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Rail may have a sizable effect on U.S. Senate race

August 17, 2012
By OSKAR GARCIA , The Associated Press

HONOLULU - Hawaii voters who eagerly flocked to last week's primary to make their opinions known about Oahu's $5 billion rail plan still have incentive to keep that passion in November, adding a local wrinkle to races that could have national implications in the general election.

Most notably, Hawaii's U.S. Senate race, which pits Democratic U.S. Rep. Mazie Hirono against former Republican Gov. Linda Lingle. The race could determine the balance of power in the U.S. Senate, where Republicans need to pick up four seats for majority control.

Lingle said this week after easily winning her Republican primary that she thinks the continuing rail debate could be good for her.

"I think the rail issue will boost the turnout in the election, and I think that's a good thing," Lingle said.

Rail has been a focus of Honolulu's mayoral race, where former Hawaii Gov. Ben Cayetano is running against former Honolulu Managing Director Kirk Caldwell. Cayetano has centered his campaign on stopping the plans to build a 21-stop rail line connecting east Kapolei to Ala Moana Center through Aiea, Salt Lake and downtown, with trains taking just over 40 minutes to make the one-way trip.

Cayetano fell just short of the 50 percent plus one vote margin he needed to win the post outright. Peter Carlisle, the incumbent mayor and a rail supporter along with Caldwell, failed to advance in the primary.

Pushing the mayor's race until November ensures that one of the most divisive issues in Hawaii politics today will stay in the spotlight through the rest of the political season. And those picking Cayetano, including Republicans and fiscal conservatives, could find themselves aligned with Lingle, especially as she speaks in opposition to the rail plan.

Hirono doesn't have a position on the current plan's specifics but told The Associated Press on Thursday that she supports rail in general as an option to relieve gridlock.

"As long as the rail is on track for Oahu, I and the congressional delegation will make sure every dime that should come to Hawaii to help us pay for rail comes to Hawaii," Hirono said.

Lingle reiterated her position this week that the plan, in its current form, is too expensive and could bankrupt Hawaii.

"It's not fair to put all taxpayers at risk to risk the state going into bankruptcy simply because of one region, but the city does have an obligation to deal with that region," Lingle told reporters on Sunday, the day after easily winning her Republican primary.

Jonathan Osorio, a Hawaiian Studies professor at the University of Hawaii at Manoa and an expert on Hawaii politics, said it's a clever strategy for Lingle to align herself with voters who are anti-rail. But he said no politician besides those running for mayor really wants to touch the issue.

Lingle "could certainly use her present opposition to rail," Osorio said. "I think to a certain extent, Mazie's going to have to keep quiet about it."

Hirono said that as she campaigns, rail doesn't come up as often with voters as her plans to help Hawaii's economy and generate jobs.

"I have friends on both sides of this (rail) issue and they understand that the delegation's role is to make sure that federal funds that come to Hawaii come to Hawaii," she said.



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