The race for lieutenant governor draws little public interest in Hawaii.
It’s technically the state’s No. 2 post, but the lieutenant governor has hardly any power beyond granting name changes and processing documents to convey some state lands. Only 38 percent of nearly 700,000 registered voters even cast a ballot for any of the candidates four years ago.
But being lieutenant governor remains a huge lure for politicians who can use it as a ladder to higher office. Three past Hawaii governors and the state’s two sitting U.S. senators served as lieutenant governors. And the current LG, who took over in January, aspires to serve in Congress.
The candidates recognize the office as a stepping stone — and so do the local power brokers working to influence who wins the all-important Democratic primary Aug. 11.
About $500,000 was funneled into the campaigns of state Sens. Jill Tokuda and Josh Green between July 1 and Dec. 31, the most recent filing period with the Campaign Spending Commission.
The other three candidates in the race — Sen. Will Espero, Kauai Mayor Bernard Carvalho Jr. and former Board of Education member Kim Coco Iwamoto — lag behind in fundraising.
The money matters. For the candidates, it’s all about making their names known beyond the districts they represent. That means buying as many TV spots as possible, which will likely ramp up in July, but also taking out ads in newspapers or on Facebook, Instagram and other outlets.
But there is a clear distinction between the donors who are backing Tokuda and Green.
The Democratic establishment has lined up behind Tokuda, who raised $334,305 over the last six months of 2017.
That’s more than three times as much money as Shan Tsutsui raised during the same six-month period in 2013 when he successfully ran for lieutenant governor in 2014 (he was appointed to the job in 2012) and more than twice as much as Brian Schatz hauled in during the same reporting period in 2009 from his winning campaign in 2010.
Tokuda’s campaign money has come from lobbyists such as George “Red” Morris, Blake Oshiro and Jennifer Sabas, who together have donated almost $15,000; Hawaiian Electric executives such as Constance Lau and Alan Oshima; developers such as Stanford Carr and Mitch D’Olier; and party insiders like national committeewoman Kathleen Stanley.
“The general rule in giving money in politics is you want to back the winner — you want to buy access if they win,” said Colin Moore, director of the University of Hawaii Public Policy Center.
Unlike the other candidates, Tokuda raised a big chunk of her campaign cash from her colleagues in the Legislature. She has received more than $30,000 so far from 15 members of the state House and Senate, including $6,000 apiece from Rep. Sylvia Luke and Sen. Donovan Dela Cruz, who chair the money committees.
“I support Jill because we work really well together,” Luke said. “She’s someone who I think will do a good job in lieutenant governor or whatever else she wants to run.”
Dela Cruz said the lieutenant governor position is whatever the office holder makes of it.
“You have a soap box to bring to light many issues important to the state,” he said.
Sen. Karl Rhoads donated $4,000 to Tokuda’s campaign in December from his own campaign account and had given $350 to Green personally. He told them he’d stay neutral in the race by giving each of them the same amount they’d given him for his 2016 campaign for Senate.
State law allows legislators to use their own campaign money to help their colleagues’ campaigns by purchasing up to two tickets to their fundraisers. Tickets can be as much as the maximum allowed for that race, which is $2,000 for a House seat, $4,000 for a Senate seat and $6,000 for statewide races.
The UH’s Moore said the $30,000 that Tokuda received from her colleagues is a “surprising” amount that reflects an allegiance to her and the expectation of future favors.
“There’s no doubt that she’s a strong candidate,” he said. “But the calculation is that this is someone on the make and they’re going to help me.”
Born and raised in Kaneohe, Tokuda, 41, has received almost all of her campaign donations locally. Of her total contributions this election cycle, only 4 percent (about $23,000) came from out of state, according to the Campaign Spending Commission.
Campaign Spending Commission Executive Director Kristin Izumi-Nitao said she’s never seen a candidate raise so much money from her peers this early in the campaign.
“For somebody to come out of the gate like this … that’s huge,” she said. “By no means is Josh out. He’s got some pretty significant donors that are giving individually. Only time will tell.”
Green, a 48-year-old emergency room physician from New York, raised 39 percent of the $206,591 he hauled in during the last six months of 2017 from out-of-state contributors. Those include several family members on the mainland, such as his aunt and uncle, Eric and Carmin Green, who are mediators in Massachusetts.
Many physicians and health professionals in Hawaii donated heavily to his campaign, such as Dr. Colleen Inouye from Makawao and Arthur Ushijima of Queen’s Hospital. Educators, lawyers and farmers also gave thousands of dollars.
Looking at the entire four-year election period, Green has received nearly $99,000, or 34 percent, of his campaign contributions from out of state, according to the Campaign Spending Commission.
Green will have to raise more money locally between now and election day to get his overall out-of-state contributions below the 30 percent threshold required under state law.
