Former state Board of Education member Kim Coco Iwamoto has spent more than $58,000 so far in her effort to unseat House Speaker Scott Saiki, a sizable sum in what is the first Democratic primary election challenge Saiki has faced since 2012, according to the latest filings.

But Saiki countered by spending more than $121,700 on the contest thus far in what is shaping up to be the most expensive primary House campaign of the year.

Wednesday was the deadline for candidates to file their second preliminary primary reports to disclose their fundraising and campaign spending for the period from July 1 to July 24 with the state Campaign Spending Commission.

Lt Gov Candidate Kim Coco Iwamoto speaks during her press conference announcing the support of Local 5 endorsing her candidacy at their headquarters.
Kim Coco Iwamoto is challenging House Speaker Scott Saiki in the Democratic primary. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

Iwamoto had about $30,000 left over from her unsuccessful 2018 campaign for lieutenant governor, and since then has raised nearly $40,000 for the legislative race, including more than $14,000 of her own money, the reports show.

Iwamoto’s recent contributors include the ILWU Hawaii Political Action Committee and the United Food & Commercial Workers Union Local 480.

Saiki’s donors, meanwhile, amount to a who’s-who of union and commercial interests in Hawaii, including Alexander & Baldwin, Matson, the Hawaii State Teachers Association, and political action committees for Bank of Hawaii and Hawaii’s firefighters and United Public Workers unions.

House Speaker Scott Saiki stands at podium with mask dangling on his ear before session begins during COVID-19 pandemic. June 22, 2020
House Speaker Scott Saiki at the podium before session began on June 22. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2020

The Democratic primary for the House seat representing Molokai, Lanai, Hana and Paia has also become a notably expensive contest, with state Rep. Lynn DeCoite spending nearly $67,000 to fend off a challenge by longtime activist Walter Ritte Jr.

DeCoite has been heavily supported by elected Democrats in the House and Senate, with 14 of her colleagues chipping in cash to help her re-election effort. Those donors included Senate President Ron Kouchi and Senate Democratic Majority Leader J. Kalani English, who each contributed the maximum $2,000.

Other DeCoite donors include the Hawaii Regional Council of Carpenters as well as a variety of other construction trade unions.

Ritte has spent nearly $43,000 on the race so far. He received donations from actress Roseanne Barr, Center for Food Safety Director Ashley Lukens, Kim Coco Iwamoto, and the political action committee for HSTA.

Rep. Lynn DeCoite, right, has money from her colleagues in the Legislature to hold off a challenge from longtime activist Walter Ritte. 

The latest public filings by Senate Ways and Means Chairman Donovan Del Cruz and Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Karl Rhoads offer a vivid illustration of how difficult it can be to mount a credible primary election challenge to powerful Democratic incumbents at the Legislature.

Dela Cruz, a longtime politician with the state and city, has a great deal of power over the state budget and all other bills that have financial implications for the state, and is holding a pile of campaign cash.

His latest campaign spending filing shows he had nearly $697,000 in cash on hand on July 24, after the primary election mail-in voting began. His most recent contributors included a developer and the political action committees for the firefighters, laborers and Teamsters unions as well as PACs for Realtors and accountants.

By comparison, Dela Cruz’s Democratic primary opponent Thora-Jean Cuaresma had only $1,860 on hand. Apart from money from herself and her family, the only donations she listed were a few hundred dollars in in-kind donations for t-shirt printing.

Rhoads also enjoys a lopsided fundraising advantage, and was holding $85,438 in campaign cash as of July 24. His most recent contributors included the Hawaii Government Employees Association, Matson Navigation Co., and political action committees for the laborers and firefighters unions as well as for Realtors, Hawaii hospitals and nursing homes.

Rhoads’ primary opponent Kevin McDonald had $1,514 on hand, and listed just a single contribution, from the director of the Hawaii Firearms Coalition. Rhoads has been an outspoken advocate for new firearms regulations, including a proposed ban on large-capacity magazines for rifles that failed to pass in the legislative session this year.

In other activity in the state Senate, Rida Cabanilla failed to file her report by Wednesday’s midnight deadline. Cabanilla, now a state representative, is trying to win a place in the Senate by unseating Sen. Kurt Fevella, the 25-member chamber’s only Republican.

Cabanilla said in an interview Thursday her treasurer filed the report a week ago, but Campaign Spending Commission staff said it was not in the electronic system that candidates use to file.  The commission imposes fines of $300 per day for candidates who fail to file their reports, but the fines are capped at 25% of the amount of money the candidates have raised or spent, whichever is greater.

Cabanilla indicated in her most recent previous filing she had $11,687 on hand on June 30, and her most recent donors at the time included the political action committees for the Realtors and the Hawaii Ironworkers Stabilization Fund.

She appears to have a significant fundraising edge over her primary opponent John Clark, another Democrat who is running for the Senate district that includes Ewa Beach, Iroquois Point and part of Ewa Villages. Clark had just $359 on hand as of July 24.

Fevella had about $17,000 on hand as of July 24. His most recent donors included Matson Navigation Co. and the national political action committee for the Teamsters union.

In Lower Puna, state Rep. Joy San Buenaventura had $49,754 on hand on July 24 and had spent $10,250 in her effort to claim the seat being vacated by state Sen. Russell Ruderman.

San Buenaventura’s most recent contributors included the political action committees for local Realtors, for accountants, for the firefighters union and HSTA, and for Island Insurance. She also received a $4,000 donation from the Patsy Mink Political Action Committee, which supports pro-choice Democratic women candidates.

San Buenaventura’s Democratic opponent has apparently raised very little money for the race. Puna activist Smiley Burrows also failed to file her report by the Wednesday deadline, but indicated in an earlier filing she had received no contributions as of June 30.

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