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Labor unions, lawyers, engineers, business leaders and other traditionally well-heeled funders are divided over whether to funnel their campaign cash to incumbent Gov. David Ige or his challenger, Congresswoman Colleen Hanabusa, in the Aug. 11 Democratic primary.
So too are the two Bert Kobayashis, long among the top private donors in Hawaii politics.
In September, Bert A. Kobayashi Sr., a major developer in the islands, donated $6,000 — the maximum allowed — to Hanabusa’s campaign for governor.
Meanwhile, Bert T. Kobayashi Jr., a top lawyer in Honolulu, has given Ige the maximum $6,000 to his re-election campaign.
Both have interests in either building or providing legal representation of resort communities, country clubs, housing and more.
And during the past decade, they have given a combined $300,000 to 100 candidates, according to state Campaign Spending Commission data.
Open-government groups have long called for reforms to the state’s campaign financing system, such as lower limits for donations and a publicly funded option that removes at least the appearance of politicians beholden to their biggest contributors.
“There’s a better alternative to large private donations from individuals and businesses,” Erica Johnson, president of the League of Women Voters of Hawaii, said Thursday.
Neither Kobayashi returned messages seeking comment for this story.
Bert A. Kobayashi Sr. is founder and senior adviser of the Kobayashi Group, a real estate development and investment firm that’s been active in Hawaii for the past three decades.
The company has developed more than $3 billion worth of property in the Aloha State, including Hilton Hawaiian Village, Ko Olina Golf Club, Sheraton Moana Surfrider, The Turtle Bay Hilton, West Loch Estates, the Hawaii Medical Service Association office and parking structure, and Country Club Villages in Salt Lake, according to its website.
He grew the firm his father, Albert C. Kobayashi, started in 1962, from a business with revenues of $2 million a year to $125 million a year, according to the company’s website.
In 2017 alone, Bert A. Kobayashi Sr. contributed over $30,000 to political candidates. Aside from Hanabusa, he donated to the campaigns of state Senate President Ron Kouchi and fellow Sens. Jill Tokuda, Gil Keith-Agaran and Donovan Dela Cruz as well as then-House Speaker Joe Souki and Reps. Kyle Yamashita, Calvin Say, Ken Ito and Della Au Belatti, among others.
Honolulu Mayor Kirk Caldwell and City Council members Trevor Ozawa, Kymberly Pine, Ron Menor, Carol Fukunaga and Ikaika Anderson also received campaign cash from the developer.
The Legislature and the Council set policies and approve tax breaks that shape development in Hawaii, whether that’s incentivizing transit-oriented development around the $8 billion Honolulu rail project between Kapolei and Ala Moana or spurring housing across the state.
Last session, lawmakers passed a bill, which Ige signed, that gives developers a $30 million annual general excise tax exemption for new rentals over the next 12 years.
Executives of the Kobayashi Group, which includes another Bert Kobayashi — Bert “BJ” A. Kobayashi Jr., co-founder and partner — have donated together to certain candidates this election.
Five executives have given Tokuda, who’s running for lieutenant governor, a combined $6,500 and three executives have given Hanabusa $18,000, but there could be additional donations from members of the company that have not been reported yet.
The most recent campaign finance data only runs through Dec. 31. The candidates’ next expense and contribution reports are due July 12, which will cover the first six months of 2018.
Over the past decade, donors who listed the Kobayashi Group as their employer in campaign finance records have contributed about $412,000 to candidates.
The developer Kobayashi has outpaced the lawyer Kobayashi in campaign contributions.
Bert T. Kobayashi Jr., a senior partner in the law firm of Kobayashi, Sugita and Goda, donated over $10,000 to candidates last year, including Ige.
At the local level, he contributed to the campaigns of Caldwell, Ozawa, Fukunaga and Menor. His donations to state legislators went to Belatti, Say and Souki, along with Rep. Romy Cachola and Sen. Karl Rhoads.
Kobayashi is “intimately involved with the governmental, political and business fabric of the State of Hawaii,” according to his bio on the law firm’s website.
His practice focuses on commercial and construction litigation, consultation in development and construction, governmental procurement and contracts, antitrust and public utilities representation, among other areas, the website says.
Other attorneys in the firm have donated to many of the same candidates as Kobayashi. In all, lawyers with the firm contributed at least $74,000 to candidates over the past decade.
“It is concerning that the Berts have given so much directly to candidates,” Corie Tanida, executive director of Common Cause Hawaii, said Wednesday. “But it is legal and that’s why disclosure is important.”
While it’s often difficult to know if major political contributors receive special treatment, Tanida said, “both donors and especially elected officials should be wary of this and should do all they can to avoid even the appearance of impropriety, especially given our current environment and the lack of public trust in government.”
Common Cause and other good-government groups have advocated for publicly funded elections statewide and more transparency in government contracts and procurement.
There is another Bert Kobayashi in Hawaii politics. But the most that state Rep. Bert Kobayashi has given to another candidate was $5,555 to Bobby Bunda in his 2010 bid for a House seat.
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