- Special Projects
WASHINGTON — Far from the battleground states on the mainland, some heavyweight political donors in Hawaii are spending big chunks of money to influence congressional races in the midterm campaigns.
Data from the Federal Election Commission and the Center for Responsive Politics shows Hawaii residents have given upwards of $7 million to federal candidates and other political action committees in what’s expected to be a record-breaking year for political spending.
Since Hawaii is hardly a battleground state and none of its Senate and congressional races are competitive, much of that money has gone to mainland campaigns. And most of that money is blue, overwhelmingly going to support Democrats.
“This is the most cash-flush midterm election in history,” said Michael Beckel, a research manager and campaign finance expert at Issue One, a national nonpartisan organization that seeks to cut down the influence of money in politics.“Donors across the country know that the stakes are high this November.”
For someone living in deep blue Hawaii, where where there’s nothing of national consequence on the ballot, sending money across state borders is an intriguing option.
“Even if you can’t cast a vote in one of these races, donating money to support your preferred candidate is increasingly common,” Beckel said.
Take Gary Passon, co-owner of the Aloha Aku Inn & Suites on Maui, who ranks among the top federal donors in Hawaii based on public campaign spending records.
Data compiled by the Center for Responsive Politics shows he made about 700 individual donations during the current two-year election cycle, ranging from $1 to $1,000, money that went to various Democrats and left-leaning organizations, such as MoveOn.org and VoteVets.
Records show Passon donated upwards of $80,000 during the 2018 election cycle for the midterms. During the 2016 presidential election, Passon was equally active, giving out nearly 600 donations.
Passon declined to comment to Civil Beat about his political spending.
Maui couple Peter Hagedorn and Miriam Trahan gave more than $40,000 each to Democrat fundraising committees in support of Sen. Sherrod Brown of Ohio, who is currently leading his Republican challenger, Jim Renacci, according to polls.
They also donated $5,000 each to Brown’s leadership PAC, America Works.
Hagedorn is the son of Horace Hagedorn, the man who marketed Miracle-Gro to the masses. As a New York Times obituary said, the elder Hagedorn was responsible for making Miracle-Gro plant food “as familiar a sight in the American backyard as the station wagon in the carport.”
Trahan is a writer, photographer and self-described “wise-woman” who practices yoga.
In previous elections, records show the couple sent most of their congressional donations to U.S. Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, who has represented Hawaii’s 2nd Congressional District since 2013.
This year, however, Hagedorn has spent about $85,000, nearly 10 times what he did during the 2016 cycle. In addition to supporting Gabbard and Brown, records show, he has donated thousands of dollars to the campaigns of Democratic Sens. Claire McCaskill of Missouri, Tammy Baldwin of Wisconsin, Joe Donnelly of Indiana and Bernie Sanders of Vermont.
Hagedorn has also given money to groups such as End Citizens United and Giffords PAC — named after former congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords — which back candidates supportive of gun control.
Attempts to reach Hagedorn and Trahan were unsuccessful.
Rosalie Danbury is another major Democratic donor living in the Aloha State, although she also maintains a residence in Florida. Records from the Center for Responsive Politics show Danbury gave more than $102,000 during the current two-year election cycle.
In 2016, she donated about $206,000, with large sums going to the Democratic National Committee and the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee.
Hawaii is home to a handful of so-called political “whales,” people who gave very large donations to PACs and campaign funds.
Some of that money was then spread out to benefit a number of Democratic candidates, including Hawaii’s Sen. Brian Schatz and Congresswoman Colleen Hanabusa, as well as a number of state Democratic committees, including Alaska, Texas, Delaware and Mississippi.
Two of the most prolific donors in the state are William Reeves and Deborah Berger, an Oahu married couple. Each election cycle they are among the top contributors from Hawaii to federal campaigns and causes.
Combined, Reeves and Berger, who graduated from Punahou School, donated more than $200,000 during the current two-year reporting period.
