WASHINGTON — Hawaii Congressman Ed Case is a sugar man. It runs through his blood.

Case’s grandfather and uncle both worked in the Aloha State’s once-dominant sugar industry. While Case himself never took part in the business directly, he still considers it a part of his island identity.

When he first moved to Washington in the mid-1970s to work as a legislative aide to then-U.S. Rep. Spark Matsunaga Hawaii’s sugarcane was still a top priority.

Now, more than four decades later, it still is despite the fact that sugar shut down in 2016 when Hawaiian Commercial & Sugar closed its last mill on Maui.

Hawaiian Commercial and Sugar mill electric . 4 aug 2016
The Hawaiian Commercial & Sugar mill on Maui closed in 2016, marking the end of an era in Hawaii agriculture. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

The nation’s sugar interests look to Case as their advocate in Congress.

That was no more clear than in the first quarter of 2019 when the congressman reported receiving $15,500 in campaign contributions from political action committees associated with the industry.

“We don’t have sugar in Hawaii anymore, but we still do have significant sugar interests throughout the country,” Case said. “Those interests are comfortable with my knowledge of the industry and want to support somebody that appreciates their issues.”

Disclosure Is His Priority

The fact that Case is so open about his support from the industry can feel like an anachronism in 2019.

Many of his Democratic colleagues — and particularly those running for president — boast of disavowing corporate PAC money and the influence of Washington lobbyists by refusing their campaign donations.

Case, meanwhile, received nearly all of his first quarter contributions from political action committees, many affiliated with major industries, such as sugar, defense, tourism and Walmart.

He also accepted a donation from a lobbyist who used to work as Case’s fundraising consultant the first time he was in Congress.

Case said one of the reasons his latest Federal Election Commission filing sticks out is because he wasn’t actively fundraising outside of Washington.

He was too busy getting his office up and running, he said, meaning much of the money that came his way was solicited by a consultant working for his campaign or through meetings with various interest groups whose views happen to align with his own.

“I completely believe in campaign finance and ethical reform, but I don’t believe that extends to no PAC money at all,” Case said.

Congressman Ed Case Talk Story at Campbell High School.
Congressman Ed Case says he carefully vets the donations that come into his campaign. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

The congressman is a proponent of H.R. 1, the first bill introduced by the new Democratic House majority that seeks to fight corruption in government and limit the power of money in politics through increased transparency and oversight.

Patrick Burgwinkle of End Citizens United says that while his organization encourages candidates to renounce corporate PAC money there are other avenues available for taking money out of the system.

“One way leaders can send a powerful message to voters about whose interests they will represent in Washington is to reject corporate PAC money,” Burgwinkle said. 

“Rep. Case is a strong supporter of the For The People Act and has demonstrated his commitment to making politics more transparent and responsive to the concerns of everyday residents of Hawaii.”

Case doesn’t subscribe to the perception that just because you accept money from someone — whether it’s an individual or a PAC — you’re automatically beholden to them.

“It’s interesting to me that a fair number of the candidates who disavow PAC money have already built up very large war chests that were funded in part by PAC money.” — Ed Case

He said his campaign is discerning when it comes to taking money. For instance, he said he won’t take contributions from organizations such as the National Rifle Association or any businesses associated with large pharmaceutical companies.

He also won’t take money from groups that do not disclose where their money is coming from. In essence, that’s his pledge against dark money.

“I’m celebrating my 25th year since I first ran for office in 1994 and I have received contributions throughout that period from a great variety of individuals and businesses and PACs, and I think my record of making my own decisions is pretty straight forward,” Case said.

“Of course any time you get a contribution from somebody there’s going to be somebody else out there who says you’re beholden to them, but that’s not the way I run my ship.”

Backing From Tribes

For the most part, Case said he knows who’s giving money to his campaign, and when it came to the PACs who donated to him in the first quarter he had conversations with most of them. 

Congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard speech to Honolulu City Council.
U.S. Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, who’s running for president, was an early adopter of the pledge to renounce PAC money. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

Unsolicited donations, of course, do raise red flags, he said, but that doesn’t always mean he’ll give the money back.

Case’s campaign received $2,000 from two PACs affiliated with American Indian tribes, the Chickasaw Nation and the Poarch Band of Creek Indians. The congressman said that money came to him unexpectedly but not unsurprisingly.

Although he hadn’t had any conversations with members of the tribes, he does sit on the House Natural Resources Committee and is a member of the subcommittee on indigenous people.

As someone who represents Native Hawaiians — who are also an indigenous group within the U.S. — the motivation behind the donations seemed to align with Case’s own interests, which meant he was OK hanging on to the money.

“It was clear to me that those are federally recognized tribes that simply want to maintain and improve their relationship with the United States and I was fine with that,” Case said. “I always ask who’s offering me money. If a check shows up and I don’t initially know anything about that organization or person I’m going to ask myself if I’m OK accepting that.”

Such perspective means Case has no plans to join his Democratic colleagues who make a big deal out of disavowing PAC money and blocking donations from lobbyists.

“Each member of Congress makes his or her own decisions about fundraising,” Case said. “It’s interesting to me that a fair number of the candidates who disavow PAC money have already built up very large war chests that were funded in part by PAC money.”

Case declined to name any specific politicians, but in the presidential field alone there are several Democratic candidates who have backed away from corporate PACs despite accepting the money from them in the past.

“I’m not going to speculate about what their motivations are or aren’t,” Case said. “I’m just running my own show and, frankly, I’m running my show the same way I’ve run it for a quarter century.”

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