State Sen. Jill Tokuda and Congresswoman Colleen Hanabusa have a lot in common.

They’re both Democratic women seeking higher elected office this year — Tokuda is running for lieutenant governor and Hanabusa for governor. They’re backed by some of the same major political action committees and labor groups. And they share a few dozen of the same individual donors to their campaigns, including fishing industry leaders, energy company officials and business executives.

There’s another thing they have in common: support from Jennifer Sabas, a lobbyist who served as the late U.S. Sen. Daniel Inouye’s chief of staff for 20 years.

Jennifer Sabas, seen here speaking at the late Sen. Daniel Inouye’s funeral in 2012, has remained an influential figure in Hawaii politics.

Credit: Neil Abercrombie

Inouye, who as chair of the Senate Appropriations Committee brought hundreds of millions of dollars to Hawaii, died in late 2012. Sabas, as the caretaker of the late senator’s legacy and with her own extensive network of powerful connections, remains an influential figure behind the scenes in Hawaii politics. 

She’s head of the Daniel K. Inouye Institute Fund, which is working to build a new facility on the University of Hawaii’s campus as a tribute to the senator. It will house his papers and provide community outreach and education.

Her consulting firm Kaimana Hila, named after Inouye’s favorite song, has been hired by the Hawaii Longline Association to lobby the Legislature on behalf of the tuna industry and by the Chamber of Commerce to build up its Military Affairs Council.

Her firm consulted for Florida-based NextEra Energy in its effort to buy Hawaiian Electric Industries in 2016. Sabas also worked with Move Oahu Forward to ensure funding continues for the $9 billion Honolulu rail project and with the University of Hawaii to secure federal research money.

Sabas has donated a few thousand dollars to Tokuda and Hanabusa for this campaign and prior ones. But she’s also leveraged her relationships and extensive political network to help them win their hotly contested Aug. 11 primary races.

Hanabusa is trying to unseat Gov. David Ige while fending off former Sen. Clayton Hee in the Democratic primary.

Tokuda is battling state Sens. Josh Green and Will Espero, Kauai Mayor Bernard Carvalho Jr. and former Board of Education member Kim Coco Iwamoto for a post that provides statewide exposure and has often led to higher office.

A review of campaign finance records and disclosures with the state Ethics Commission shows many of Sabas’ clients and others connected to organizations she has worked with are contributing heavily to both the Hanabusa and Tokuda campaigns.

Neal Milner, political science professor emeritus at the University of Hawaii, said Sabas is a well-known political player and still pulls a lot of weight thanks to the influence and legacy of Inouye.

“She has an enormous amount of connections from her days with the senator and his name still means something here,” Milner, who writes a column for Civil Beat, said. “That’s like a money machine.”

Sabas did not respond to messages seeking comment for this story. 

Congresswoman Colleen Hanabusa, center, seen here in 2011 during her swearing-in ceremony with the late Sen. Daniel Inouye and his wife, Irene. Hanabusa’s campaign for governor has been backed by Jennifer Sabas, the former chief of staff for Inouye.

Tokuda has received at least $6,500 from the commercial fishing industry, including donations from the POP Fishing & Marine supply business and the United Fishing Agency executives who run the fish auction.

It is the first time Tokuda, who has served in the Senate for the past 12 years, received money from these fishing industry leaders.

Sean Martin, the owner of POP Fishing, founded the Hawaii Longline Association, which boasts more than 145 members, to advocate for tuna fishermen. The group has paid Sabas $24,000 for six months of lobbying work since 2017, when the Legislature was considering bills to crack down on the industry’s use of foreign fishermen who work on their boats.

Martin and his business partner, Jim Cook, each gave Hanabusa’s campaign $6,000 — the maximum allowed in a statewide race in Hawaii. The donations came in September, one week after their business made a $2,000 contribution to Tokuda’s campaign.

In all, Hanabusa received $23,500 from the commercial fishing industry as of Dec. 31, the end of the last six-month reporting period.

The amounts raised and names of the donors who have given money to their campaigns since then won’t be made public until their next reports are due with the state Campaign Spending Commission on July 12 — one month before the election and a couple weeks before absentee ballots go out.

Opening Doors To Donors

One of Tokuda’s fundraisers last year was at WCIT Architecture, where Sabas has an office.

Many of her colleagues in the Legislature, along with major lobbyists, lawyers and CEOs, made their biggest donations at the Dec. 5 event. Suggested donations were $1,000, $3,000 or $6,000. 

Tokuda received more than $30,000 from 15 members of the Legislature, including $6,000 apiece from House Finance Chair Sylvia Luke and Senate Ways and Means Chair Donovan Dela Cruz.

Jennifer Sabas is a successful lobbyist for prominent business interests. Sabas in seen here talking with Public Utilities Commissioner Mike Champley.

Nathan Eagle/Civil Beat

Sabas donated $1,000 at the event, bringing her total for the election period up to $5,700. And her administrative assistant at Kaimana Hila, Sara Daly Hamakawa, gave Tokuda $1,000, upping her total contributions to $3,500.

Thousands of dollars more came in to Tokuda’s coffers that day from people like Alicia Moy, the president and CEO of Hawaii Gas, who donated $1,000; Bruce Coppa, a lobbyist with Capitol Consultants of Hawaii, who gave $1,500; and former Sen. Matthew Matsunaga, an attorney with Schlack Ito, who contributed $1,000.

