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The Pacific Resource Partnership has brought a new level of sophistication to this year’s Honolulu mayoral race, one that is unprecedented in Hawaii politics.
Yes, PRP’s political action committee has spent more money on political television advertising than any other candidate in local races. And, yes, much of this has been focused on attack ads directed at former Hawaii Gov. Ben Cayetano who wants to kill the city’s $5.26 billion rail project.
But the group’s latest effort to drum up political support for Kirk Caldwell involves arming citizens with smart phones, maps and ritzy campaign pamphlets and sending them door-to-door throughout Oahu to sway voters on the idea that rail is good for Hawaii and that Cayetano is bad.
That’s right, even if you’re an undecided voter who doesn’t watch TV or listen to the radio, PRP still plans to get its message into your home.
Not only are organizers using technology to track voters and gather data about them in real time, but they’re paying $400 a week. Union members are said to get paid even more.
While canvassing isn’t a novel idea, the way PRP is going about it in 2012 is unique.
And it’s piqued the interest of the Hawaii Campaign Spending Commission.
PRP leaders won’t talk about the group’s canvassing efforts.
PRP Executive Director John White did not return phone calls seeking comment Wednesday. Instead, he released a single-sentence statement about the group’s efforts through a public relations firm.
“PRP is running a fact-based campaign, on several levels, so that voters are educated as to their choices for mayor and are able to make the right decision for their families,” White said.
Cindy McMillan, who works at PRP and heads up the group’s pro-rail I Mua Rail initiative, agreed to an interview Wednesday and then later cancelled.
Civil Beat recently spoke with several of PRP’s canvassers — who were roaming the streets with clipboards, blue bags and white T-shirts that say “Forward Progress” — as well as with one man who interviewed for the job.
What became clear is that PRP’s secrecy starts at the top and continues through the ranks. Canvassers say they were told not to talk to the media. Some simply directed inquiries to White.
Enough information was gleaned, however, to paint a picture of a well-organized political effort that aims to do whatever it can to make sure Cayetano is not elected.
“This is not just your go-out-and-sign-hold campaign job,” said former legislator Gerald de Heer. “This is the most sophisticated grassroots attack operation in the history of Hawaii.”
De Heer is a mass transit supporter who has problems with the way the city’s $5.26 billion rail project has been executed. He’s also a Cayetano supporter.
In September, de Heer received an email from I Mua Rail asking if he’d like to earn up to $400 a week talking with residents about the project. The email said that the “outreach efforts … will help inform the larger community about important issues that are at stake in this year’s general election.” The email was signed by McMillan.
De Heer, who now works for Securitas Security Services, responded to the email because he needed the money and was curious about the offer. The email told him to call an individual working for Remedy Intelligent Staffing, and included a link to the following job description:
De Heer said he was interviewed by McMillan. She told him his employer would be Remedy Intelligent Staffing, and that PRP wanted to put between 50 and 60 canvassers out in the community to survey prospective voters. Each canvasser would go through training and be given a smartphone.
He said McMillan told him that the main objective of the canvassing was to talk about rail, but if that didn’t resonate they were to spread negative information about Cayetano. De Heer said McMillan insisted that the information would be factual. She also made it clear to him that he could not have any contact with the Cayetano or Caldwell campaigns.
“This is a targeted campaign to spread negative information with canvassers brought into your neighborhood from a dispatch center,” de Heer said. “What they’re operating is an integrated media strategy with ground troops.
“This is Big Brother campaigning in Hawaii. Welcome. And by the way it’s legal, particularly in light of the (Citizens United) Supreme Court decision. They can do what they want, which in America is one of our freedoms.”
According to de Heer and others, canvassers will be going door-to-door until the election. They’re mainly targeting Democratic and undecided voters. Among the negative information that is contained in their scripts is PRP’s latest allegation that Cayetano, a two-term Democratic governor, is aligned with Republicans and the birther movement.
