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Now that it’s clear former U.S. Rep. Charles Djou will be challenging incumbent Kirk Caldwell in the general election for Honolulu mayor, some political watchers were expecting the building trades group Pacific Resource Partnership to make a full-court press with millions of dollars to take down Djou.
But PRP’s Executive Director John White said in a phone conversation Friday, “PRP will not be engaging in any political campaign in 2016.”
White declined to say why the advocacy group is staying out of all races this election.
Maybe PRP thinks it doesn’t need to get involved in a big way like it did in the 2012 Honolulu mayor’s race because Djou favors going ahead with the rail system.
Djou has said he wants the train to go all the way to Ala Moana , but he wants to look at ways to contain its escalating $8 billion cost. He wonders if there might be less costly ways to finish it — maybe with rubber wheels or at ground level instead of elevated.
Keeping the Caldwell administration in place would be more comfortable for PRP because Caldwell favors the current rail technology, elevated steel-on-steel, but at least PRP can rest assured if Djou wins, rail construction will continue.
PRR is the advocacy group for the Hawaii Carpenters Union and 240 independent building contractors.
It was a major player in the 2012 mayor’s race when former Gov. Ben Cayetano seemed on track to defeat Caldwell after outpolling him in the primary.
Cayetano was running against pro-rail candidates Caldwell and Mayor Peter Carlisle, who was knocked out in the primary with a third-place finish.
Cayetano promised if he was elected he would stop the rail project, which at the time was expected to cost $5.26 billion.
Members of PRP’s building trades were eager for the thousands of jobs rail would provide. The organization blasted out a series of smear ads alleging Cayetano was corrupt and broke the law when he was governor from 1994 to 2002.
The negative ads kept coming even though Cayetano was never found to have broken any laws.
PRP’s coordinated campaign against Cayetano included a canvassing operation with workers paid up to $400 a week to go door to door in targeted areas to try to sway voters away from Cayetano and over to Caldwell.
PRP’s campaign was called one of the “most persistent and sophisticated attack operations” even seen in Hawaii.
PRP had $4 million in its super PAC then, much of which was spent for ads and mailers to make Cayetano look like a crook.
Cayetano later sued for defamation and won a settlement that included a written apology from PRP published in two consecutive Sunday editions of the Honolulu Star-Advertiser, a $100,000 donation to the University of Hawaii medical school and a $25,000 donation to the Hawaiian Humane Society in Cayetano’s name.
A criminal investigation of PRP is still pending in the attorney general’s office, where it was sent by the state Campaign Spending Commission after complaints were filed by Cayetano alleging PRP under-reported its expenditures. A similar complaint from Cayetano is still pending at the Federal Election Commission.
Cayetano, in a telephone interview Friday, said he doubts PRP would ever again go to the lengths it did to defeat him.
“People knew in 2012 these guys were giving money to everyone. I don’t expect them to behave like that again,” says Cayetano.
Cayetano was a difficult opponent for Caldwell in the 2012 election because the former governor was a lifelong Democrat with a popular following in many ethnic groups.
In this race the key difference is Djou is a lifelong Republican in heavily Democratic Oahu. That may be his biggest vulnerability.
The Caldwell campaign already is emphasizing Djou’s GOP party affiliation with radio ads saying, “In Congress, he voted with Republicans 90 percent of the time,” a contention Djou disputes.
Political analyst Colin Moore says, “That is almost certainly the way the campaign will go. You will see prominent Democrats by Caldwell’s side to remind people he is a good Democrat. Djou’s biggest weakness in the race is that he is a Republican.”
Moore is the director of the University of Hawaii Public Policy Center.
Djou is considered a moderate Republican. In his ads, he points out his support from prominent Democrats such as Cayetano and former Hawaii Democratic Party Chairman Walter Heen.
“My team brings together Democrats, Republicans and independents and labor unions. The aim is to bring everyone together,” says Djou.
Earlier this month, the Caldwell campaign sent out a campaign brochure comparing the mayor to Djou, making clear the race is between Democrat Kirk Caldwell and Republican Charles Djou.
Political consultant Keith Rollman expects Donald Trump’s image to emerge soon in the mayor’s race.
“Expect to see pictures of Donald Trump side by side with Charles Djou, courtesy of the Caldwell campaign,” says Rollman.
Never mind that Djou has publicly disavowed Trump.
In an open letter to Hawaii Republicans last March, Djou said that he has voted for Republicans for president all his life but he will not support the GOP nominee this election.
“Donald Trump’s candidacy, however is inconsistent with my values and I cannot in good conscience vote for him,” Djou said.
Political analyst and fellow Civil Beat columnist Neal Milner also expects the Caldwell campaign to make a point that Djou belongs to the same political party as Trump.
In a phone interview, Djou says it would be pointless for Caldwell to bring up Trump.
“This is a nonpartisan race,” Djou says. “It is about fixing Honolulu. This is a clear distinction between myself and Caldwell. He might want to bring in poisonous mainland politics. I don’t.”
Going forward, it has to be worrisome for the Djou campaign that he ended up neck-and-neck with Caldwell in the primary, not sweeping far ahead of him.
But on Saturday, Djou squeaked in a close second with 42.8 percent or 72,520 votes to Caldwell’s 43.7 percent or 74,057 votes.
In the 2012 mayoral primary vote, Cayetano finished 15 percentage points ahead of Caldwell, yet he still lost in the general election.
Cayetano finished the 2012 primary with 44.7 percent or 90, 956 votes to Caldwell’s 59, 963 votes or 29.5 percent.
Cayetano’s ultimate loss to Caldwell was attributed by analysts to the attack campaign by PRP and the larger numbers of traditional Democrats turning out that year because there was a presidential election, just like this year.
Djou’s weaker-than-expected showing in the primary Saturday might make it more difficult for him to raise money in the days ahead.
Caldwell has far more money. The latest campaign spending reports showed Caldwell’s campaign from the beginning of the election cycle has raised $2.85 million and spent $2.1 million. Djou raised $484,894 and spent $277,474.
In an email Sunday, Djou touted the close primary election results as a sign the momentum is on his side.
“In just 68 days, we managed to hold the incumbent mayor to an effective draw after being outspent 5-to-1 with the entire City machinery against us,” Djou said.
When it comes to fundraising, he is heartened by raising four times more money than Caldwell in the last few days before the primary.
Now back to Pacific Resource Partnership.
In its latest campaign spending reports, PRP’s PAC, called Forward Progress, showed just $98.69 on hand.
The PAC’s only expenditure during this latest campaign spending reporting period — Jan.1 to July 29 — was $50,000 to Tulchin Research of San Francisco, paid July 14 to poll Oahu residents on rail.
White said the poll will ask voters questions about rail, including if they favor the system ending at Middle Street.
White said information from the rail poll will not be used in support of any candidate. He said PRP pays for polls on rail throughout the year to get a handle on general public thinking about the project.
When I asked why PRP’s expenditure for this poll was filed with the Campaign Spending Commission if it’s not campaign-related, White said that with the past allegations about the PRP’s under-reporting, he is being overly cautious.
“We are choosing to over-report,” said White.
It is strange to think of PRP as staying out of the political fray this year, but maybe after being bitten so hard with a lawsuit and fines after the 2012 election, the advocacy group is satisfied to let other traditionally Democrat groups such as environmentalists, plaintiffs’ attorneys and unions spend their money to coordinate the attack ads this time.