In a stunning show of financial power to influence the race for lieutenant governor, a super PAC tied to a wealthy construction union has spent more than $1 million to support a Big Island senator’s candidacy.
Tokuda’s campaign significantly outspent Green and the other candidates in July, and the legislator from Windward Oahu drew hefty donations from Honolulu business and political leaders in a final kick before the Aug. 11 primary. The University of Hawaii Professional Assembly’s PAC also has spent about $210,000 for ad production and television air time for commercials supporting Tokuda. But all that pales in comparison to Green’s massive support from Be Change Now.
The carpenters union made a big splash as a political kingmaker during the 2012 election cycle, when former Gov. Ben Cayetano was campaigning for the Honolulu mayor’s seat. The union’s then-super PAC, Pacific Resource Partnership PAC, spent more than $3 million to help Kirk Caldwell defeat Cayetano, whose campaign focused on stopping the Honolulu rail project strongly supported by the union.
Tokuda also has been critical of the rail project, which is running billions of dollars over budget. As chair of the Senate Ways and Means Committee, she opposed extending a general excise tax to bail out the project in 2017. That stance cost Tokuda her position as WAM chair.
Tokuda’s House counterpart, Rep. Sylvia Luke, told Civil Beat on Thursday that the carpenters union is punishing Tokuda by spending an enormous amount of money on TV advertising for Green.
“I do think it’s retaliation for her actions, but it’s retaliation for her doing the right thing,” said Luke, chair of the House Finance Committee, who has called for tying rail funding to increased accountability. “They’re just kind of taking this thuggish approach.”
Friends of Sylvia Luke has contributed $6,000 to Tokuda’s campaign.
Be Change Now so far has reported spending about $2.9 million overall on the primary. Steering more than $1 million of that into a battle for what’s viewed as a secondary office doesn’t make sense except as payback, Luke said.
“It’s for the LG’s race; it’s not even the governor’s race,” she said.
Tokuda declined to comment. Be Change Now did not respond to emails seeking comment and the organization’s chairman, Josh Magno, didn’t return calls. Green also did not return calls.
Tokuda’s campaign raised about $69,000 in July versus Green’s $15,000, campaign finance reports released Wednesday show. Tokuda spent nearly $133,000 and Green spent $86,000.
A Civil Beat poll conducted July 19-21 showed approximately 31 percent of likely Democratic primary voters favored Green compared to 17 percent for Tokuda. Rounding out the field were Kauai Mayor Bernard Carvalho Jr., with 13 percent, former Board of Education member Kim Coco Iwamoto, with 10 percent, and state Sen. Will Espero, with 5 percent. About 25 percent of those polled were undecided.
According to the new campaign reports, Carvalho actually raised the most during July, raking in some $87,000, including $1,000 from Cayetano, $2,000 from former University of Hawaii football coach June Jones and $300 from Bernard Bays, a prominent Honolulu lawyer.
But Tokuda outspent Carvalho almost two to one. Her donors included numerous big names in Honolulu’s business and political establishment; among them, Cayetano; fellow Sen. Michelle Kidani; former U.S. Attorney Florence Nakakuni; Meredith Ching, a senior vice president with Alexander & Baldwin; former Honolulu planning director David Tanoue; Jeff Arce, a senior advisor for The MacNaughton Group; and Bank of Hawaii’s political action committee.
Campaign finance generally law limits the amounts of money political groups and individuals can donate to candidates. But super PACs are different; they can raise unlimited amounts from corporations and unions and spend unlimited amounts to support or oppose specific candidates as long as they don’t coordinate with the candidates. Regular PACs, such as the University of Hawaii faculty organization that has supported Tokuda, also may spend freely on advertising to support a candidate or issue; however, regular PACs generally may receive a maximum of only $1,000 from any one person or organization per election.
Be Change Now spent virtually all of the money it put into the lieutenant governor’s race to produce ads and buy air time on local television stations, as well as digital platforms like Hulu and Pandora.
Be Change Now’s expenditure reports identify Putnam Partners of Washington, D.C., as producer or co-producer of the advertising spots.
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.
Stay Up To Date On The Coronavirus And Other Hawaii Issues
Not a subscription
Civil Beat is a small nonprofit newsroom, and we’re committed to a paywall-free website and subscription-free content because we believe in journalism as a public service.
That’s why donations from readers like you are essential to our continued existence.
Help keep our journalism free for all readers by becoming a monthly member of Civil Beat today.