Earlier this fall I participated in a Think Tech Hawaii forum at the Laniakea YWCA downtown.
Billed as a “blue ribbon panel” discussion on the “post-Inouye/Abercrombie era” in Hawaii politics, the forum also featured Daryl Huff of Hawaii News Now, Beth-Ann Kozlovich of Hawaii Public Radio, Malia Zimmerman of Hawaii Reporter and Colin Moore of the University of Hawaii Political Science Department.
It was the inclusion of Andrew Walden of Hawaii Free Press on the panel that raised a few eyebrows. Several people asked me if it was not such a good idea to appear on the same dais with Walden. They expressed their concerns about his journalistic bona fides and political slant.
I responded that perhaps Think Tech Hawaii meant to say it was a Pabst Blue Ribbon panel, but the joke fell flat. What it made me start thinking about is just why Andrew Walden gets under the skin of so many people.
Some of those reasons were evident at the Sept. 24 forum.
While there were those in the audience who were delighted to see a conservative iconoclast offering a different take on Hawaii politics — Walden has been involved with the Hawaii Republican Party, the Libertarian-leaning Grassroot Institute of Hawaii and local tea party groups — others scratched their heads at Walden’s occasional cryptic references to local politicians.
Asked about our newest U.S. senator, for example, Walden encouraged people to Google “Brian Schatz” and “sheep.” The reference, it seems, is to an online post last year claiming to report on the college-age Schatz and a fraternity prank.
Perhaps Walden was seeking laughs from the audience, but I don’t know. My interpretation was that Walden seriously wanted people to Google “Brian Schatz” and “sheep” as a way to form a negative opinion on Hawaii’s senior senator.
Walden’s remark on Schatz is minor, though, compared with some of his other comments. And whether you agree with him or not, he has become a presence on the local political landscape and is having an influence.
Walden is not shy about expressing his opinions, and with Hawaii Free Press they have gained a sizable audience.
Consider this post last week titled Ige’s Pihana: Which Came First the Crony or the Capitalist?, which aims to poke holes in the private sector experience of David Ige, the Democratic Party nominee for Hawaii governor. Excerpt:
Akamai readers already know about Ige’s GTE gig, a “Conflict of Interest Because Ige Was Both Legislator and Lobbyist While Serving on Committee Overseeing His Employer.”
In his next position, Ige turned the tables. Instead of allowing his capitalist employer to make use of his crony political position, at Pihana, Ige joined with small-time jewel smuggler, Larry Mehau protectee, and ex-governor George Ariyoshi to use political position in an attempt to become the capitalist–and it almost worked, until Goldman Sachs taught them all the meaning of “preferred stock. …”
The post on Ige is typical of many of Walden’s writings on local politics. They have just enough of a veneer of authority to make some readers take them to be credible, and they often do raise legitimate questions about issues like conflict of interest.
But the articles can also be misleading. The links Walden provides in the Ige story — to a “small-time jewel smuggler” and “Larry Mehau protectee” — raise old, largely unsubstantiated rumors about Mehau being a criminal “Godfather” and make Ariyoshi, a three-term governor, somehow guilty by association.
The link to the “Conflict of Interest” story, meanwhile, is to a 1988 article in the Honolulu Star-Bulletin article that is much less of an indictment on Ige than Walden suggests. The actual headline for the story — “Sen. Ige now a GTE lobbyist: He says he will avoid a conflict of interest and not lobby his peers” — is far more benign the the accusatory headline Walden provides.
Sometimes, Walden reports on things before reporters in the mainstream press have, albeit in a manner that suits his political agenda. But even people who might be expected to have similar political views are not happy with Walden’s work.
“He is a hack,” said Zimmerman of Hawaii Reporter, who has also been involved with the local GOP, helped found the Grassroot Institute and whose articles she says Walden reprints without permission. “There are lots of factual errors and he is just an embarassment for the Republican Party and the Grassroot Institute.”
Just this fall, Walden took his political activism a step further, creating his own political action committee. Called the Hawaii Voter Initiative Project, it has spent more than $14,000 on voter lists, mailers and postage to target five Democrats running for the Hawaii Legislature.
“The Hawaii Voter Information Project is a 100 percent self-funded effort to undermine the culture of political impunity,” he told me in an email Sunday.
Walden agreed to an interview on the condition that I email my questions to him.
Originally from Detroit, Walden, 52, started Hawaii Free Press about 10 years ago on the Big Island. It is reported to have 40,000 online subscribers. Walden lived in Hilo until moving to Oahu a few years ago.
Walden comes across as an intelligent, complex, principled person who pays close attention to politics local and national, and then writes or aggregates aggressively about them on his website and using social media. While some may mistake him for a journalist, he is really a blogger with a bent — a bent he makes clear on his website: to bring out points of view “based on free enterprise, small government, and individual liberty as a counterpoint to what is presented in the rest of Hawaii print and television media.”
In addition to his own writings, he publishes lots of press releases, many of them from the Republican Party of Hawaii and Kelii Akina, who leads the Grassroot Institute and is on the ballot Tuesday running to be an Office of Hawaiian Affairs trustee.
“Hawaii Free Press brings out points of view based on free enterprise, small government, and individual liberty as a counterpoint to what is presented in the rest of Hawaii print and television media.” — Hawaii Free Press website
Akina, who interviewed Walden for an Aug. 10 video on a free press and a free society, told me that Walden is not a paid employee of the institute but is “an advisor when it comes to news — one of our consultants.”
