In the months leading up to Honolulu’s mayoral election, the only candidate who currently holds elected office has drastically upped her public relations game.
City Councilwoman Kym Pine has sent out a flurry of press releases from her official city address in the last six months. Her office sometimes sends multiple notices per day, which is far more than any of her colleagues who are not running for office.
With her official council email, Pine has touted her participation in free mask distributions – video of which Pine shared on both her official Facebook account and her campaign Facebook in April.
While Pine’s official communications portray her in a flattering light, they don’t mention her mayoral campaign or appeal for donations. Therefore, it’s probably fair game, according to Sandy Ma, executive director of Common Cause Hawaii, a government watchdog group.
“It’s the power of incumbency,” Ma said.
Pine says she’s just responding to the public’s increased demand for information during the COVID-19 pandemic. Plus, last fall she got a new communications director, Erika Engle, a former journalist.
“Pretty much everything we sent out is a request to take a position on something, and they asked all council members, or it’s something we feel people need to know about,” she said.
Still, some see Pine’s activity as a thinly veiled attempt to campaign on the city’s dime.
“Anything that even looks like it may benefit your campaign should not be done,” said Charmaine Doran, a former director of Honolulu’s Office of Council Services.
Pine isn’t the only one, Doran said. For instance, Mayor Kirk Caldwell finds an occasion to hold a press conference sometimes several times per week, she noted. Meanwhile, he is fundraising to run for governor in 2022.
Last year, Pine’s office sent out occasional press releases that were aesthetically simple and focused on her positions on legislation before the council. Now, the notices are emblazoned with the city seal and describe the council member speaking out on various topics. Some of them have little to do with her Leeward district or council committee assignments, although she could vote on them if they came before the full council.
One lamented the use of illegal fireworks. Another announced Pine was siding with community members against an affordable housing project in Kailua, which is represented by Council Chair Ikaika Anderson. One notice in April criticized Caldwell for proceeding with a now halted project at Sherwood Forest, which is also in Anderson’s district.
“People from all over the island are asking for help, and we don’t turn anyone away. That’s just our policy,” Pine said. “When someone calls a politician, they’ve already tried everything else.”
The Honolulu Ethics Commission forbids using city resources for campaign activities. However, ethics guidance states that city resources may be used to support legitimate government purposes within the scope of duties associated with a position. At times, there may be a communications overlap between work and campaign materials, the guidance states.
Without evidence that city resources are being used primarily for political campaign activities, “the fact that there is both a governance and a political aspect to an issue does not alone create a violation.”
Ethics Director Jan Yamane did not respond to a request for comment.
Pine is working to differentiate herself from the first-time candidates, former insurance executive Keith Amemiya and former TV executive Rick Blangiardi, and the political heavyweights, former Congresswoman Colleen Hanabusa and former Mayor Mufi Hannemann, said Neal Milner, a former political science professor at the University of Hawaii.
“You use what you have at your disposal,” he said. “What she is trying to do is to say: I’ve got the experience, I know what’s going on, but I don’t fit in with the big shots raising money or the big shots who used to be candidates and are tainted by the fact that they’ve been in politics so long.”
Anderson said Pine is just doing her job.
“I believe it is absolutely OK for any council member to communicate to Honolulu taxpayers about what they’re doing on the taxpayers’ behalf,” said Anderson, who has given campaign money to both Pine and Hanabusa.
Politicians get overzealous with PR when they want to increase their name recognition, Doran said, but communications should be focused on doing the people’s work.
“If anybody can question it, you shouldn’t do it,” she said.
Sign up for our FREE morning newsletter and face each day more informed.
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.