In the 2016 cycle, data from the Center for Responsive Politics shows, Reeves spread his cash even farther, dishing out more than $500,000, including a reported $350,000 to Priorities USA Action, one of the major super PACs supporting the Democratic Party.
Reeves founded the hedge fund BlueCrest Capital Management. He’s such an influential player that in 2015 the right-wing website Breitbart News Network published a piece declaring Reeves “‘Hawaii’s George Soros’: The Hidden Donor Funding The Illegal Immigration, #BlackLivesMatter Activists.”
The piece focused on Reeves and Berger’s philanthropic ventures, particularly through Unbound Philanthropy, an organization that gives out millions of dollars in grants for causes related to immigration and refugee rights. The couple also founded The Learning Coalition in Hawaii, a nonprofit that seeks to improve public education in the state.
Douglas Troxel is another six-figure donor who lives in Hawaii. Like the others, his money goes to Democrats and the organizations that support them. Troxel is the founder of Serena Software, a Silicon Valley firm that specializes in IT management solutions. He’s since sold the company.
During the 2016 and 2018 election cycles, Troxel gave nearly $300,000 to fundraising committees, including the Hillary Victory Fund in 2016 and the Democratic National Committee. Like Stone, his money has also been spread to a number of state Democratic committees across the U.S.
Those groups include EMILY’s List, which supports pro-choice women Democrats, and American Bridge 21st Century, a progressive super PAC that backs Democrats and performs opposition research on Republicans.
Troxel serves on a number of boards, including the Kavli Institute of Theoretical Physics at the University of California Santa Barbara and Standard Alcohol, a Denver-based company that seeks to convert natural gas, coal and carbon dioxide into a gasoline additive. He’s also the president and CEO of the nonprofit Change Happens Foundation, with a mission statement that says it wants to act as “a meaningful catalyst for progressive and secular social change.”
Civil Beat publisher Pierre Omidyar, the eBay founder and one of the wealthiest people in Hawaii, was the biggest Hawaii donor during the 2016 two-year cycle. Records show that he gave $450,000 to two anti-Trump super PACs.
There are no records of Omidyar donating during the 2018 midterm election cycle.
Another active donor in 2016 was Jeffrey Stone, a well-connected developer from Hawaii whose company, The Resort Group, is behind the revitalization of Ko Olina on Oahu.
According to campaign spending data from the FEC and Center for Responsive Politics, Stone donated more than $200,000 to the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee and Hillary Victory Fund in 2016. Some of that money spread out to benefit a number of Democratic candidates, including Schatz and Hanabusa, as well as a number of state Democratic committees.
Stone hasn’t been as active this year, with records showing he only donated $5,400 to candidates, money that was split between Hawaii U.S. Sen. Mazie Hirono and state Sen. Donna Mercado Kim, who ran in the Democratic primary for Hawaii’s 1st Congressional District.
While Hawaii residents send the largest share of their political donations to Democrats — a Center for Responsive Politics analysis ranks the state tops in the U.S. using that metric — there was at least one major donor to the Republican Party in the 2018 cycle.
Records show Larry Davis, of LNS Capital, gave the Trump Victory Fund a $100,000 donation last year, with more than $60,000 earmarked for the Republican National Committee. Some of the money also went directly to Trump’s re-election campaign.
Davis’s firm, which he runs with his partner Nickie Lum Davis, has been tied to a controversy involving Elliott Broidy, a California businessman and GOP fundraiser who has close ties to Trump.
According to The Wall Street Journal, Broidy and his wife, Robin Rosenzweig, an attorney, were set to earn tens of millions of dollars in a negotiated deal if they were able to get the U.S. Justice Department to drop a fraud investigation into a Malaysian investment fund.
Emails obtained by the newspaper showed that LNS Capital, and in particular Nickie Lum Davis, was a consultant working on the deal at the time.
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!