4. Ben Cayetano

Governor, State of Hawaii

October, 2002

Ben Cayetano knows how to take his lumps. Arguably one of Hawaii’s least popular governors, Cayetano is accustomed to criticism from all sides.

But no one — not even political pundits or public worker unions — can accuse Cayetano of skirting the issues. Straightforwardness is one quality the state’s chief executive has maintained from the start of his political career.

“In 1974, I got elected to the House in a district where people will tell you it’s a fluke that I won,” he says. “Pearl City was 60 percent Japanese-American, and here I was, this Filipino boy. Turns out I won, and I said to myself, ‘I may not be here very long’ and I was determined to say whatever I had to say and do whatever I had to do with the expectation that my time in office would be limited.”

That premonition didn’t pan out, but the determination to speak frankly has stuck around — for the past 28 years. From the state House, Cayetano moved on to the state Senate, the lieutenant governor’s office under John Waihee and, in 1994, Washington Place. But whether his candor has served him well is still a toss-up.

“It’s his greatest asset as well as his greatest drawback — that’s usually the case with traits of this nature,” Lt. Gov. Mazie Hirono says. “I think he can be very hard-headed about things, and this has worked against him in areas where give-and-take is the best plan.”

Perhaps that’s because Cayetano has had to address more than his share of controversial issues in his two terms as governor: budget cuts, public-employee union contracts, the Felix consent decree and so on.

Says House Speaker Calvin Say: “Both he and I came in at the same time of leadership, where we inherited an economy where it was in a downswing. After Waihee left, we had major budget shortfalls, and all we could do was try to catch up.”

Nevertheless, nearing the end of his final term as governor, Cayetano can recite what he considers his political high points. Those include creating the A+ After School Program while lieutenant governor, helping to implement $1.8 billion in personal income tax cuts, building 13 new schools over the past six years and developing more homes for Native Hawaiian and low-income residents.

“I’m disappointed that I’m not going to leave the state in good economic condition, but we’re doing better than most places,” Cayetano says. “I’ve learned that, in this job, you’ve gotta play the cards that are dealt to you.”

— Ronna Bolante

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