Hawaii's former first lady Vicky Cayetano makes run for governor

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Aug. 29—Vicky Cayetano—a business executive, entrepreneur and former first lady of Hawaii—plans to officially launch her campaign for governor Monday as a Democrat, she told the Honolulu Star-Advertiser.

Should she advance from the Democratic Primary in August 2022 and then win in the November general election, Cayetano would be only Hawaii's second female governor and the country's first Asian American female governor, she said.

Cayetano, who has never run for elected office, not even as a schoolgirl, has a unique political perspective as a former resident of Washington Place, the official governor's residence, and more recently as co-chair of the successful 2020 campaign of Honolulu Mayor Rick Blangiardi, another business executive and first-time politician.

As the head of Hawaii's largest commercial laundry, with hotel and hospital clients across the state, Caye ­tano also has access to a network of politicians, including Blangiardi, and business and community leaders. The chairwoman of her campaign, Loretta Sheehan, is the former chairwoman of the Honolulu Police Commission.

Her campaign is simply dubbed "Vicky for Governor, " emphasizing to voters she's the only female candidate of the major contenders who so far include Lt. Gov. Josh Green and former mayor Kirk Caldwell. It also tells voters she's not running on the name of her husband, former Gov. Ben Cayetano, now 81, who served two terms from 1994 to 2002.

The couple married in 1997 at Washington Place ; both were previously married and divorced.

Cayetano said the former governor provided no advice in her decision to run for office.

"He knows me well enough. ... He knows I make my own decisions, " she told the Star-Advertiser during an interview at the 150, 000-square-foot United Laundry Services facility off Sand Island Access Road, where she serves as president of the company's Hawaii division.

"That is me, " she said. "I'm my own person. ... I support him and he supports me."

There was no single issue or event that made Cayetano decide to run. The timing just seemed right, she said.

When she turned 65 in March, Cayetano asked herself : "What is the last chapter of my life going to be like ?"

The answer, she said, was "a desire to do more for the community."

While she helped chair the campaign of Blangiardi, who leans conservative, Cayetano said her politics are decidedly Democrat.

"My values absolutely align with the Democratic Party, always have been : pro-choice, minimum wage (increases ), death with dignity, " she said.

At the same time, she supported Blangiardi because he brought an outsider's perspective to Honolulu Hale, just as she would to the governor's office, Cayetano said.

If elected, she said she would govern with a pragmatic, business-oriented approach.

"I'm fiscally conservative, " Cayetano said. "I believe in accountability and living within what we've committed to the taxpayers."

Politicians don't always realize the effects of tax increases that come "on the backs of working people, " she said.

During a tour of United Laundry Services' cavernous operation spread over two buildings, Cayetano sometimes bowed and sometimes waived enthusiastically to greet employees. Most of them, like Cayetano, are immigrants with working-class backgrounds.

They call her "Mrs. C " and she greets each one as "Mister " or "Miss " before their names.

"It's about treating people with respect, " she said.

Cayetano already has led a busy life. She was chairwoman of the Chamber of Commerce of Hawaii, successfully lobbied for a bill banning the sale of shark fins and in 2009, with her husband, founded The Cayetano Foundation Scholarship that helps 20 financially struggling students attend college each year.

As a business executive, Cayetano sweats the details. She knows the laundry volume of each station, such as the ironing area that alone can process 700 bed sheets an hour.

Cayetano produced a spread sheet she designed that tracks each client's laundry as it moves through the operation, down to the minute, then out the door for delivery.

She pores over the numbers every day.

"It's about accountability to the customer, " she said. "... One has to stay laser focused."

Cayetano has four grandchildren on Oahu, ages 2 to 7, two each from her two children, Marissa and William, from her prior marriage.

She said she thinks about her grandchildren and her employees when considering potential policies to make island life better, and more affordable, for all of them if elected governor.

Details of her plans on a wide range of issues are scheduled to be released Monday on her campaign website, vickyforgovernor.com.

She declined to critique the performance of Gov. David Ige, especially his handling of the COVID-19 pandemic that sent her business spiraling to a 75 % drop.

"Until you walk in their shoes, one should not comment, " Cayetano said.

SHEEHAN, the former Honolulu Police Commission chairwoman, signed up to run Cayetano's campaign two decades after meeting her at a luncheon of six working mothers while Cayetano was first lady and Sheehan was an assistant U.S. attorney.

Sheehan remembers Cayetano's initial message that the job of a working mother "is hard, it's really hard—thank you." At the time Sheehan thought, "She's pulling the oar just as hard as you are."

"She's hardworking and decisive and gets the job done, and yet she's able to do it with complete respect for others and including other voices at the table, " Sheehan said. "That's what I love about her. She has a beautiful heart."

