumstance.

What I'm most proud of is that I tried to do everything I told the people I would do in 1994. In the end, we have more pluses than minuses. Some things we were not able to do, like resolve the ceded land issue. And I promised to build the West Oahu campus, but I couldn't do that.

S-B: What will be big issues in Hawaii in the next five years?

An earnest Gov. Ben Cayetano made a point in November 2001 during testimony before the Labor Board concerning the teachers' contract.

BC: The relationships we have here between people are really incredible. You go to Los Angeles and you've got Koreans and Japanese and Chinese and other races all living in that huge city, but they're all kind of Balkanized. They don't have much contact with each other. Our limited geography has been good for us. It forces us to live together.

I'm concerned that that could unravel. One of the big issues is the Hawaiian sovereignty movement. That has to be dealt with in a way that the result will be fair to everyone.

Then there's the economy. 9/11 should have driven home the lesson again and again that we've got to diversify. We've taken some steps in that direction, like the medical school and high-tech laws, but more can be done.

Improving the educational system is really critical to our future, not only in economic terms but in terms of our growth as a society. The debate on education is all over the place. To me, it's not whether you have one board of education or seven or 15 or whatever.

I've come to the conclusion that what's really important to education is the people in it, the teachers and the principals. That's where the focus should be, building up their teaching skills and their motivation.

S-B: What won't you miss?

BC: The politics. I don't think idealism is as strong as it was when I first got in.

I am going to miss the opportunity to stop some of the crazy things that these guys do sometimes.

When I think about it, I realize I'm really a lucky man to have had this opportunity and privilege, so that's how I feel. I feel honored.

This is a kid who at age 18 ended up in jail overnight -- I got into a fight with somebody at a drive-in. To get by all those kinds of things you need to be lucky and you have to have people pop up in your life at unexpected times to give you a hand and a nudge. That's what happened in my life, so I'm just glad I had this opportunity.

S-B: What became of the other kid in the fight?

BC: It wasn't a kid. It was a security guard. We were there with six or seven guys at Scotty's Drive-in. The security guard got after one of our group. Where I come from, you don't let that happen. He started to get mad and started to come after us and there was a big fight. The cooks came out with their rolling pins -- one big melee, man.

The security guard ended up on the ground and we poured malts on him -- this could occupy a chapter in my book. We tried to run away but the cops caught two of us and took us down to the magistrate lockup. Every time I think about that night I think, I was so lucky.

So lucky ... so lucky.

The only reason I wasn't prosecuted, we were in a lineup with about four or five other people our age. They brought the security guard down -- the poor guy was covered with stains from the malts and everything -- and they asked him to ID the people who got into the fight. He said, 'All of them.'

Unfortunately for him, the other three or four had been picked up in Kailua for blowing up mailboxes.

When I took the bar exam, I had to explain to the Supreme Court the circumstances of this little episode in my life.

S-B: What do the Democrats need to do now?

BC: They have to do what the national party has to do. Man, we took a whipping all over the country. They have to stand for something.

S-B: At the state level?

BC: Why are Democrats on the City Council using the power of eminent domain to muscle small landowners to sell to big Outrigger? When I was in the Legislature, the Democrats used eminent domain to break up Bishop Estate and all the big estates and allow the small guy to own his own home. Now it's kind of reversed.

S-B: Does your public opinion rating bother you?

BC: It bothers me a little bit -- it used to bother me more before, like 20 years ago. If you want to get something done, you can't be worried about that. Too many good things have not happened at the Legislature because too many people worry about that.

S-B: Will we see you on the golf course?

BC: Yeah, but you know, moving is such a heavy thing and our new home is on really a big lot, 2.7 acres. There's a lot of landscaping. For maybe the next month or two, I'm just going to be doing that kind of stuff.

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