The pay has been attractive, too. The going rate for a canvasser is $12 an hour. Union members can earn $20 an hour. The expectation is that canvassers will work up to 35 hours a week.
Such a lucrative deal has attracted more than just those who are politically motivated. Civil Beat talked to at least one person who has never registered to vote and who is luke warm on the rail project, especially considering the recent Hawaii Supreme Court ruling about Native Hawaiian burials that has stopped construction.
Ben Cayetano says he knew he had a daunting task once he decided to run for Honolulu mayor as an anti-rail candidate. Once PRP and other groups got involved he expected a concerted effort to prevent him from dismantling the project.
“This is my ninth election, I’ve been through eight general elections, and I’ve never seen this happen before,” Cayetano said Tuesday, noting that PRP has spent more than $2 million trying to keep him out of office. “If I beat them it will be really sweet for us, I can tell you that.”
Both a new independent expenditure committee and a new non-candiate committee have recently formed to defend Cayetano from PRP. It’s unlikely, though, that either group will be able to catch up to PRP in terms of reach and persistence prior to the Nov. 6 election.
Meanwhile, Cayetano’s opponent has not condoned or denounced any of PRP’s actions. In an interview Wednesday, Kirk Caldwell said his campaign has refused to go negative and that he’s not even sure if PRP has had a significant influence on the election.
“Independent expenditure committees are a fact of life in America today. They exist on the federal level they exist on the state level, they exist on the county level and I think they’re going to continue to grow,” Caldwell said. “My practice is going to be to stay positive and talk about the issues. If others want to do what they want to do I’m not going to judge what they’re doing.”
PRP’s actions during this election have confounded the Campaign Spending Commission as it grapples with new rules stemming from the U.S. Supreme Court’s Citizens United ruling that allows certain groups to raise and spend unlimited amounts of money on campaigns.
In some ways, PRP has taken advantage of this ruling more than any other group in Hawaii.
Not only does it have an independent expenditure committee that pushes for Caldwell and denounces Cayetano, it also operates I Mua Rail, which encourages support for the project while not advocating for a specific candidate.
It’s this slight distinction that means PRP doesn’t have to disclose how much money it spends on its I Mua Rail campaign or where those funds come from.
Questions have been raised with the Campaign Spending Commission about whether PRP has properly reported how much money it’s spent and whether there has been coordination between its campaign and that of Caldwell’s.
But PRP isn’t the only group getting scrutinized. The Campaign Spending Commission recently asked the union-backed Workers for a Better Hawaii to register as an independent expenditure committee because it spent nearly $600,000 on political advertising supporting Caldwell.
“It’s a new concept: independent expenditure committees, super PACs and coordination,” Campaign Spending Commission Executive Director Kristin Izumi-Nitao said. “Right now we’re just moving with the times and trying to be very aware of the landscape and it’s hard. There are some vagaries there that are very hard to deal with.”
The latest conundrum for the Campaign Spending Commission has to do with I Mua Rail and whether it crossed the line into political activity when it started recruiting canvassers for PRP.
It’s convoluted, but even though the head of I Mua Rail, Cindy McMillan, was behind the email that sought recruits for the job, and even though it came from an I Mua Rail address, when McMillan interviewed candidates, she apparently did so as a representative of PRP, according to de Heer.
Izumi-Nitao said she contacted PRP and was told that the canvassers would be employed by Remedy Intelligent Staffing, and that Remedy is being paid by PRP and not I Mua Rail. The pro-Caldwell and anti-Cayetano literature is being paid for by PRP, too, leaving I Mua Rail further distanced from the political advocacy.
According to Izumi-Nitao, this divide is enough to keep I Mua Rail’s expenditures and its donors out of the public spotlight. PRP on the other hand will be required to report the cost of its canvassing, she said.
“We’re hoping at this point in time you’ll see full disclosure on the next report,” Izumi-Nitao said. “But until then, we’re not going to assume they’re not going to report it.”
The next round of campaign finance reports are due to the state Oct. 29.