The Grassroot Institute is one of the many groups that Walden links to from the Hawaii Free Press. The sites suggest his many interests:
Global Warming “Scientists” Email Files #1, God, Freedom, America, GoGoGMO!, Hawaii Aganst Assisted Suicide, Hawaii Concealed Carry, Hawaii Right to Life — Big Island, Hawaii Smokers Alliance, HI Coalition Against Legalized Gambling, Honolulu TEA Party, Inouye-Kwock, NYT 1992, Jihad Watch, OHA Lies, Perry and Price Show, Pritchett Cartoons, Republican Party — Hawaii State, Rick Hamada Show, The Harriet Tubman Agenda
Walden has not limited his activity to his website. For instance, he was a key force in persuading Hawaii Republicans to have a presidential caucus in 2012.
Having written about the need for Hawaii Republicans to involve more people in the presidential selection process “in order to expand voter participation and thereby move closer towards a two-party system in Hawaii,” Walden explained, the party saw 10,000 voters participate in the nomination of Mitt Romney two years ago.
As a result of the caucus, Walden said 1,400 new Hawaii voters were registered. Under state GOP rules, the next presidential caucus will be March 8, 2016.
Judging from a report this spring in The Pono Press, the newsletter of TEA Party Maui, Walden wants conservatives to flourish in Hawaii today. But to do so, says the newsletter, “they must find the issues that voters believe in, which are fundamentally conservative.”
Those issues involve supporting a nuclear family, the military, religion and religious values. Walden also opposes the Jones Act on maritime shipping, wants to repeal Obamacare, supports gun ownership, seeks strong sentencing for criminals and would like to decrease the power of Hawaii’s labor groups.
In certain circles, those views are not uncommon even in Democrat-dominated Hawaii. But Walden’s Internet bully pulpit has got him the attention of powerful forces, like the state’s largest union, the Hawaii Government Employees Association.
Speaking at the HGEA’s general assembly in May, Executive Director Randy Perreira spoke proudly about the union’s successful efforts to block a bill to privatize the Hawaii Health Systems Corporation, which employs a lot of unionized workers.
“One of these so-called journalists, a guy named Andrew Walden of the Hawaii Free Press, actually called HHSC the ‘HGEA job trust,'” Perreira said. He then went on to say this:
And for people like Andrew Walden, people who look to sell our jobs out from under us, people who look to outsource services, deny what we have earned, tried to cut our wages and benefits, and keep us down, I have a very simple two-word reaction …
The profane phrase that followed concluded remarks that were received with sustained whoops and applause from the membership.
Walden’s PAC, the Hawaii Voter Information Project, is targeting five Democrats in the general election: state Sen. Brickwood Galuteria, Reps. Tom Brower, Karen Awana and Richard Creagan, and former state Rep. Mike Magaoay.
Why these five?
“Selection began with facts rather than a traditionally defined political objective,” Walden explained. “The publicly reported information shows the five candidates (Awana, Brower, Creagan, Galuteria, Magaoay) are especially egregious and in each case a credible alternative is available. The objective is to mobilize ‘clean government’ voters.”
Walden said his PAC mailed “just one simple black and white text-oriented mailer” for each race. The mailers typically consist of quotes from major print media, local TV news reports “and even Civil Beat articles — some even written by you,” Walden told me. “I realize there could be questions about the use of a source like Civil Beat, but I stand by your work, Chad.”
“We have Tea Partiers playing in Mililani politics! Oh goodness, that’s scary!” — a Mililani resident
(I should point out here that Walden used to comment quite a lot in the comment section following Civil Beat articles. I haven’t seen any lately, but he is still offering his critical opinions on what others are writing about. Just last week, in fact, he had this to say on his Facebook page about a recent item on our website: “Another sad little Civil Beat ‘Fact’ Check debunked. When will they ever learn?”)
The mailer on Magaoay, for instance, included this quote from an article in the Honolulu Advertiser on April 26, 2008: “Mike Magaoay’s campaign targets people in the nonprofit community to raise money while he was a key player in determining which nonprofits received legislative grants.”
What the mailer does not explain, however, is that the Hawaii State Ethics Commission absolved Magaoay of any impropriety. Indeed, the article in question is headlined, “Magaoay cleared of ethics violation during fundraising.”
The practice of pulling quotes from the media out of context to use in political attacks is nothing new. Neither is the reaction to them.
“We have Tea Partiers playing in Mililani politics!” a Mililani resident emailed me recently with Walden’s mailer attacking Magaoay attached. “Oh goodness, that’s scary!”
Magaoay is seeking to unseat Republican Lauren Cheape Matsumoto.
Galuteria and Brower, whose districts included Waikiki, say they are not happy with the mailers targeting them but are doing what they can to fight back.
“My constituents have seen the mailers,” said Brower, who faces Republican Janet Grace. “Some think it’s dirty politics and are disappointed. But I am going to run a positive, clean campaign.”
Said Galuteria, who faces Republican Chris Lethem, “It’s the same, old negative campaign: half-truths, old stuff, misinformation and fishing expeditions. But people like me, when they get those mailers, they put them in the round filing cabinet.”
As in the trash can. Still, Galuteria says the mailers have forced him to ramp up his campaign and send out mailers of his own attempting to set the record straight.
“It’s a two-edged sword,” he said. “You do not want to give life to it, but you would not be human if you did not want to strike back.”
For his part, Walden feels it is entirely appropriate to point out what he says were statements in the media about candidates.
“Will the information in one mailer be enough to stand out in the pre-election deluge? We will find out soon,” he said.
Asked whether it was appropriate for an editor to have a PAC, Walden said this:
It is appropriate to re-publish news. To do so legally in this context requires a PAC. Unlike the dozens of Hawaii journalists (shall I make a list?) who go back and forth through the revolving door to work on the payroll of politicians, billionaires, developers, government departments, or other special interests, I am completely independent of external control or funding.
If his PAC is successful, Walden may keep it going.
“There are many egregious officeholders left,” he said. “The results of the five races will provide data upon which to base decisions.”