Hawaii’s candidates for governor and the 1st Congressional District may be too squeaky clean and Boy Scout-ish for any dirt to emerge about them in the upcoming election.

It is difficult to imagine Democratic gubernatorial candidate David Ige — whose friends say the most scandalous thing he ever did was to “toilet paper” friends’ cars in college — involved in anything salacious.

Or to imagine goodie-goodie Republican congressional candidate Charles Djou staggering down a Chinatown street after drinking too many mango margaritas at the Pig and the Lady.

PRP Loophole commercial about Cayetano

An image from one of several ads the Pacific Resource Partnership ran to attack former Hawaii Gov. Ben Cayetano in 2012.

Screen shot

Or born-again Catholic GOP contender Duke Aiona hanging out with a “lady of the night.”

Or to envision Democratic congressional candidate Mark Takai, a war veteran and avid family man, running a gambling ring in Aina Haina.

Not going to happen.

“They are boringly clean,” says political analyst Neal Milner, who is a columnist for Civil Beat. “They are making for a very dull election.”

Whether the candidates are dull or not, Hawaii voters should be prepared for negative attacks as the election gets closer and view the attacks skeptically.

Most of Hawaii’s political campaigns — if they have the money — are digging deep and using what’s known as opposition research, or “oppo,” in the hopes of finding information to cast their opponents in a negative light.

Oppo researchers hunt for a politician’s character flaws, but more routinely they gather information about the candidate’s questionable votes in the past or stupid things he or she might have said. Anything to make a candidate look compromised, inept or untrustworthy.

Opposition research is as old as humankind. In the first century B.C., Cicero is said to have gathered information to try to make a case his opponent, named Catiline, had murdered his own wife so he could marry his girlfriend.

President John Adams accused political opponent Thomas Jefferson of fathering numerous children by Jefferson’s slave Sally Hemings.

In a multi-million dollar race such as the campaign for Hawaii governor, putting together an opposition research book on a candidate can cost as much as $40,000.

President Adams political rivals spread gossip that Adams had sent a friend to Europe to find him mistresses. Adams joked that if Secretary of State Timothy Pickering found any mistresses in Europe, he probably kept them for himself.

What’s new today is that opposition research is much easier to do with the internet — not only in terms of finding dirt or gaffes, but also for quickly spreading negative information far out into cyberspace as well as to targeted audiences that might be influenced.

“And what was once considered off-limits information about a candidate’s private life is now up for grabs,” says Milner.

In oppo research, campaign supporters or paid consultants dig through public records, including police and court records hoping to find a golden nugget that stops their opponent in his or her tracks. They comb through news reports, social media outlets and pore over an opponent’s past speeches.

In a multi-million dollar race such as the campaign for Hawaii governor, putting together an opposition research book on a candidate can cost as much as $40,000.

There is also the additional cost of polling. Consultants routinely do telephone polls of 500-600 people to find out if the negative message they want to place in a commercial against an opponent is persuasive or not.

Negative information about a candidate can be widely distributed on social media sites such as Twitter and Facebook, where they are few gatekeepers to censor or reject the information that’s posted.

Campaigns pay to research not only their opponents but also their own candidates to search for anything embarrassing that might surface during a race.

In addition, opposition research can pull in a lot of useful information about an opponent’s past votes and public statements so that a candidate can try to rattle the opponent during debates.

A consultant noted that opposition research is everyday, routine and a cornerstone of any modern political campaign.

At its most devious, opposition research can stoop to what’s called “black ops,” meaning dumpster diving or stalking in hopes of finding embarrassing info about an opponent’s sex life or even misdeeds by his or her children.

Consultants I spoke with say they limit their research to what’s in the public domain. They claim they would never hire stalkers or dumpster divers to uncover info about a candidate’s sexual life.

But political strategist Dylan Nonaka, the former director of the Hawaii Republican Party, shakes his head. “They say they don’t do that. They deny they are looking for that kind of material. But they pray they find it.”

Sometimes “black ops” are unnecessary when you have an idiot candidate like married U.S. Congressman and, later, New York mayoral candidate Anthony Weiner, who couldn’t restrain himself from sending photos of his genitals to women following him on Twitter.

Or the doltish and cruel former U.S. Sen. John Edwards, who recklessly fathered a child out of wedlock during his presidential campaign while his wife was battling cancer.

In opposition research, it is not just about what’s discovered but how that information is packaged to persuade to voters to reject a candidate they once favored.

This kind of smear was carefully crafted when Pacific Resources Partnership used opposition research and high-paid consultants to derail former Gov. Ben Cayetano’s campaign two years ago. That was when Cayetano seemed to be on the verge of winning a three-way race for Honolulu Mayor.

PRP, a lobbying organization for the building industry feared Cayetano’s election would kill the city’s $5.26 billion rail project.

Political consultant Ben Tulchin, who helped frame PRP’s opposition research against Cayetano, wrote in an email that, “we need to start laying down the foundation for ‘corruption’ attack.”

Tulchin explained that, considering Cayetano’s appeal to voters, “It will take a bit of time for voters to really accept that he is corrupt.”

When information is spread that’s irrelevant to how a politician would perform if elected or if the information is false, then it is a silly waste of time for everybody.

The consultants went on to manipulate information to make it appear Cayetano was dishonest. After Cayetano lost the race, he sued PRP for defamation of character. PRP settled by issuing a public apology to Cayetano and paying $125,000 to a charity in Cayetano’s name.

People who do oppo know there is the chance there will be consequences if they get caught spreading misleading information, but they suffer the consequences because the name of their game is victory.

PRP attack ad Cayetano laughing

Screen shot of another element in the PRP’s attacks on Cayetano.

Another example of carefully manipulating opposition research to take down a candidate was when operatives eager to see Mufi Hannemann become Honolulu mayor in 2004 leaked information to the media from court records about frontrunner Duke Bainum’s wife.

Jennifer Toma Bainum had been in a court dispute (prior to marrying Bainum) with the family of an elderly man she took care of until he died. The man’s children accused Mrs. Bainum of stealing their father’s money, but in court Mrs. Bainum was found innocent of all the allegations.

Hannemann’s supporters emailed information about the accusations against Mrs. Bainum to thousands of people on mailing lists throughout Hawaii and the U.S., and even as far away as the Balkans.

I know because my daughter received one of the emails when she was working in Pristina, Kosovo. The email messages conveniently omitted the fact that the court had found the accusations against Mrs. Bainum groundless.

Mufi Hannemann narrowly defeated Bainum, by 1,300 out of the nearly 300,000 votes cast in the general election.

I don’t mind when someone loses an election fair and square, like Gov. Neil Abercrombie, who was defeated in this year’s Democratic primary because the public disliked him. Abercrombie lost the race due to his own actions, not because political strategists planted carefully framed half-truths from opposition research into cyberspace to defame him.

If opposition research turns up information that gives voters helpful and fact-based insights about a candidate, that’s okay.

But when information is spread that’s irrelevant to how a politician would perform if elected or if the information is false, then it is a silly waste of time for everybody.

How much do you value our journalism?

Civil Beat focuses exclusively on the kind of journalism most at risk of disappearing – in-depth, investigative and enterprise coverage of important local issues. While producing this type of journalism isn’t cheap, you won’t find our content hidden behind a paywall. We also never worry about upsetting advertisers – because we don’t allow any. As a nonprofit newsroom, we rely on donations from readers like you to help keep our stories free and accessible to everyone. If you value our journalism, show us with your support.

 

About the Author