BENJAMIN J. CAYETANO was born and raised in the blue collar community of Kalihi in Honolulu, Hawaii. His parents divorced when he was six and his father, Bonifacio, an immigrant from the Philippines, raised him and his younger brother, Kenneth. Though poor, his early childhood was a comparatively happy one. Kalihi was a tough neighborhood, however, and as a juvenile, Ben survived several brushes with the law. A good student who earned good grades up to his sophomore year in high school, his junior and senior years, for a variety of reasons, were near disasters. Barely avoiding flunking out, he managed to graduate from Farrington High school in 1958.
Married at 18, he became a father at 19 and worked as a service station attendant, laborer, truck driver, electrician apprentice and draftsman to support his family. He realized quickly that his lack of a college education was a major obstacle to better opportunities. In 1963, he moved with his wife and two children to Los Angeles to pursue a college degree. The long ten hour flight to Los Angeles was the first time he had ever been off the island of Oahu or on an airplane.
In Los Angeles, he found a job as a draftsman and prepared for college. His poor high school grades required a stint through Los Angeles Harbor College where he worked hard to get his grades up before he was finally admitted to the University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA) in 1966. Since his arrival in Los Angeles in 1963, he saw that the nation was experiencing tumultuous times: John F. Kennedy and subsequently Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King, Jr. were assassinated, and the Civil Rights Movement and the Vietnam War deeply divided and troubled the American people. With this dramatic backdrop, He was graduated from UCLA in 1968 and from Loyola University School of Law in 1971.
Recruited upon graduation by a highly regarded Hawaii law firm, he and his family returned to Hawaii where he was admitted to the Hawaii Bar and entered private practice as a trial attorney. In 1972, he was appointed by then Governor John A. Burns to the Hawaii Housing Authority, the state agency responsible for developing and managing public housing for low income people. This experience gave him an insight to the realities and potential for good in Hawaii politics. Shortly thereafter, he launched his political career.
In 1974, he won election to the Hawaii State Legislature. During two terms in the House of Representatives and two in the State Senate, he held several important posts including serving as chairman of the Senate Ways and Means and the Majority Policy committees, respectively. He was selected as one of the ten outstanding legislators by the Honolulu StarBulletin for four consecutive years and developed a reputation as an independent, honest and effective legislator.
In 1986, he was elected lieutenant governor. His accomplishments in that post included educational reform, the streamlining of election laws, and most significant, the conception and implementation of the A-Plus After-School Program. A Plus is the nation’s first state funded after-school program and has served as many as 29,000 public school elementary children annually. It consistently receives high approval ratings from parents for quality and effectiveness. In 1993, he was honored for these efforts by the UCLA Alumni Association and the University of Hawaii’s College of Education.
On November 8, 1994, Hawaii’s voters elected Benjamin J. Cayetano governor of the state, making him the first Filipino-American governor in United States history and the nation’s highest-ranking elected public official of Filipino heritage. Faced with the worse economic crisis in the state’s history, he organized a task force of business, labor and legislative leaders and developed an economic recovery plan. Confronted with a storm of criticism and opposition from factions opposed to his proposed reforms, Governor Cayetano nevertheless implemented civil service reform, reduced the size and growth of the state government to less than the rate of inflation, pushed through and implemented one of the biggest reduction of state taxes in the nation at the time, built a record number of public schools and homes for native Hawaiian homesteaders, constructed a new state convention center to boost tourism, a new state art museum and began construction of a new medical school-research center for the University of Hawaii.
He kept his promise to give education his highest priority by sparing the public schools from budget cuts at the expense of other state departments. He sought reform through the collective bargaining process and in 1997 negotiated a contract which increased teachers’ salaries in exchange for a seven day increase in the school year. In 2001, he withstood a three week statewide strike by public school teachers and university faculty, finally settling on contracts which provided affordable pay raises and focused on accountability and rewarding teachers for professional development rather than solely by seniority and which included merit pay for university faculty. True to his pledge to increase teachers’ salaries, Governor Cayetano boosted starting salaries for teachers from $25,000 in 1997 to $34,300 in 2002, a thirty-seven percent increase in just six years.
No stranger to making controversial decisions, Governor Cayetano ordered the State Attorney General to intervene on two issues of great significance to the people of Hawaii. The first was the investigation of the Bishop Estate. The Bishop Estate, an eleven billion dollar trust fund set up for the benefit and education of Hawaiian children had been plagued by misconduct by its trustees and had become highly politicized. The result was the establishment of reforms which changed the manner in which the estate was managed and depoliticized the way trustees were selected.
The Governor’s second major action was to order the Attorney General to oppose the buy-out of Hawaii’s second largest major daily newspaper, the Honolulu Starbulletin, by the larger Honolulu Advertiser. If successful, the buy-out would have left Hawaii with one single major daily newspaper. The buy-out was successfully stopped and Hawaii remains with two major daily newspapers today.
In 1999, Hawaii’s economy rebounded; 2000 saw expanded growth in new economic areas, further diversifying the economy. This economic recovery continued until, like the rest of the nation, it was derailed by the September 11th terrorist attacks. Unlike the rest of the nation, however, Hawaii rebounded much faster and by 2002, it was one of only two states which projected economic growth again. When Governor Cayetano’s second term expired on December 2, 2002, Hawaii’s economy was still growing, its unemployment rate stood at 4.2%, one of the lowest in the nation.
For his achievements in public office, Governor Cayetano received numerous honors and awards. In 1995, he received the UCLA Medal, the university’s highest honor, for his “remarkable record of public service”; The Distinguished Leadership Award from the UCLA John E. Anderson Graduate School of Management; and the Hawaii Chapter of the American Society of Public Administrations Award for Ethics In Government. In 1996, he received an award for leadership and contributions to government from the Harvard University Foundation for Intercultural and Race Relations. In 1997, he received an honorary doctorate of laws from the University of the Philippines. In 1998, he was awarded an honorary doctorate of public service from Loyola Marymount University and the UCLA Edward A. Dickson Alumnus of the Year Award for lifetime achievement. Finally, in 2002, President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo of the Philippines conferred upon Governor Cayetano the Philippine Legion of Honor, that nation’s highest honor for distinguished achievements by civilians. He is a past chairman of the Western Governors’ Association.
Governor Benjamin J. Cayetano served in public office for twenty-eight consecutive years. Now retired from public service, he is engaged in private business, writing his memoirs and teaching at the University of Hawaii. His favorite past time is reading and he enjoys golfing, watching football and boxing. He and his wife and former First Lady, Vicky, have five children. They now reside in Waialae Iki, a suburb of Honolulu, with their youngest child, William, and their five dogs.