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There are two rules to work at Strategies 360, the Seattle-based public affairs, research and strategic communications firm that has recently ramped up its Hawaii operations, even convincing the state’s lieutenant governor to jump to the private sector.
“Rule No. 1 is no assholes allowed,” CEO Ron Dotzauer told Civil Beat. “If we find out later that you are … you will not be with us long term.”
“Rule No. 2 is no high sharp elbows,” he said. “We’re in this together. It’s about us. It’s not about me.”
But just what the company is about in Hawaii is unclear.
Dotzauer declined to reveal a single client, citing the importance of maintaining confidentiality and adhering to nondisclosure agreements. He did say that most of the clients are not engaged in politics.
The company doesn’t show up on any of the latest campaign expense reports of Hawaii candidates or as a contributor to political action committees. Those reports, however, haven’t been updated since January.
Education, environment and health care are the firm’s specialties, Dotzauer said, adding that it also does some work in technology and has probably touched every sector of the economy.
Strategies 360, which has offices in 12 Western states and Washington, D.C., set up shop in Hawaii in 2016 under the leadership of John White. He came over from Pacific Resource Partnership, which represents a consortium of contractors and unionized carpenters that spent more than $4 million in the last three elections through super PACs.
White is best known for leading the Pacific Resource Partnership PAC’s 2012 campaign to help elect pro-rail mayoral candidate Kirk Caldwell by tarnishing his opponent with an unprecedented amount of outside spending on attack ads.
White’s work resulted in state fines, a public apology and a $125,000 settlement, but Caldwell won the election and kept the $8 billion rail project alive. Its costs have ballooned as the city struggles to build the 20-mile line from Kapolei to Ala Moana Center.
White’s involvement in any political races this election season is less clear, aside from a couple of donations.
Last summer, White gave $3,000 to Honolulu City Councilwoman Kymberly Pine’s re-election campaign and $500 to Kauai County Councilman Derek Kawakami’s bid for mayor.
Strategies 360 also brought Stacy Ellamar over from PRP to manage its Hawaii government affairs. And the firm has hired Molly Pierce, who was campaign director for Forward Progress, the renamed PRP super PAC that spent a few hundred thousand dollars in Hawaii during the 2014 and 2016 elections.
Dotzauer said White disclosed his history with the 2012 mayoral race when they met.
“He was honest and up front,” Dotzauer said. “John is a guy who works his tail off. He deserves a lot of credit as he was a big reason the others joined.”
In January, Strategies 360 made national headlines when Shan Tsutsui abruptly announced that he would resign as lieutenant governor and join the firm as its senior vice president for Hawaii.
Tsutsui has been campaigning for Congresswoman Colleen Hanabusa in her bid to unseat Ige in the Aug. 11 Democratic primary, but Dotzauer said Hanabusa is not a client.
“People have their favorites; we all do,” Dotzauer said. “They have a real long history together.”
Then, earlier this month, Donalyn Dela Cruz left her position as communications director for the state Department of Education to serve as the Hawaii office’s vice president of communications.
The other two members of the firm’s Hawaii team have political backgrounds.
Jane Clement was chief of staff to the former chair of the Hawaii County Council, Dru Kanuha, before joining the firm to manage public affairs. And Will Kane held behind-the-scenes roles in the state Senate, including capital improvement specialist for the Ways and Means Committee when it was chaired by now-Gov. David Ige. Kane is vice president of public affairs.
“We all bring different relationships to the firm,” Dela Cruz said in a phone interview this week from Guam. She was there for a mobile education training session hosted by the Federal Emergency Management Agency, having a background in security as well as education.
Tsutsui and Hanabusa served in the Hawaii Senate together, each rising to president at one point.
“With Donalyn and Shan and John, there’s nothing they can’t do,” Dotzauer said. “The bottom line with all of this is to be a difference-maker in the communities we’re in, to elevate the bar and bring a real professional approach to the public affairs industry.”
Dela Cruz said that’s what drew her to Strategies 360 after Tsutsui and White approached her a couple months ago.
“I was ready for something to really stretch me a little bit more,” Dela Cruz said.
Dela Cruz said many have assumed she’s helping some candidate get elected in her new role, but she said she’s not part of any campaign.
“We help clients,” she said. “They come to us with an issue or a concern or a problem and they’re not really sure how to navigate that. The fun part is we look at it from a 360 angle and say have you thought about this. That does not mean we will not engage with politicians.”
Strategies 360 could play a role pushing major issues or initiatives in the Legislature, Dotzauer said.
Khara Jabola-Carolus, domestic partner of state Rep. Kaniela Ing, was a registered lobbyist for Strategies 360 in Hawaii from February 2017 to February 2018. Her registration statement with the state Ethics Commission indicated she was lobbying in connection with health and human services. She’s no longer with the firm.
In Idaho, Strategies 360 was hired to help gather thousands of signatures for a horse-racing initiative. Treasure Valley Racing spent $1.3 million to get the measure on the November ballot, according to a Seattle Times story.
Dotzauer, known for wearing a cowboy hat and boots, said he is getting out of political campaigns.
“I’m too old,” he said with a laugh.
Dotzauer got into politics in 1974 as the youngest elected county official in Washington state, defeating five people in an open primary to become Clark County auditor. He went on to help Henry “Scoop” Jackson get re-elected to the U.S. Senate in 1982 and run Booth Gardner’s successful campaign to unseat Gov. John Spellman.
“Hawaii is the gateway from Asia to the West.” — Ron Dotzauer, Strategies 360
More recently, Dotzauer helped Maria Cantwell defeat a three-term incumbent in the U.S. Senate in 2000 and oust Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio in Arizona in 2016.
“He was such a bad man,” Dotzauer said. “Joe Arpaio was Donald Trump before Donald Trump.”
Trump carried Maricopa County by 6 percentage points but Dotzauer said Strategies 360 helped defeat Arpaio by 12 points despite being outspent 6 to 1. He said his research team played a crucial role and it’s those types of resources that the Hawaii office can draw on too.
Strategies 360 has an in-house advertising agency and does its own brand strategy and digital marketing.
“I’d say we’re the best digital marketing team this side of Russia, but we do it the right way,” Dotzauer said. “I’ve got a bunch of smarty pants.”
Strategies 360 also has 15 employees based in Jakarta, Indonesia, who do web engineering.
As the firm continues to grow, Dotzauer said Hawaii will play a key role in its long-term strategy to launch into the Asian marketplace.
“Hawaii is the gateway from Asia to the West,” he said. “It’s really integral to commerce in many ways.”
Dotzauer said the firm also wanted to be in Hawaii because of the state’s aggressive renewable energy goals. The state has mandated 100 percent renewable energy in the electricity sector by 2045.
Strategies 360 helps with renewable energy projects all over the West, he said, and would like to assist clients in Hawaii as well.
“We bring a certain caliber of expertise to communications that hasn’t existed before in Hawaii,” Dela Cruz said.
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