Election Day 2012 was a big win for the Pacific Resource Partnership and its membership of unionized carpenters and contractors.
While much of the focus has been on PRP’s influence on the race for Honolulu mayor, the group flexed its muscle in other major contests around the islands.
The group also sent out mailers supporting city council candidates on the Big Island, according to reports in the Hawaii Tribune-Herald. PRP’s success wasn’t ubiquitous there, however, as it was only able to get two of the four candidates it endorsed elected.
Even so, it’s hard to say PRP didn’t have at least some sway in this year’s election.
While it’s one thing for former Hawaii Gov. Ben Cayetano — who lost in the mayoral race to Kirk Caldwell — to say the group helped “usher in a new era in Hawaii politics,” it’s quite another when a candidate with limited clout and resources runs up against the PRP leviathan.
“Once I saw the first piece of mail coming from PRP I was prepared for the worst and expected negative ads,” said Sam Aiona, who lost in the Honolulu City Council District 6 race to Fukunaga. “They never did attack me. However, they did send out around $70,000 worth of mailers into the district which was the deciding factor in the race.”
Aiona said he came across six mailers during the election that PRP distributed through his district, which includes downtown Honolulu, Punchbowl, Makiki, Liliha, Pauoa Valley, Nuuanu Alewa, Papakolea, Kalihi Valley and a portion of Kalihi. He also ran into canvassers that PRP had hired to distribute information to potential voters.
He estimates the cost of the flyers to be around $70,000, when compared to the amount of money he spent on his own campaign materials.
PRP reported spending $22,000 on the District 6 race in its most recent campaign finance report. The report states the money was used for surveys, polls and voter lists.
Fukunaga, a former state senator, outraised and outspent Aiona leading up to the election, which was to replace outgoing council member Tulsi Gabbard, who is heading to Congress. The financial difference between the two candidates was not huge, with each one spending between $42,000 and $50,000.
Aiona believes that if PRP hadn’t been involved the race would have been different. He lost to Fukunaga by 5 percentage points.
“As a candidate it’s hard enough to go to battle against one candidate, but it’s much harder when there’s an organization like PRP that spent more money than the candidate I was running against,” Aiona said. “It’s just hard to win when you have those kind of resources working against you.”
It’s probably not a stretch to say PRP’s interest in these races is clear. It’s about development.
On the Big Island, PRP is advocating for the Thirty Meter Telescope, which the group’s website says will cost more than $1 billion to build and bring federal dollars to the state that “will provide a healthy shot to Hawaii’s economy.”
In Honolulu, the focal point of PRP’s efforts was the city’s $5.26 billion rail project. Although construction on the project has halted due to legal challenges, the project is a potential cash cow for local contractors and union workers. Things are expected will become even more lucrative once new developments begin to sprout along the rail line.
With so much at stake, particularly with rail, it’s not surprising PRP wanted to involve itself in races other than that for the mayor’s Office.
PRP supported Pine over incumbent Tom Berg because he was one of the few dissenting voices on the city council when it came to rail. It also pushed for Fukunaga, who was running in 15-person field that included a Aiona, who came out strongly as an anti-rail candidate.
By winning these races PRP has assured strong council support after Caldwell takes over as mayor in January.
Perhaps it’s because of this PRP decided it didn’t need to take on venerable Honolulu Council Member Ann Kobayashi, who has consistently voted against rail. Kobayashi crushed her challenger, James Hayes, 70 percent to 16 percent.
“We were afraid that was going to happen so we were prepared by raising enough money and by getting our mailings ready,” Kobayashi said.
Kobayashi’s campaign had about $71,000 in its bank account at the beginning of the year. She added to that amount, bringing in more than $111,000 through the election period ending Oct. 22.
Hayes, on the other hand, raised just under $2,000. This surprised Kobayashi considering her opponent works for Parsons Brinckerhoff, which is a company with some of the largest rail contracts.
“I don’t know what happened,” she said. “But they didn’t give him a lot of money, which I was afraid was going to happen.
“It’s unfortunate that campaigns have to be run with all this money,” she added, “especially from unknown sources like PRP rather than the candidates themselves. You just don’t know where the money is coming from.”
It’s difficult to know exactly how much of an impact PRP had on this election. But there are some who believe it could be a model for how politics are played in the future.
PRP Executive Director John White was unavailable for comment Wednesday. A spokesperson for PRP said no other representatives would be available for an interview.