He probably didn’t realize it at the time, but U.S. Rep. Ed Case, a long time Blue Dog Democrat, helped spark a progressive movement in his home state of Hawaii that now wants to throw serious money behind the type of candidates that seek to unseat him.

Last year, when Democrats were trying to pass a $3.5 trillion spending bill that was part of President Joe Biden’s “Build Back Better” agenda to address climate change and other social ills, such as childhood poverty and a growing lack of affordable housing, Case was one of a handful of moderates who helped hold the bill hostage for a time.

His obstinance caught the attention of two local millennials with lofty political ambitions and a knack for mobilizing their peers — Evan Weber and Kaniela Ing.

Capitol with a construction barrier around the first floor.
A new super PAC seeks to push the Democratic Party further to the left on certain issues, such as climate change and affordable housing. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2021

Weber, a 2009 Punahou graduate, is a founder of the Sunrise Movement, a national youth-based environmental activist group that worked to elect climate-minded candidates in 2018 and staged major protests in Washington, D.C., and elsewhere, including a sit-in at House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s office in an effort to force action on legislation, such as the Green New Deal.

Ing is a former state lawmaker, who unsuccessfully ran against Case in 2018 on a Democratic socialist agenda that brought one of the leaders of the movement — U.S. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez — to the islands to stump on his behalf.

Together Weber and Ing launched Our Hawaii Action to mount a six-figure ad campaign that targeted Case for his stance on the Build Back Better bill.

Now they’re planning to re-double those efforts by creating a series of political organizations, including a super PAC and 501(c)4 social welfare group that will allow Our Hawaii Action to raise money and influence politics without disclosing its donors.

The goal, according to Weber, is to put the progressive movement on equal footing with other major players in Hawaii politics and push the Democratic majority in the islands to seriously address issues such as corruption in government, climate change, food security and the state’s relationship with Native Hawaiians and the U.S. military.

“Our mission is pretty simple, we want Hawaii’s politicians to actually represent the people of Hawaii, not special interests,” Weber said. “As young people who have grown up in this state we’ve seen our politicians pay a lot of lip service to local values — ‘aloha this,’ and ‘malama that’ — but at the end of the day they’re not actually acting within the interests and values of the people of Hawaii.”

The Democratic Party establishment has grown too powerful and too complacent, Weber said.

“We’re reaching a crisis point in Hawaii’s state of living,” he said. “We don’t believe that we can wait for change and a lot of our politicians think that we can.”

‘We’re Not Trying To Elect a Puppet’

Our Hawaii Action is made up of a small core of local activists, including Weber, Ing, Alani Bagcal and Jasmine Slovak.

The organization has yet to file any paperwork with the Hawaii Campaign Spending Commission or Federal Election Commission, but Weber said the organization plans to spend about $425,000 during the Democratic primary on grassroots organizing, advertising and mailers.

The group will back candidates in local, state and federal elections who agree to endorse their platform and sign a pledge that says among other things that they will not accept donations from corporate PACs, lobbyists, out-of-state developers, luxury hotel conglomerates or military contractors.

According to Weber, Our Hawaii Action plans to partner with the Working Families Party to help raise money from national political donors.

Evan Weber stands outside his Kailua residence.
Evan Weber, of Kailua, is one of the founders of Our Hawaii Action. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2022

“We’re not trying to elect a puppet, that’s not the point,” Ing said. “Our goal is to build an actual community organization that spans across issues that address what our communities actually need. Every politician right now is talking about the cost of living or housing because they know that’s the pain people are feeling, but very few are willing to do what it takes. It’s just all talk.”

Isn’t It Ironic?

The leaders of Our Hawaii Action are fully aware of the irony of using a super PAC and the “dark money” 501(c)4 that’s not required to disclose its donors to push an anti-corruption message of taking big money out of politics. But they also acknowledge the shortcomings of Hawaii’s progressive movement.

It’s one thing to hold rallies and testify at the legislature. It’s another to mobilize voters and put money behind candidates.

The Hawaii Alliance for Progressive Action, for instance, has helped train dozens of prospective candidates, some who have gone on to hold public office. But in order to be truly effective, progressives need a full complement of political infrastructure, which based on the laws in effect today, typically costs large sums of money to be consistently competitive.

U.S. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Kaniela Ing pose for a photo at a campaign rally in 2018. Nathan Eagle/Civil Beat/2018

Jasmine Slovak works for HAPA and is one of the core members of Our Hawaii Action. She was raised on Oahu with a “don’t rock the boat” mentality that is common in local culture. She said it took her moving to San Francisco for art school to finally shake that stigma and speak out on issues she cared about. After moving back to Oahu in 2014 she began to get involved in local causes, but quickly saw the limitations of her activism.

Without a well-funded organization to fall back on, one that has the expertise and know-how to work the political system in the same way as Hawaii’s labor unions and corporate lobbyists, she worried that the grassroots, working class efforts she cared about would stagnate and die.

Slovak said these realities were driven home to her during the pandemic when she was laid off from Tori Richard, a Hawaii-based fashion company specializing in aloha attire.

The loss of her job forced her to reckon with the fragility of being middle class in Hawaii. It also caused her to go back to school so that she could earn a degree that will give her the tactical skills necessary to influence change in the islands she calls home.

“We’re playing a different game here,” Slovak said. “They’ve been wiping the floor with us and now we’re going to use the same tools they’ve been using for decades. We can’t keep denying what’s been built up around us if we want to be effective, and that’s what Our Hawaii Action is trying to acknowledge.”

Tyler Dos Santos-Tam, who until last week was the head of the Hawaii Democratic Party, has a similar perspective. He’s now running for Honolulu City Council.

As the former executive director of the Hawaii Construction Alliance and lobbyist for the Hawaii Regional Council of Carpenters, Dos Santos-Tam was a part of the establishment wing of the party that Our Hawaii Action seeks to agitate.

The struggle for progressives, he said, is taking popular ideas and turning them into action.

A well-run political action committee can do just that, he said, but he warned that the effects might not be immediate.

Jasmine Slovak is an organizer with the Hawaii Alliance for Progressive Action. Courtesy: Jasmine Slovak

“One of the challenges that the Democratic Party has had is that we are a big tent and so it takes a long time to convince everybody to get onto the same page,” Dos Santos-Tam said. “There’s absolutely a lane for an outside group to spread their message and engage with people. I think if they’re well funded enough they’ll be able to make an impact.”

Pumping even more money into local politics might not be what voters want.

Ngoc Phan, an assistant professor of political science at Hawaii Pacific University, described what Our Hawaii Action is attempting to do as a political arms race, although one that appears to be lopsided in favor of some of the bigger players.

Any time outside money flows into an election, she said, it raises concerns about transparency and whether the average voter is being disenfranchised by wealthy donors with their own stakes in policy decisions.

“This group is claiming to be a counter to the special interests, but then it uses the same exact weapons of the special interests they’re trying to compete against,” Phan said. “It’s still pay to play. It’s the same flavor, but maybe just a little more local flavor. It’s still using money as a means by which you influence the political system.”

The U.S. Supreme Court’s 2010 decision in Citizens United is what helped create the political money laundering we’re seeing today, Phan said, with super PACs, 501(c)4s and other dark money organizations operating under the auspices of free speech.

But for the average voter all the money and all the messaging can be confusing, she said, which is why it’s important for them to remain vigilant.

“As we go into the election, voters need to pay attention to who’s paying for these messages,” Phan said. “Do these groups actually represent the people and your values or are these just people who have the resources and are making a lot of noise because they think these are the issues that you should be focusing on?”

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