“This is a strong advantage if you can kind of get the old-line loyal Democrats on your side and Jennifer is a good link to that.” — Neal Milner, political science professor emeritus, UH Manoa 

Moy, who’s also given $6,000 to Hanabusa, was in talks in the past with NextEra Energy about powering Hawaii with liquefied natural gas — something the Ige administration has steadfastly opposed.

 

Sabas was a consultant for NextEra when the state Public Utilities Commission was considering — but ultimately denied — the company’s proposed $4.3 billion merger with the state’s dominant power company, Hawaiian Electric Industries. Ige opposed that deal.

But a new administration could mean a new PUC, whose members are appointed by the governor, and open up other options between the two companies, whether that’s LNG, wind farms or an undersea cable — projects NextEra scrapped under the Ige administration.

The NextEra Energy PAC donated $6,000 to Hanabusa in September. So did NextEra Energy Transmission President Eric Gleason, who led the merger effort. Hanabusa received another $9,000 from NextEra President and CEO Armando Pimentel and NextEra Energy CEO James Robo.

NextEra has not given money to any of the other LG candidates or Ige.

Sabas is also executive director of the rail advocacy group Move Oahu Forward. Hawaiian Electric Industries CEO and President Connie Lau co-chairs the group’s board and authorizes its lobbying expenditures.

Move Oahu Forward — which is funded by bankers, developers, large landowners, architects and engineers among others — paid Sabas $21,000 to lobby lawmakers during their special session last year to pass a bill to shore up funding for the over-budget rail project. The group has paid Sabas $157,000 since 2015 to lobby the Legislature.

Lau and Hawaiian Electric Co. CEO Alan Oshima each gave Hanabusa $1,000. They have given Tokuda a combined $6,300 and donated $3,445 to Ige in November.

While Lau and Oshima have given to both Hanabusa and Ige — spreading the money among candidates is common among some top business people and lobbyists — other major campaign contributors have not been playing the field.

Business titan Walter Dods, who supported Ige in his campaign for governor after the primary in 2014, had not given him any money as of Dec. 31.

Dods, who has served in top roles at First Hawaiian Bank, Hawaiian Telcom and Alexander & Baldwin, was close with Inouye and Sabas. In September, he gave Tokuda $3,000 and he and his wife, Diane, gave Hanabusa a combined $10,000.

Taking Tokuda Under Her Wing

Sabas tends to avoid the spotlight. She’s more often the person having side conversations with the key players, whether that’s at the Legislature, PUC hearings or elsewhere in the community.

But she’s taken a more direct role with Tokuda, who lives in the same windward Oahu town of Kaneohe and graduated from the same high school, James B. Castle.

Senator Jill Tokuda speaks to Sen Will Espero during recess on the floor.

Sen. Jill Tokuda, seen here on the Senate floor in March, has received fundraising and strategic help during her campaign from Sabas.

Cory Lum/Civil Beat

Milner, the political analyst, said it makes sense for Sabas to be more involved in Tokuda’s race because she needs the help more. It’s her first statewide race and far more competitive than her previous campaigns.

Tokuda ran unopposed in her last election in the 2014 primary and won the general in Democrat-dominated Hawaii with 71 percent of the vote. 

Name recognition is crucial, something she lacks outside her district, and commercials are costly. In a field of several well-qualified candidates, Milner said it’s important to find a way out of the pack.

“This is a strong advantage if you can kind of get the old-line loyal Democrats on your side and Jennifer is a good link to that,” he said.

One of Tokuda’s opponents is Sen. Will Espero, who has served in the Legislature since 1999 but has struggled to raise campaign funds in the lieutenant governor’s race. 

“You’ve got remnants of an older guard and an older establishment who are looking for a candidate they can support and get behind. That’s why you have that relationship between Jennifer and Jill,” he said.

The relationship between Sabas and Tokuda has gone beyond campaigns. In 2015, Tokuda was hired by the Daniel K. Inouye Institute for “program development and execution.” The institute had received $10 million in state funding to build the facility when Tokuda was head of the Senate money committee. At the same time, Tokuda had represented Kaimana Hila as a client before the University of Hawaii, according to her financial disclosure statements.

Sabas said Tokuda was paid in private dollars for the work, according to a Honolulu Star-Advertiser story. And Tokuda said in the same story that she was developing a lecture series that had nothing to do with building the facility.

A Valued Helping Hand

Sabas, along with other major lobbyists and political insiders, organized Tokuda’s most recent fundraiser on March 28 at The Art at Mark’s Garage in Honolulu. The event featured guest speaker U.S. Sen. Mazie Hirono, whom Tokuda worked for as an aide when Hirono was lieutenant governor.

Hirono gave Tokuda $3,000 in October when she was getting her campaign off the ground. 

Money also poured into Tokuda and Hanabusa’s campaigns through the Patsy T. Mink PAC, which Hirono founded in 2004. That PAC, which received thousands of dollars in funding from state lawmakers and others, donated $6,000 to Hanabusa and $5,500 to Tokuda in December — the only two donations it had made.

Tokuda recognized the need to get her name out in a very short timeframe. She said Sabas has been supportive of her political career for a long time and appreciates her help in this “tough new adventure.”

She said Sabas provides advice and counsel on campaign strategy and running a statewide race.

“She’s definitely not the only individual I’ve been working with but it definitely helps to have an individual who has gone through that experience to understand what the challenges are to have to now reach out well beyond a single Senate district and now look statewide,” Tokuda said.

Hanabusa did not respond to questions about Sabas’ involvement in her campaign.

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