At a recent candidate forum, I made a point of asking each candidate how much he or she had received in campaign contributions, how much of the total was from sources in their district, and whether they think campaign contributions buy access and influence.

I was shocked to see that Sen. Lorraine Inouye raised over $225,000 since her last election in 2014, of which about 90 percent was raised outside our district. Her opponent, Heather Kimball, has collected $47,000, with only 36 percent outside our district, and she takes no corporate or PAC money.  The David-and-Goliath nature of this race is pretty obvious.

Ms. Inouye is chair of the Senate Transportation and Energy Committee, which explains why companies in those sectors donate to her. She claims her donors don’t get special access and don’t influence her as a senator, but I find this assertion ludicrous. Why else would corporations and special interests give her money? They have no apparent connection to Senate District 4, so why else would they want to get her re-elected?

Other contributors are not so apparent. Who is Enterprise Holdings Inc. PAC of St. Louis, Missouri and why would they give her $1,800? Who is SSFM Engineers ($1,200)? HEMEP Fund ($1,000)?  Why does Lanai Resorts want her to have another $2,250? These are only a few examples of donations that stood out because they’re large and/or inexplicable. But to say they are not an attempt to gain access to and influence with Inouye is either hopelessly naive or totally disingenuous.

Woman taking batch of hundred dollar bills. Hands close up

Then come all the PACs, lots of PACs, whose member donors are thereby shielded from view.

Think for a minute what the impact of all this special interest money is on a rural district where it is so hard to campaign because of distance and dispersion of the population. A district like ours has few newspapers or local radio, and television is dominated by distant Honolulu.

So someone who has money to buy signs, campaign brochures, full-page newspaper ads, and campaign paraphernalia has an instant head start. If they have even more money they can afford direct mail, broadcast advertising, and paid staff.

This fact makes it extremely easy for big money, big corporations, and special interests to “buy” rural seats whose elected representatives will be sympathetic to those donors.

So those of us who actually live and work here become represented by people who got there largely due to out-of-district donors. Sure they throw us a bone now and then that they use to convince us they have our best interests at heart.

Meanwhile their special interest friends control the big construction projects that the people who live in the district rarely see. But we do get the bill for their manipulation of the system; we pay the taxes and fees.

The answer, of course, is to level the playing field to eliminate the built-in advantages of incumbency and corporate and special interest donors. One answer is public financing of campaigns so everyone has an equal opportunity.

We also need a shorter campaign period so that well financed candidates don’t have an unlimited opportunity to raise and use their money. We need contribution restrictions so the rich and powerful do not overwhelm the people who actually live here.

Until the laws are changed to level the playing field, I will vote for candidates who will push for reforming the system. I will not vote for candidates like Sen. Inouye who use special interest money to retain their power and privilege.

My great-grandmother was born in 1869 and was 50 years old when she was allowed to vote for the first time. She valued that right like nothing else and voted in every single election thereafter til her death at 101.

I am sorry to see that many people don’t value that right today. It includes an obligation to actually care, to study, to listen, to discuss, to debate, and to show up to vote. If we don’t meet this obligation, we’ll continue to be the victims of rich and powerful people and businesses who have little regard for our welfare.

We may not have their hundreds of thousands of dollars to buy influence, but those who would manipulate the democratic process still lack one essential thing: our vote.

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About the Author

  • Bob McWhirk
    Bob McWhirk is a retired lawyer who worked at the California Legislature and the Fair Political Practices Commission. He is now a "gentleman farmer" on the Hamakua Coast of the Big Island where he has lived for the past eight years. Most recently he has organized the "Kupuna Builders" who have helped build housing for the Puna refugees.