As thousands of Oahu voters cast their mail-in ballots over the past month, Hawaii’s largest construction union threw more than $1 million behind efforts to elect three candidates, including Honolulu mayoral hopeful Rick Blangiardi.

Be Change Now, a super PAC backed by the Hawaii Regional Council of Carpenters and the businesses that contract for their labor, spent more than $660,000 on television ads and production for Blangiardi. The group also supported Honolulu City Council candidates Will Espero and Esther Kia‘aina, according to new campaign spending reports that cover the period between Sept. 27 and Oct. 19.

All three candidates support rail construction, an important issue for the building industry and the thousands of employees it represents who could benefit from the largest public works project in Honolulu’s history.

Honolulu mayoral candidate Rick Blangiardi flashes the shaka to oncoming motorists along Beretania Street fronting the Capitol. October 13, 2020
Be Change Now has spent more than $660,000 on ads supporting Rick Blangiardi. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2020

But recently the beleaguered rail project’s problems have grown by about $1 billion. And its future is uncertain, as the public private partnership expected to get rail into town appears to be failing.

Both Blangiardi and his opponent in the non-partisan race, Keith Amemiya, have been relatively quiet on how exactly they’d see the project through to completion.

Be Change Now flooded television channels with ads supporting Blangiardi between Sept. 27 and Oct. 19, the latest reporting period.

Amemiya received little outside support from super PACs during the last reporting period, although one ran ads attacking him.

Aloha Aina Oiaio, another super PAC, reported paying $8,300 to Mana Means Communication on ads opposing Amemiya. The group has been under investigation by the Campaign Spending Commission, which has subpoenaed bank records for the committee’s supporters.

Civil Beat’s latest poll shows Blangiardi ahead of Amemiya by 20 percentage points.

Blangiardi Outraises Amemiya

Blangiardi also got a major boost through direct contributions. He raised $405,645 between Sept. 27 and Oct. 19, his campaign finance report shows.

In that period, for the first time, Blangiardi outraised Amemiya, who has been the fundraising frontrunner throughout the election. Amemiya brought in $254,720 from Sept. 27 through Oct. 19, and over $2 million overall, according to campaign finance records through Oct. 19.

Mayoral candidate Keith Amemiya is interviewed by the media at a campaign event on King Street. October 12, 2020
Mayoral candidate Keith Amemiya was outraised by Rick Blangiardi in the most recent reporting period. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2020

Blangiardi raised over $1.3 million through Oct. 19, including $30,000 from his wife Karen Chang. Then there’s an additional $450,000 Blangiardi loaned his own campaign, $15,000 Chang loaned the campaign, and over $15,000 in “other receipts” that Blangiardi covered out of pocket, according to campaign finance records.

Blangiardi’s latest haul includes $4,000 in donations (the maximum allowed) from MCE International Engineering President Sam Kyu Hyun; Fairway Electric Company Principal Shigeru Shinno; Honda Windward President Morris Stoebner; several RM Towill Corp. executives including David Tanoue and Keith Kurahashi; and Dennis Mitsunaga of Mitsunaga & Associates.

The self-described independent also received a $250 donation from Republican state Rep. Gene Ward and $500 from Honolulu Customer Services Director Sheri Kajiwara.

In the four-week reporting period, Blangiardi spent $559,417. Throughout the mayor’s race, he spent nearly $1.8 million, campaign finance records show.

Amemiya’s fundraising slowed down in this period, and he loaned his own campaign an additional $50,000, campaign finance records show. He previously loaned his campaign over $218,000 and has covered over $37,000 in “other receipts” from his own money, campaign finance records show.

Amemiya’s contributions from others include $32,584 from immediate family members, including his father, former Hawaii Attorney General Ronald Amemiya. Other donors include state Senate President Ron Kouchi’s campaign ($1,000), Resort Group CEO Jeff Stone ($4,000), BlackSand Capital Chief Financial Officer Holly Park ($4,000), and attorney Lex Smith ($4,000), who has long chaired Mayor Kirk Caldwell’s political campaigns.

