When Senate President Ron Kouchi pounds his gavel to adjourn the 2020 legislative session, he’ll do so knowing he’ll get to pick it up again come January.

That’s because Kouchi has no opponents in this year’s primary or general elections. And barring a coup, he’s likely to retain his place as leader of the Senate. The long-time Kauai lawmaker’s campaign is also sitting comfortably, with $117,000 in cash on hand reported Thursday. 

And Kouchi’s not alone. Fifteen other lawmakers are also running uncontested this year, and most are sitting on significant amounts of campaign cash.

Political observers have noted that, due to the pandemic, incumbents are likely to have an advantage because of their name recognition over newcomers. But they may also have the upper hand when it comes to campaign money.

2019 House of Representative opening at the Capitol.
Incumbent lawmakers have a money advantage over their challengers. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

Of the 23 contested primary races in the House and the five in the Senate, the majority have incumbents who hold a money advantage in the races, according to a review of campaign finance data covering Jan. 1 through June 30.

Some of those incumbents even get help from their fellow lawmakers. While lawmakers are prohibited from contributing directly to campaigns, they are able to get around those rules by buying tickets to fundraisers.

In the past six months, Kouchi made just under $6,000 of those kinds of contributions. He’s given to the campaigns of Sens. Donovan Dela Cruz, Glenn Wakai and Stanley Chang. He’s also contributed to the campaigns of Sens. Lorraine Inouye, Jarrett Keohokalole and Dru Kanuha, none of whom have to run an election until 2022.

Wakai, who got $1,000 from Kouchi, is also running an uncontested race. He’s raked in $33,850 in the last six months and currently has $98,590 in cash on hand.

Dela Cruz, the Senate money committee chair whose last report in April showed his campaign holding over $700,000 in the bank, got $800 from Kouchi.

Rep. Sylvia Luke, another lawmaker running an uncontested race, gave $1,000 to Rep. Cedric Gates, who is a member of the House Finance Committee which she chairs.

Speaker Holds Huge Campaign Money Lead

Kouchi’s counterpart in the Legislature, House Speaker Scott Saiki, has also lent financial support to campaigns in the past. Last year, he gave $2,000 each to Reps. Stacelynn Eli and Lisa Kitagawa, both freshmen lawmakers at the time.

Saiki hasn’t done that yet this year. He’s raised about $15,000, with $2,000 in donations coming from the Hawaii State Teachers Association and Chad Buck, a philanthropist who organized food drives with the Salvation Army earlier this year.

He’s also received $1,000 in donations from the Hawaii Association of Realtors, the Plumbers and Pipefitters PAC, Title Guaranty CEO Michael Pietsch and Matson Navigation Co.

Saiki is running against activist and community organizer Kim Coco Iwamoto, who ran unsuccessfully for lieutenant governor in 2018.

Saiki’s campaign has over $200,000 left in the bank. Iwamoto’s has about $17,000. Her largest single donation, $2,000, came from the International Longshore and Warehouse Union, the state’s largest private workers unions which endorsed her instead of Saiki this year.

House Speaker Scott Saiki at podium with mask dangling on ear before session begins during COVID-19 pandemic. June 22, 2020
Though he’s fundraised little this year, House Speaker Scott Saiki still has vastly more campaign cash than his opponent, Kim Coco Iwamoto. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2020

Like the race between Iwamoto and Saiki, many incumbents have the upper hand when it comes to raking in campaign cash. More than half of the competitive races in the House feature incumbent candidates who are outraising, outspending and outsaving their opponents.

Many have bolstered their campaigns with the support of lobbyists, who are often at work at the State Capitol influencing legislation. Other powerful interests include public and private workers unions, which have supported both incumbents and political newcomers alike.

Some of the top include the Hawaii State Teachers Association, which has donated $44,000 to campaigns of state and county politicians since January. The teachers union has resisted proposed pay cuts and is raising concerns over public school reopening plans.

The ILWU follows close behind with $36,000 in campaign donations. The Ironworkers Local 625 comes in next with $34,650.

Some in the House have barely fundraised at all due to the pandemic. Yet, they still hold the money advantage over would-be challengers from previous fundraising efforts.

Rep. Romy Cachola, for example, raised just $4,800 in the last six months. About half of that was a $2,000 contribution from the Sheet Metal Workers Union, while the remainder came from individual donations ranging from $200 to $500.

Cachola still has over $50,000 in his campaign chest. His opponent, Sonny Ganaden, raised about $6,000, according to his latest campaign spending report.

Ganaden has just over $5,000 on hand, and his largest single donation of $2,000 came from comedian Roseanne Barr.

