Lee Cataluna: Attack Ads Are Hurting More Than Just Their Political Targets - Honolulu Civil Beat

About the Author

Lee Cataluna

Lee Cataluna is a columnist for Civil Beat. You can reach her by email at lcataluna@civilbeat.org

Much has been said about how bad the negative campaigning is this year and how all those low-blows and sucker punches are landing on the targeted candidates.

Opinion article badge

But they signed up for the fight.

What about the damage that those attack ads do to us?

That stuff isn’t confined to the battleground of the big political races. It spreads throughout the community like a virus. Negative campaign ads are all over television, on the radio, in print, on social media and shoved into everyone’s mailbox. There’s no way to avoid the onslaught.

Voting in this year’s primary election is anything but inspiring. Everybody is saying the same thing about themselves (more housing, less crime, for the keiki), but that self-promotion is all but drowned out by the ads that make you feel like everyone is crooked. Big mainland money is being used to smear candidates by accusing them of accepting big mainland money.

Does it feel at all like Hawaii is about to turn the corner into an era of something truly inspiring? Sadly, no, not when there’s so much mud splattered that everything seems unclean.

The best political campaigns are about hope. They’re built on a foundation of moral character and dignity and a commitment to lift up the spirit of the community. What we have right now is the opposite of high ideals and honorable ethics. It’s a no-holds-barred bloodsport.

What is so deplorable is the way candidates who benefit from these attack ads nimbly distance themselves from the stench by saying, “Oh, that’s not my campaign. I had nothing to do with that.”

Really? Political operatives are spending big money to kneecap your opponent and there’s not one thing you can do about it? That’s another way of saying, “I can’t control people speaking on my behalf,” which is such a contemptible cop-out for someone who claims to be a leader.

The attacks coming directly from the candidates, without the insulation provided by super PAC money, get points for bravado, but they also add mud to the water.

Democratic gubernatorial candidate Vicky Cayetano is now running attack ads against frontrunner Lt. Gov. Josh Green, and she actually teamed up with her hothead opponent Kai Kahele in a joint press conference to criticize Green, saying (again) that he hasn’t disclosed the source of his personal income when, in fact, he has talked about his medical practice quite a bit.

Green himself hasn’t run negative ads, but he gets riled when provoked, and dropped the term “slum lord” when referencing Kahele’s Tennessee real estate holdings.

image from Be Change Now TV ad attacking Sylvia Luke July 2022
An image from the Be Change Now TV ad attacking Sylvia Luke. Screenshot/2022

In what has to be one of the sleaziest and most dishonest attacks this season, congressional candidate Jill Tokuda is portrayed as a gun loving friend of the National Rifle Association by a super PAC that took cues from Democratic opponent Patrick Branco’s campaign. Branco says he hasn’t coordinated with the PAC, of course, which would be against campaign laws, but he hasn’t spoken out against the smear job on his opponent either.

Sylvia Luke has similarly been attacked by ads paid for by Be Change Now, the rebranded but still bullying political arm of the Hawaii Carpenters’ Union, which is supporting one of her opponents for lieutenant governor, Ikaika Anderson. Anderson’s ads play up what a great guy and caring family man he is, leaving the smear-job on Luke to the carpenters, but of course there’s no coordination here, either.

Really? Political operatives are spending big money to kneecap your opponent and there’s not one thing you can do about it?

Negative campaigning is a sign of weakness. Voters consistently tell pollsters they don’t like it. It’s not something the frontrunner tends to do. It’s for losers. Like we tell kids about playground bullies, there’s actually something wrong with their self-esteem that makes them act that way.

But the bigger point is that negative campaigning hurts our fraying democracy, especially today, when people have so many reasons to disengage with the news, hunker down and maybe even give up on voting altogether.

Media outlets are raking in the money by running all the negative campaign ads while their own journalists are writing stories and shaking their heads about how all that stuff is really nasty this year. Twitter finally shut down former president Donald Trump’s account because his content was frequently false and incendiary. Local TV news, however, is happy to play the game by taking the money and pretending to be outraged at the same time.

It’s hard to imagine that Hawaii politics could get any uglier, though we know from sad experience that there is no end to how bad things could get. Any candidate indulging in negative campaigning as a means to an end, a way to win at any cost, should be judged by that tactic.

Read this next:

Catherine Toth Fox: Feeling Grateful? Send A Handwritten Thank You Note

Local reporting when you need it most

Support timely, accurate, independent journalism.

Honolulu Civil Beat is a nonprofit organization, and your donation helps us produce local reporting that serves all of Hawaii.


About the Author

Lee Cataluna

Lee Cataluna is a columnist for Civil Beat. You can reach her by email at lcataluna@civilbeat.org

Latest Comments (0)

I couldn't agree more! The media onslaught of negativity and mud slinging are counterproductive - turning off voters and would be voters from casting their valuable votes. No class, no aloha and so shame! Fighting fair, letting your actions speak instead of nasty words and candidates that do what is in the best interest of the local people (not international investors or mainland corporations) will earn my vote and the votes of my family members, friends and co-workers. Mahalo for writing this article Lee!

Les_G_ · 1 year ago

It's all because of the decision the Supreme Court made on the Citizen's United case, which weirdly ruled that corporations have the right of free speech in the form of money.

sleepingdog · 1 year ago

When I was growing up I learned about Good Sportsmanship and the Gold Rule. Today, it only about who has the most money to control the world. Money is the root of all evil.

kealoha1938 · 1 year ago

Join the conversation


IDEAS is the place you'll find essays, analysis and opinion on every aspect of life and public affairs in Hawaii. We want to showcase smart ideas about the future of Hawaii, from the state's sharpest thinkers, to stretch our collective thinking about a problem or an issue. Email news@civilbeat.org to submit an idea.


You're officially signed up for our daily newsletter, the Morning Beat. A confirmation email will arrive shortly.

In the meantime, we have other newsletters that you might enjoy. Check the boxes for emails you'd like to receive.

  • What's this? Be the first to hear about important news stories with these occasional emails.
  • What's this? You'll hear from us whenever Civil Beat publishes a major project or investigation.
  • What's this? Get our latest environmental news on a monthly basis, including updates on Nathan Eagle's 'Hawaii 2040' series.
  • What's this? Get occasional emails highlighting essays, analysis and opinion from IDEAS, Civil Beat's commentary section.

Inbox overcrowded? Don't worry, you can unsubscribe
or update your preferences at any time.