State Rep. Romy Cachola and Ernesto “Sonny” Ganaden are facing off again in a Democratic primary election contest for the chance to represent Kalihi and Halawa, a rematch of a 2018 race that triggered allegations of fraud and coercion after Cachola won by a slim 51-vote margin.

Cachola, 82, offered a list of his key accomplishments while in office, including his leadership in reaching a global settlement to resolve decades of litigation over the city’s decision to block development of an area mauka of Sandy Beach.

He also pointed to his work as chairman of the House Tourism Committee in the 1980s and 1990s, a period when state spending on promotion and marketing of tourism soared from $5 million to more than $70 million per year.

Representative Romy Cachola on floor. 3 may 2018
Rep. Romy Cachola on the House floor in 2018. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

Ganaden, 39, a lawyer and program coordinator for the nonprofit Kokua Kalihi Valley, said the coronavirus crisis is disproportionately affecting residents of District 30 because many work in the hotel and service industries, putting them at higher risk of being infected with COVID-19. It also puts them at higher risk of layoffs.

The district includes Kalihi Kai, Sand Island and Pearl Harbor, has a large Filipino community, and many residents are proud of working two or three jobs, he said.

“They make the whole city run, and now they’re incapable of working either job, and that’s just not fair,” Ganaden said.

If state government needs money to balance the budget, it should borrow from the federal government and deliver the services and benefits that people need now, Ganaden said. It should also mandate best practices to prevent the spread of infection and protect the public health, he said.

“Now is the time to keep people afloat. What we now realize months into the pandemic is, the best way to save lives is essentially to provide people with health care and unemployment insurance to stay home and socially distance from each other,” he said.

Cachola was born in Ilocos Sur, and is a former union leader in the Philippines who fled to Hawaii in 1971 with his wife and young daughter as his fellow activists were being arrested in the run-up to martial law during the regime of former President Ferdinand Marcos.

“Because of that, I told my wife ‘It’s time to go,’ so with $500, we left the Philippines,” he said.

They did not plan to stay in Hawaii, but during a stopover on their way to San Francisco, Cachola’s wife applied for physician internship programs at several Hawaii hospitals. She was accepted at one and they returned to Hawaii permanently.

“It’s all God’s way,” Cachola said.

His first jobs in the U.S. were working as a messenger in San Francisco and Honolulu, and Cachola later moved up to became a Waipahu branch manager for a Honolulu bank. He also became a real estate associate and a real estate investor.

Cachola said he first ran for office because he was repeatedly insulted by people who told him he wouldn’t succeed in politics, and recalls being told his wife would be a better candidate. He first ran for the state House in 1984, winning a seat representing an area from Kalihi to downtown, Salt Lake and Aliamanu.

He remained in the House until 2000, when he was elected to the Honolulu City Council. He served on the council for 10 years before returning to the House in the 2010 election.

In recent years, Cachola has pursued a plan to move Hawaii to a self-insured model for public worker health coverage as some other states have done, a step he says would eliminate the need for the state to set aside billions of dollars in the Hawaii Employer-Union Health Benefits Trust Fund in the years ahead to pay for future health benefits for active employees and retirees.

The House voted to approve a version of Cachola’s proposal in 2017, but the Senate refused to consider it. Cachola now says he was targeted for defeat in 2018 by interests that do not want Hawaii to shift to a self-insured model. He would not say publicly who he believes is targeting him.

Cachola’s long career in city and state politics has been punctuated by some notable allegations of misconduct, including some that resulted in settlements and fines.

Allegations surfaced in 2012 that Cachola allegedly pressured an elderly woman to complete an absentee ballot in front of him and then mailed it for her, and the Legislature advanced a bill the following year that specifically prohibits candidates from helping voters to fill out their absentee ballots.

In 2014, Cachola agreed to a settlement with the state Campaign Spending Commission that required him to pay $2,496 in fines and reimburse his campaign more than $32,000 for alleged election financing violations that included using a vehicle bought with campaign funds for non-campaign travel.

Later that year he agreed to pay the city $50,000 in fines to resolve allegations that during his years on the Honolulu City Council he accepted “dozens” of gifts worth a total of thousands of dollars from lobbyists that included meals, wine and golf outings without declaring conflicts of interest when he voted on measures backed by those same lobbyists.

Cachola did not admit to any wrongdoing under that settlement, saying in a statement he agreed to it only “to prevent any further defamation of my name and hardship to my family.” He also said that some of his former colleagues on the council partook of the same meals that he was accused of accepting.

And following Cachola’s narrow primary victory over Ganaden in 2018, a lawsuit was filed by 47 anonymous voters who alleged there was voter fraud, coercion and intimidation in the campaign. The suit alleged that Cachola put pressure on some voters who received health care at a clinic operated by his wife to try to get them to vote for him.

The state Supreme Court dismissed the election challenge 11 days later, concluding the allegations were “serious and may warrant further investigation” but the anonymous voters failed to submit evidence of acts that would have changed the outcome of the election.

It is unclear if those 2018 allegations were ever investigated by the state. Krishna Jayaram, special assistant to Attorney General Clare Connors, did not respond to an inquiry about the issue this week.

Cachola has a considerable advantage in fundraising for the race, with nearly $51,000 on hand as of June 30, according to his filing with the state Campaign Spending Commission. Some of the most recent contributors to his campaign include Matson, the Ironworkers Local 625, the Hawaii Sheet Metal Workers union and the Hawaii Association of Realtors.

Ganaden had less than $5,500 on hand on June 30. His recent contributors include former state Sen. Gary Hooser and actress Roseanne Barr.

Ernesto “Sonny” Ganaden is trying again to unseat Rep. Romy Cachola. 

Ganaden declined to discuss the controversy surrounding the 2018 primary other than to say that “the community doesn’t need this kind of distraction in voting. There are far too many needs facing this working class district at this time.”

He said he has never heard from anyone who said they needed help filling out a ballot, adding: “It just seems, at the very least, unethical” to do so.

Hawaii’s success so far in managing the spread of COVID-19 “is in large part the success of our community rather than our politicians. We’re blessed by aloha spirit and a sense of care for each other,” Ganaden said. In District 30, so many people are health care workers and essential workers that “they figured it out quickly.”

Moving forward, he said Hawaii needs to invest heavily in local infrastructure and adopt something like the Green New Deal that has been promoted on the federal level to give the economy a boost while reducing U.S. carbon emissions.

He supports other public works projects such as relocating and downsizing the Oahu Community Correctional Center, development of housing along the Dillingham Boulevard corridor where the rail line will be built, and moving forward with redevelopment of the Aloha Stadium district provided it includes public housing improvements in Halawa.

Ganaden, who was raised in the Los Angeles area and moved to Hawaii in 2002, also supports the idea of government buyouts of some Hawaii hotels to convert them into employee-owned co-ops. That is a way to keep wealth in the islands, and an idea he believes may be viable if some hotels go bankrupt in the pandemic.

“We should be prepared for that,” he said.

Ganaden has been endorsed by both the Hawaii State Teachers Association and the Hawaii Government Employees Association — two of the most politically potent public worker unions — and he says state government should be hiring.

“Now is the time to make those kinds of investments the same way the United States did in the 1930s to recover from the Great Depression, because this is what we’re looking at,” he said. “Only the government can do that, and for all these people who have given their careers in service, really, and have paid their taxes, it’s time for the government to step up.”

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