- Special Projects
Top legislative leaders — Senate President Ron Kouchi and Vice President Michelle Kidani, House Speaker Scott Saiki and Finance Chair Sylvia Luke — have reaped hundreds of thousands of dollars in campaign contributions by virtue of their ability to shape state policy and the budget.
But little of that money goes to their own campaigns.
Free of any real challenge to hold their seats, they instead use those funds to back candidates who give them the numbers needed to stay on top.
But House leaders don’t always donate to the same people as the Senate’s top brass. Two open Senate seats in this month’s Democratic primary put this split on display, revealing their differences in ideology as much as political loyalty.
And their success rates vary wildly. Saiki, who has given almost $41,000 to at least 23 candidates, has only invested in a losing race once, according to state campaign finance data. But 16 of the 41 candidates Kouchi has given a combined $53,000 to since 2009 went on to lose their election.
Luke dishes out more of her campaign money to other candidates than any of her colleagues do. She’s donated almost $100,000 to about 37 candidates since 2006, with more than a third of that money going out in the last two elections alone — a notable uptick that’s not unique to her.
Only two of those candidates lost: Randy Iwase in his 2006 bid for governor and Jason Bradshaw in his effort to beat then-Republican Kymberly Pine in a 2010 House race.
The Senate is far more fragile, with just 25 members including a president who has reigned for only three years. It takes fewer members to alter their allegiance and topple him than changing chiefs in the 51-member House, where Saiki and Luke have amassed a bastion of support over the past decade.
To be clear, Hawaii law prohibits political candidates from using their own campaign funds to directly support the campaigns of other candidates.
But some state legislators and other officeholders have long gotten around the ban through a loophole that lets them buy up to two tickets to another politician’s fundraiser for an amount that can equal the maximum allowable individual campaign contribution, which is $2,000 to $6,000 depending on the office.
Kouchi has a long history in Hawaii politics, including 22 years on the Kauai County Council, a few years lobbying the Legislature when he worked for the electric co-op and other organizations, and the past eight years as a senator. He’s made plenty of friends along the way.
He said he generally gives money to people he likes and he returns their favors, whether that’s lawmakers who have helped his home island of Kauai when he asked for it or those senators loyal to the faction that put him in the top post.
“We belong to a group of votes in the Senate so when my colleagues have fundraising events and I show up to support them, I certainly buy tickets,” Kouchi said. “And I support my friends who support me as well.”
In several races during the August primary, House and Senate leaders used their influence and campaign cash to help elect their allies.
Reps. Ken Ito and Jarrett Keohokalole jumped at the chance this election to replace Sen. Jill Tokuda, who left her seat for an unsuccessful bid to be lieutenant governor.
Ito, who has been in office since 1995, was aligned with a more conservative House faction that lost power when Rep. Joe Souki and his dissident group, led by Saiki and Luke, ousted Calvin Say as speaker in 2013. Saiki was majority leader until he took the helm in May 2017 when Souki gave up the post.
Kouchi has been friends with Ito for 25 years and has given money to his campaigns since at least 2009. In December, he gave Ito $1,000 — his largest-ever single donation to him. Kidani kicked in $250, and Ito received another $1,200 or more from other legislative colleagues.
Keohokalole, first elected in 2014, has a more progressive voting record and the support of current House leaders. He received $2,000 from Luke, $500 from Saiki and at least $3,300 from other state lawmakers.
In perhaps no other issue is their difference more stark than gun rights. The National Rifle Association endorsed Ito and gave him an A for his support on various bills. The NRA gave Keohokalole an F.
Kouchi said it was no secret that Ito did not support Saiki becoming speaker and that Keohokalole did. But he said it wouldn’t do the Senate any good to get into a tiff over a campaign contribution that he did not even know Saiki had made.
He’s given money to other lawmakers outside the Saiki-Luke bloc in the past, including Reps. Jo Jordan and Sharon Har. Jordan lost her attempt in the primary to take her seat back from Rep. Cedric Gates, who Luke and Saiki have backed. Har won easily.
Keohokalole outraised and outspent Ito over the course of the campaign and went on to defeat Ito by 17 percentage points. Keohokalole has no challenger in the Nov. 6 general election, so he has secured the Senate seat representing Kaneohe, Kailua and other parts of windward Oahu.
A similar opportunity presented itself in Ewa when Sen. Will Espero resigned for an unsuccessful bid to be lieutenant governor.
The Democratic primary race pitted Rep. Matt LoPresti against Alicia Maluafiti, a lobbyist for seed companies and owner of a mobile spay-and-neuter clinic that’s largely funded by state grants.
