Former Honolulu Mayor Mufi Hannemann publicly announced at the end of last week that he will indeed run for governor again this year.

But unlike his last two runs for public office, when he suffered crushing defeats in Democratic Party primaries, this time Hannemann says he’s running as an “Independent.”

Mufi Hannemann

One of Mufi Hannemann’s campaign photos from a previous run for office.

Courtesy of the Hannemann Campaign

The capital “I” is important here, because Hannemann isn’t running as an independent candidate eschewing all party affiliation. Instead, Hannemann says he has “accepted the invitation” of the newly formed Hawaii Independent Party to be its candidate for governor.

Hannemann said his run as an Independent Party candidate is a “pragmatic way” of avoiding the Democratic primary and guaranteeing himself a spot on the general election ballot.

The announcement shouldn’t have come as a surprise. Hannemann had been coyly dropping hints for months about leaving the Democratic Party. And Campaign Spending Commission records show he quietly amended his campaign’s “organizational report” on March 7 to change his “party affiliation” from “Democrat” to “Independent.”

In a post-announcement column, Star-Advertiser political reporter Richard Borreca outed Hannemann as the man behind the curtain at the founding of the Independent Party.

“Honolulu’s former two-term mayor formed the party to rid himself of slogging through a Democratic primary filled with voters who have never supported Hannemann’s stands on business, same-gender marriage and the environment,” Borreca wrote.

There just isn’t much space between the new party and Hannemann’s campaign apparatus.

Maui realtor Michelle Del Rosario is the Hawaii Independent Party’s state co-chair and has emerged as its public spokesman. A search of campaign spending records from 2006 through 2013 shows Del Rosario did not contribute more than $100 to any political candidate or political party during that period. Nor was she reimbursed by any candidates for money spent as a campaign volunteer.

However, Del Rosario’s Twitter account shows she started tweeting in support of Hannemann’s congressional campaign at the beginning of 2012, and continued until just after Mufi’s shocking primary loss.

A week after the primary in August 2012, Del Rosario said in a tweet: “I am in need of my @MufiHannemann fix…. We miss you Mufi.”

After that, her account remained inactive until last week, when she again started retweeting items about Hannemann’s latest campaign announcement.

The Independent Party’s two Oahu co-chairs, Les Chang and Colin Ching, have both been major financial supporters of Hannemann’s campaigns. Chang contributed $7,500 to Hannemann’s campaign between 2007 and 2010, while Ching added $2,000 in July 2010. Both men also contributed to Hannemann’s 2012 congressional campaign, with Ching giving $2,500 and Chang adding $1,750.

The party’s Kauai co-chair, Russ Grady, was active in Hannemann’s 2010 campaign and received nine separate reimbursements totaling $1,463 after using his own funds to purchase office supplies, food and beverages, and travel for the campaign.

Big Island co-chair Lawrence Balberde made an in-kind contribution to the 2010 campaign for governor in the form of food and beverages for a Hannemann campaign fundraiser.

Maui co-chair Rob Stephenson was selected to participate in the Pacific Century Fellows program in 2012, a project of the Fund for the Pacific Century. Hannemann is the founder and chairman of the Pacific Century fund. His long-time associate, Trudi Saito, serves as executive director of the fellows program, and treasurer of the fund. Dean Okimoto, chair of Hannemann’s campaign for governor, is a member of the Pacific Century advisory board.

Does the backing of the Independent Party, even if not really very independent, give Hannemann’s candidacy a boost?

There is one immediate problem. Although the Hawaii Independent Party has registered and been certified as a party by the state office of elections, it has yet to file an organizational report with the Campaign Spending Commission, the commission’s associate director, Tony Baldomero, confirmed on Monday.

State law requires this initial report to be filed by any non-candidate committee, including a political party, “within ten days of receiving contributions or making or incurring expenditures” totaling more than $1,000.

This either means the new party hasn’t yet raised or spent more than $1,000 since it’s February founding, or that it’s already having trouble staying on the right side of the admittedly complex campaign spending laws and reporting requirements. In either case, it means the party isn’t getting off to a fast start. And with the general election just over six months away, there’s no time to waste.

Once it gets off the ground, though, the party can at least theoretically help Hannemann confront one of the biggest issues — money. Hannemann has to convince the voting public that he is still a viable candidate after his embarrassing back-to-back defeats, and he’ll have to do that without drawing on the credibility and history of an established political party.

But unlike candidates for governor, who can accept a maximum of $6,000 from each contributor, a political party can accept up to $25,000 from well-heeled backers.

And while the party can’t give more than the same $6,000 directly to Hannemann’s campaign, any money it raises can be spent to educate the public about the Independent Party, an effort which would likely rebound to Hannemann’s benefit as he tries to turn “independent” into a rallying cry for disaffected voters.

Party funds can also be spent to “get out the vote” for its candidates through grassroots organizing and media advertising. Assuming that the party ends up with only a handful of candidates, any voters it motivates and organizes would be expected to back the party’s candidate for governor.

Baldomero said candidates trying to jump-start campaigns are likely to have a tough time raising money.

“I’ve been hearing the well is pretty dry in our state,” Baldomero said.

As a result, the Campaign Spending Commission is preparing for the appearance of special interest groups and wealthy individuals that set up so-called “Super Pacs,” which can raise unlimited amounts of money without contribution limits, as long as it is spent independently of the candidates it supports or opposes.

Groups like the PRP which, with backing from the Carpenters Union, pumped millions into a campaign to defeat Ben Cayetano in the 2012 election for Honolulu mayor, could hold the key to the money game this year and could again tilt the balance in a close election.

Hannemann’s game plan seems to have a more basic flaw. The candidate is trying to define himself as a “centrist,” presumably seeing Gov. Abercrombie to his left and former Lt. Governor Duke Aiona to his right. But that fails to take into account that Abercrombie has already moved towards the center during his first term as governor.

While Abercrombie’s perceived drift toward business and development-friendly policies has left part of his political base of progressive Democrats sputtering in frustration, Hannemann isn’t likely to benefit from their disaffection. In fact, Hannemann’s return is a jarring reminder for progressives that things could indeed get worse, from their perspective, if they fail in the end to rally, however reluctantly, behind Abercrombie’s reelection bid.

In the meantime, I agree with Mufi’s supporters who say that it takes a lot of guts for him to wade back into the political arena after being humbled in two successive elections. True enough.

It also takes a massive ego and unbridled ambition, traits that have turned off lots of voters in the past. So he’s walking a very fine line.

But make no mistake — it means we’re heading into a fascinating election campaign. Hang on to your hats.

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