Some candidates have an advantage even without raising any money this year.

Sen. Les Ihara reported raising $0 in the past six months. Yet, his campaign account with $12,000 still leads one of his challengers, Vicki Higgins, who has a negative balance of $643 and has also reported raising $0 this year. The other challenger, Jesus Arriola, hadn’t filed a campaign spending report as of Friday.

One of the tightest races in terms of money appears to be on Molokai. 

Walter Ritte, a Native Hawaiian activist, has outraised Rep. Lynn Decoite, $39,000 to $16,000. Decoite’s campaign still has a slight advantage, however, with $29,800 on hand compared to Ritte’s $23,100. Ritte and Decoite are competing in the race for House District 13, which covers the islands of Molokai, Lanai, Kahoolawe and rural Maui.

While they’re both Democrats, their sources of contributions couldn’t be more different.

Ritte raked in $2,000 donations from Iwamoto, John and Susan Scarlett, owners of pharmaceutical and cancer research company Geron Corp., Ashley Lukens, of the Center for Food Safety, HSTA and Barr.

He also got donations from singers Hawane Rios ($300) and Kaikena Scanlan ($625), as well as Jon Osorio, dean of the Hawaiinuiakea School of Hawaiian Knowledge at the University of Hawaii.

Decoite got over $6,800 from other lawmakers including Senate Majority Leader J. Kalani English, who represents roughly the same district she does. Other lawmakers who contributed include Sens. Gil Keith-Agaran, Donna Kim, Lorraine Inouye and Kouchi.

She was also supported by Island Insurance ($1,000), Beverly Pauole-Moore ($2,000) and Tobi Solidum ($1,000). Decoite also had numerous smaller donations from individuals as well as lobbyists at the State Capitol.

It’s hard to tell how much of a money advantage Senate incumbents have in their races because many of their opponents had not filed finance reports by the deadline Thursday.

Kevin McDonald, who is running against Sen. Karl Rhoads, was among candidates who did not file a campaign spending report. Rhoads has over $93,000 left in his campaign account.

Sen. Donovan Dela Cruz’s opponent, community activist T.J. Cuaresma, also has not filed a campaign spending report. Dela Cruz, who is by far the most cash flush legislator, has just over $699,000 in the campaign piggy bank.

The Race Is On For Open Seats

In the race to replace Rep. Richard Creagan, who decided to not seek another term representing part of the Kona side of the Big Island, Jeanne Kapela has raised more money than Colehour Bondera. Kapela raised $30,991 to Bondera’s $6,289.

Kapela donated about $11,000 to her own campaign but also got contributions from Rep. Chris Todd, the HSTA and Kris Coffield, a Democratic party member and staffer in Rep. Amy Perruso’s office. 

Bondera’s largest donation of $2,000 came from Marilyn Creagan, the lawmaker’s wife. Bondera is a staffer in Creagan’s office. Bondera also got $500 from Sen. Russell Ruderman, who is not seeking another term in office. Rep. Joy San Buenaventura is among those running to replace him.

The race for House District 20, which represents Palolo, St. Louis Heights, Wilhelmina Rise and parts of Kaimuki, is also shaping up to be an interesting one. Rep. Calvin Say has decided to leave the seat he’s held for decades to run for Honolulu City Council

Attorney Derek Turbin leads the fundraising race, reporting receipts of $51,900 since January. But it’s Jay Ishibashi, a state employee, who has the most saved in his campaign coffers, which hold $27,148. 

Much of Turbin’s contributions came from law firms in Hawaii or real estate agencies. Derek is the son of prominent Honolulu attorney Richard Turbin.

But he has just $6,942 left after spending most of his campaign cash on mailers, fliers and social media ads, some of which feature himself and Lt. Gov. Josh Green.

Ishibashi meanwhile has managed to save most of his money. He collected $32,00 in the last six months. He got $2,000 donations form numerous organizations including the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, the teamsters union, the masons union, the operating engineers unions, the painters union, the tapers union and the ironworkers union.

He also has support from the United Foods and Commercial Workers Union, HSTA, the ILWU and the carpenters union.

Jackson Sayama has raised $40,759 in the same race. An analyst with Island Holdings, he’s gotten a $1,000 donation from the company’s president, Colbert Matsumoto, as well as donations from at least two other employees.

Becky Gardner has raised just over $24,000. Her largest donations of $2,000 have come from Kim Coco Iwamoto, Grant Ozaki and Brodie Lockard, an environmentalist who often pushes for government reform measures at the State Capitol.

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