Political analyst Neal Milner called Cayetano's chances in 2022 slim, especially compared to Green, the fundraising front runner serving in the relatively safe office of lieutenant governor, which Ben Cayetano held before being elected governor.

"She clearly is the underdog, there's no question about that, " Milner said. "She has limited appeal right now because she's not that well known, whatever the name is."

Milner called Cayetano a "smart and successful business person " who likely sees a political opportunity.

"She's walking into a situation where there is no incumbent, " he said. "She could be thinking of it as a two-person race, and Josh is holding his own and Caldwell's not getting anywhere."

One of the risks of Cayetano's campaign will be relying on voters to trust a neophyte, Milner said, because "they tend to be people who make mistakes and can't get out of them."

The "Vicky for Governor " campaign moniker is clever and "has a nice ring to it, " Milner said.

It carries an echo of the successful campaigns of the late U.S. Sen. Daniel K.

Inouye, whose black and gold lawn signs and bumper stickers sometimes simply read, "Dan."

But unlike Inouye or failed presidential candidate Hillary Clinton, who also used just her first name in campaign materials, not all voters across the state are likely to know who Vicky Cayetano is, Milner said.

"If you said, 'Vicky's running for governor, ' most people would not know what you're talking about, " he said. "Everybody knew who Hillary was."

Cayetano's campaign is launching less than a year away from the Democratic primary and has not reported any donations, an indicator of how much support she may have.

"She's getting started late, " said Colin Moore, director of the University of Hawaii's Public Policy Center. "For a first-time candidate, she is really getting started late."

At the same time, Caye ­tano would "absolutely " have appeal "as an independent candidate with a strong business background, " Moore said.

Her core supporters likely would be frustrated voters "who feel like the state bureaucracy can't get things done, the state is run by some sort of Democratic machine, " Moore said. "That would really be helpful despite that she is the former first lady of a Democratic governor."

But Moore repeated his earlier prediction to the Star-Advertiser that a Caye ­tano campaign would attract no more than 25 % to 30 % of votes in the Democratic primary.

"Some voters will support her because they really liked Ben Cayetano, " Moore said. "There are a whole lot of others who don't remember Ben Cayetano. So I stand by that for the Democratic primary : 25 % to 30 %. She's running against the heir apparent who's a very popular public figure. The question for voters is going to be why vote for (Cayetano ) versus Josh Green ?

"That's going to be a very hard narrative for her campaign to craft. Her answer will probably be her pragmatism, her business background, her independence from the Democratic Party. But I'm not sure that's going to do it in a primary."

CAYETANO's parents, William and Patricia Tiu, emigrated from China before she was born in Manila on March 16, 1956. Her father, a businessman in the import-­export trade, taught Caye ­tano lifelong lessons about efficiency and navigating life as an immigrant female who stands just under 5 feet tall.

She remembers her dad marking the date on each jar of peanut butter when it was first opened so he could tell how quickly it was consumed and how soon he should plan on restocking.

He also told Cayetano she would have to work harder as a woman of color—"and you're short."

"He said, 'You will succeed in spite of, instead of, because of, '" Cayetano said. "'You have to reach further. You have to stretch more.'"

Her older sister, Ginny Tiu, was a 5-year-old piano prodigy, and the family moved to the mainland when Caye ­tano was 3 years old to pursue opportunities for Ginny, including appearances on the Ed Sullivan and Danny Thomas television shows.

Tiu also appeared in the 1962 Elvis Presley movie "Girls ! Girls ! Girls !" but was unavailable for a subsequent Presley movie a year later, "It Happened at the World's Fair, " leaving the director of both films to offer an acting opportunity to Cayetano.

During filming at the Seattle World's Fair, Cayetano hated being separated from her family and was nervous and stuttered. Presley then took her to dinner, reassured her and calmed her down, but the experience killed any future ambitions in show business for Cayetano.

The family later moved to San Francisco, and Cayetano attended Stanford University but dropped out to begin a commercial travel agency before moving to Hawaii with her first husband.

Cayetano was always more passionate about entrepreneurship than any specific type of business. So in Hawaii she and Masaichi Tasaka, then-head of Kuakini Medical Center, saw opportunities for hospitals and later hotels to outsource their in-house laundry services, leading to the creation of United Laundry Services in 1987.

Cayetano remembered the early days of the startup business.

"I'm 34 years old and I'm doing laundry, sorting, washing and folding, " she said.

The company has since expanded to Hilo, Kahului and Lahaina, and is Hawaii's largest operation of its kind.

"It was just a business opportunity, " she said. "You look for opportunities you could do."