Ben Cayetano remembers standing on the sidewalk, peering into campaign headquarters as his candidate, the lanky Jack Burns, leaped on a table to celebrate his election as governor.
That was in 1962, after Cayetano had cast his first vote. Born in Hawaii, the son of an immigrant waiter from the Philippines, he was working in a dead-end job after nearly flunking out of high school. “In those days,” he recalls, “I never met a Caucasian who wasn’t a boss.” He could not imagine that one day it would be his turn to leap on the table.
But Hawaii has just handed the reins to the feisty Cayetano, the nation’s first Filipino American governor, and to Lt. Gov. Mazie Hirono, who immigrated from Japan at age 7. Both were raised by single parents and had tough childhoods.
“Mazie and I have come a long way,” Cayetano, 55, said in an interview. “It shows that there are enough people in this state who are still committed to the American dream, to equal opportunity.”
Their inauguration earlier this month runs counter to the surge of anti-immigrant sentiment on the U.S. mainland, as well as the recent tendency to elect Republicans. Cayetano is the latest in an unbroken chain of Democratic governors in Hawaii stretching back to Burns.
He has made his name, however, as a dissident Democrat, and his election was no sure thing.
After two terms as lieutenant governor, Cayetano trailed Republican Patricia Saiki badly in early polls, and also faced a strong challenge from longtime Honolulu Mayor Frank Fasi, a populist who formed his own party to run for governor.
In the end, buoyed by mainstream Democratic and near-universal union backing, Cayetano won with 37% of the vote. The sizable vote for the other candidates reflects dissatisfaction with state government, which has been criticized for overspending and cronyism. Cayetano says voters are saying “shape up or ship out,” and he promises to shake things up.
His background suggests that he could do just that. As a teen-ager, he was not afraid to jump into fights. As a state legislator, some called him combative.
“He was a legislator with an attitude, and he may well end up being a governor with an attitude,” said Dan Boylan, a political columnist and history professor at the University of Hawaii.
“He may hold a lot of people accountable who have never been held accountable before.”
Cayetano lined up with a group of dissident senators who “caused the Establishment fits and were constantly raising hell,” notes Boylan. In a “go along, get along” society, Cayetano pushed his way up by speaking out and challenging the status quo. How that will play as governor is unclear.
“It’s one thing to be an occasionally effective advocate,” said Jared Jossem, who recently stepped down as chairman of the state Republican Party. “It’s another to be able to pull diverse points of view together to develop a working consensus. A lot of people are waiting to see whether he has the leadership skills to accomplish that.”
Already, Cayetano’s Cabinet appointments have ruffled feathers. He shocked the business Establishment by choosing an environmental activist to head the Department of Land and Natural Resources. He bypassed the unions when he selected a corporate lawyer with no labor background to head the Department of Labor and Industrial Relations. He picked an independent attorney general with no political ties.
Cayetano says he wants to shift gears on tourism as well, pushing to diversify the economy rather than build hotels.
Cayetano and his wife, Lorraine, struck out for Los Angeles in 1963 with two children and no jobs. They worked his way through UCLA and Loyola Law School. Cayetano graduated with honors in 1971. He won election to the Statehouse in 1974, and has not lost an election since.
Cayetano’s “damn-the-torpedoes” approach showed during his tenure as lieutenant governor, when he hammered through the bureaucracy to create the state’s After-School Plus (A+) program within six months. It now provides care after school for 27,000 elementary students who otherwise would be latchkey kids.
Charles Toguchi, then-school superintendent and now the governor’s chief of staff, says he had advised Cayetano to start with a pilot program and go slow, but was rebuffed. “If he had gone the traditional route, it probably would still be a pilot project,” he said.