Luke and Saiki gave LoPresti $3,000 while Kouchi and Kidani donated $6,000 to Maluafiti’s campaign.
LoPresti and Maluafiti are far apart on certain issues. LoPresti has taken seed companies and the state Department of Agriulture to task over the lack of disclosure on pesticide use as well as buffer zones and other related issues.
Maluafiti, meanwhile, is a paid lobbyist representing the interests of GMO companies. Monsanto and others donated heavily to her campaign.
And she has been highly critical of LoPresti’s opposition to bills that would make trap-neuter-release the official policy for dealing with Hawaii’s large feral cat problem.
The campaign grew ugly as the Aug. 11 primary approached. LoPresti was caught on camera removing Maluafiti’s campaign brochures from homes and passing out his own instead. And LoPresti’s campaign caught Kouchi distorting his record in a speech to Maluafiti supporters.
LoPresti went on to win by 30 percentage points. He’s expected to easily win in the general election against Republican Kurt Fevella.
House leaders tend to give money to younger candidates who are either running for the first time or trying to defend their seats after only serving a few years.
It pays for the newcomers to play along, too. House leadership determines committee assignments and the chairs decide what bills are heard. If the budding politicians want to take anything back to their district to campaign on, it takes cooperation and support from Saiki and Luke.
Reps. Daniel Holt, Chris Todd, Justin Woodson, Sean Quinlan and Gates all received money from Luke last year and have only run in one or two elections. They often voted the same way on bills as House leaders.
She also donated to newcomers Troy Hashimoto and Lisa Kitagawa, who both won their primaries and are expected to cruise to victory in the general. Kitagawa beat two former state lawmakers by a wide margin in the primary.
Saiki also supported Holt for a second two-year term, giving him $1,000. He donated money to Holt last year too, along with $1,000 apiece to Todd, Gates and Quinlan.
About half of Kouchi’s donations have gone to candidates at the top of the ticket. He gave money to longtime friend Shan Tsutsui, who was in the Senate before serving as lieutenant governor, as well as former Gov. Neil Abercrombie and Gov. David Ige last election. Kouchi supported U.S. Rep. Colleen Hanabusa’s unsuccessful bid for governor this year, as did Saiki and Luke.
Some of Kouchi’s cash went to keeping established senators in office, such as Maile Shimabukuro and Lorraine Inouye.
He’s also donated to a couple of potential freshmen state lawmakers this year. He gave $500 to Dean Hazama, who lost by 3 percentage points to Marilyn Lee in a Millani House race. And he gave $500 to Dru Kanuha, who defeated Brenda Ford in a Kona Senate race to replace Josh Green, who won the primary to be LG.
Kouchi said he’s had an opportunity to meet some of the newer candidates and thinks the ones he gave money to would have a lot to offer the public.
While Saiki, Luke, Kouchi and Kidani — not to mention Senate Ways and Means Chair Donovan Dela Cruz and Majority Leader Della Au Belatti — use their elevated status to raise piles of cash and redistribute some of it to other candidates, they still must maintain positive relationships with their colleagues to keep their positions.
Lawmakers must be kept content or those in leadership risk a coup. As history has shown, unhappy legislators will form coalitions and try to shake things up.
When Tokuda and the three other members of her faction grew displeased with the direction Donna Mercado Kim was taking the chamber as Senate president, their hui shifted its support to replace her with Kouchi.
The same type of move happened in the House five years ago. Members were growing tired of Rep. Calvin Say as speaker, so Saiki and Luke’s faction joined forces temporarily with Republicans and others to make Souki the new speaker.
Within a couple years, they no longer needed GOP support. And while there have been moves among Say loyalists to regain control, they have not had the numbers necessary to make it happen yet. And that’s the way Saiki and Luke want to keep it.
John Hart, a political analyst who chairs the Hawaii Pacific University communications department, said House and Senate leaders are backing candidates they hope will back them if they win.
“Obviously, the reasons for giving money are varied and more complex than people think,” he said. “In some cases, you are banking on the future.”
Thoughts on this or any other story? Write a Letter to the Editor. Send to firstname.lastname@example.org and put Letter in the subject line. 200 words max. You need to use your name and city and include a contact phone for verification purposes. And you can still comment on stories on our Facebook page.
Our small newsroom believes wholeheartedly that news and information is a public service – not something to be hidden behind paywalls or diluted by ads. Your donations ensure that our reporting remains free and accessible to all communities, regardless of a person’s ability to pay. For a limited time become a Civil Beat donor and we’ll throw in a limited-edition Civil Beat t-shirt!