He’s held four more fundraisers since the last reporting period ended. Two were in Hawaii and two were in Washington state. The most recent one, Feb. 4 at the Grand Wailea on Maui, had suggested contributions of $500 to $5,000.
Green maintains an edge with $536,495 on hand. He has been banking money for the past 13 years in office, which included time as Senate Health Committee chair. But the Big Island lawmaker has been spending it fast on campaign consulting, research and getting his name out to voters statewide through social media.
He spent $156,073 during the six-month reporting period, including more than $30,000 on ads with Facebook, which also owns the photo-sharing app Instagram where he has campaign videos appearing in users’ feeds.
“I’m running to serve as lieutenant governor because I care about people, not politics, so it’s been an honor to receive the support of regular people from across Hawaii, not just big donations from a few lobbyists and political insiders who make a living from politics as usual at the Capitol,” Green said in a statement Monday.
Tokuda has $403,495 in her account but has not been spending it as quickly. The Oahu legislator, who boasts U.S. Sen. Mazie Hirono as honorary campaign chair, has stronger name recognition after serving three years as head of the Senate Ways and Means Committee, which shepherds the overall state budget and decides fiscal bills.
She was ousted from that position last year after being unable to come to an agreement with Luke on how to fund the over-budget Honolulu rail project but Moore said she clearly still has lawmakers loyal to her.
Tokuda had spent $55,407 on her campaign as of Dec. 31.
Moore said Green has really strong connections with the medical community but will have to work harder to raise campaign funds without the backing of the traditional Hawaii Democratic interests who are supporting Tokuda.
Iwamoto, a former Board of Education member, has $108,187, with support locally from educators and environmentalists, as well as mainland friends and other sources. Her biggest donors included Hae Won Chun Harris, a Victoria’s Secret designer from New York, Kevin Williams, a Coca-Cola marketer from Georgia, and Clint Cowen, an executive producer from Hollywood.
Espero and Carvalho have lagged behind in fundraising, bringing in $25,275 and $14,630, respectively.
Iwamoto said she has no intention of seeking higher office if she wins the LG seat.
“I’m running to utilize the lieutenant governor’s office in a way that’s been disregarded in its ability to be the people’s office,” she said last week. “It’s the same size as the governor’s office but it’s been completely wasted space.”
She envisions it as a meeting place for individuals and advocates for people fighting on the front lines of Hawaii’s most pressing problems — environment, homelessness, affordable housing, economic justice, prison reform, education.
“All of these issues need a home at the Capitol,” she said.
Espero, who has served 19 years in the Legislature, said he sees value in the lieutenant governor’s position and would work to be a leader who gets things done. But he said the LG would not be his last stop.
“I certainly want to use it to ascend to the governorship,” he said. “That’s my goal. That’s what I’m looking at.”
Espero said he is not worried at this point in the race about lagging behind in campaign funds but he acknowledged the challenge of competing against someone who has the backing of traditional Democratic interests.
“Social media has changed the campaign environment,” Espero said. “You don’t need as much money as you did 10 years ago.”
For Green, the LG seat would be a path to governor. Many of the elected officials and political analysts who were interviewed for this story said his appeal is not broad enough in Hawaii to launch him to Congress. He’s also raising a family with his wife, making the logistics of a 10-hour commute to D.C. a challenge.
Tokuda’s road is more complicated. She could use the LG seat to boost her name recognition and gain supporters for four or eight years and set herself up for a strong run as governor. Practical reasons — she’s also raising a family with her husband — could make that more appealing.
But some see her as a potential successor to Hirono, who is battling cancer. Her resignation would necessitate an appointment, which the governor would make based on a list of three candidates chosen by the Hawaii Democratic Party.
Tokuda was an aide for Hirono when she was lieutenant governor and has strong ties to the party.
Doug Chin, who stepped down as attorney general to serve as Gov. David Ige’s new lieutenant governor after Tsutsui quit in January, is running to fill Congresswoman Colleen Hanabusa’s seat, which represents urban Oahu. She’s stepping down to run for governor.
The LG position is partly what the officeholder makes of it, but it’s also dependent on the person’s relationship with the governor.
Former Gov. Neil Abercrombie gave Schatz high-profile tasks like running the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit in Honolulu, Moore said. Ige, by contrast, had a tense relationship with Tsutsui, who was left with nothing to do.
“It’s a good platform to run for governor, not only because you’re fairly visible but the position itself doesn’t come with a lot of power,” Moore said. “So you get that visibility without having to make a lot of tough decisions before you run for governor.”
Espero said it’s good that voters will have plenty options for lieutenant governor this election.
“You’ve got five or six credible candidates and the voters will hopefully come to the polls and make their choice,” he said.
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