From Sept. 27 through Oct. 19, the Amemiya campaign spent $395,462, records show, and has spent over $2.5 million since he announced his candidacy in August 2019.

Be Change Now Goes Big

Be Change Now has also spent more than $88,000 on ad buys for Espero and more than $94,000 on ads for Kia‘aina, who are in races to represent Ewa and Windward Oahu respectively.

The super PAC also reported spending about $166,000 on administrative costs, as well as consulting services and polling.

Official Ballot Box and General Election Ballot Vote 2020
Voters received their mail-in ballots in early October and have been casting their ballots ahead of the Nov. 3 general election. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2020

Be Change Now is the largest of several super PACs that have increased their spending during the time ballots were in voters’ hands. Meanwhile, other contributions made directly to candidate campaigns by other special interest groups have tapered off significantly.

Super PACs, or independent expenditure committees as they are formally known, are allowed to spend unlimited amounts of money supporting or opposing any candidate, so long as the committees do not work directly with a candidate’s campaign.

Be Change Now, and its former iterations also funded by the carpenters unions, have spent heavily on candidates before. In the 2012 mayor’s race, Pacific Resource Partnership, as the super PAC was then called, spent more than $3 million to help Honolulu Mayor Kirk Caldwell beat former Gov. Ben Cayetano.

In 2018, the group helped propel Lt. Gov. Josh Green to his current position by spending just over $1 million in support.

Groups Duel Over Maui Candidates, Charter Questions

Hui O Maui, a mysterious nonprofit, has spent more than $277,000 this election season to sway Maui County voters.

Two PACs the nonprofit funds, Hui O Maui Citizens for Change and Vote No on Charter Amendments Hui O Maui Nui We Can’t Afford It, have been running ads supporting a group of candidates seeking to oust a bloc of progressive council members and others seeking to vote down charter amendment questions appearing on ballots.

Hui O Maui’s super PAC reported spending $68,000 in the past month on web and newspaper ads supporting a slate of candidates opposing the progressive bloc, nicknamed the Maui Ohana.

The Hui’s ballot issue committee has also spent just over $67,000 on banners, online and radio ads to kill the ballot questions, especially one that would restructure the managing director’s office.

Groups have formed to oppose and support slates of Maui council candidates. Above, the Maui County Council during a May meeting. Screenshot/2020

Little is known about the nonprofit and the groups it funds, though some of the individuals involved have ties to a Maui timeshare group that formed in 2014 which also opposed the Ohana candidates.

Meanwhile, there are groups also spending heavily to back the Ohana candidates and passage of the charter amendment questions.

Grow Maui Jobs in Local Food and Affordable Home Production, which is backed by the Maui Tomorrow Foundation, reported spending $6,678 supporting two charter amendment questions on increasing the county deposit into an affordable housing fund and setting up a county agriculture department.

The Holomua Ohana For Professional Management spent $11,816 on ads supporting another charter question that would reorganize the managing director’s office.

Maui’s Green Future Project, a new group formed by activists and organizations that pushed for the 2014 moratorium on GMOs as well as the Ohana candidates in past elections, has also reported spending $34,000 on Facebook and newspaper ads.

Other super PACs formed just after the August primary election that have waded into local races include the Friends of Council District 9 which spent $9,900 on flyers for Espero in his race against comedian Augie T. That group was funded by unions representing ironworkers, teachers, longshoremen, masons and food workers.

Another group, Mayor’s Race 2020, has spent $57,288 on radio and print ads supporting Blangiardi. The group’s chairperson is Honolulu attorney Paul Cunney, who gave $10,000 to the PAC. Its major donors include philanthropist Elizabeth Grossman ($10,000), pool contractor John King ($10,000), Aloha Kia ($5,000), Reynolds Recycling President Terry Telfer ($5,000) and Monarch Insurance Services President G. M. Polivka ($6,000).

Civil Beat reporter Christina Jedra contributed to this story.

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