A political group with ties to the construction industry and a history of running attack ads has launched a full-court press this year to sway voters in the race for lieutenant governor.

Be Change Now, a super PAC funded by contractors who do business with the Hawaii Regional Council of Carpenters, is spending more than $2 million this year supporting Ikaika Anderson’s run for lieutenant governor with radio, digital and newspaper ads, according to recently filed campaign spending reports.

That’s double what the same super PAC spent to help elect Josh Green as LG in 2018. That amount also includes about $332,000 spent running attack ads targeting one of Anderson’s opponents, Rep. Sylvia Luke.

Recent polls have shown Luke is slightly ahead of other Democrats in the race, although a majority of voters are still undecided.

Be Change Now, which grew out of a pro-rail super PAC created by the Pacific Resource Partnership in 2012, has spent upwards of $3.7 million this year, including supporting other Hawaii candidates in other races.

The ads are seen as political payback for a financial bailout package for the Honolulu rail project that Luke helped shepherd through the Legislature. PRP lobbied for a permanent extension to the tax surcharge on Oahu residents. Luke and other lawmakers instead passed a measure that only extended that surcharge until 2030.

The ads don’t mention rail, rather they attempt to connect Luke to indicted Hawaii defense contractor Martin Kao. Luke and her supporters have called the ads misleading.

Democratic Lt Governor primary candidate Ikaika Anderson in the HNN debate held at the Sheraton Hotel.
Democratic lieutenant governor candidate Ikaika Anderson is benefiting from more than $2 million in support from groups affiliated with the carpenters union. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2022

In a lengthy written statement, Be Change Now spokeswoman Lee Tokuhara insists the ads are not about rail and rather are intended to raise questions about Luke’s connections to lobbyists and special interests during her time as one of the state’s most powerful legislators.

“For far too long, the money interest on Bishop Street and select lobbyists have controlled Hawaii’s political discourse. That needs to be disrupted — and changed,” the statement said.

Luke’s colleague, former Sen. Jill Tokuda, faced similar pushback from the carpenters union and its supporters during the 2018 race for lieutenant governor, which she lost to Green.

Be Change Now is an independent expenditure committee, Hawaii’s version of a super PAC, which is allowed to accept unlimited amounts of money and spend as much as it wants to oppose or support candidates.

Its primary donor is the Hawaii Carpenters Market Recovery Program Fund, which gets its money from developers and businesses that employ workers represented by the Hawaii Regional Council of Carpenters.

In the last decade, the fund has provided more than $17 million to Be Change Now and its previous iterations including PRP with the goal of influencing elections in Hawaii, according to campaign finance records.

Attack Ads

One of the ads targeting Luke shows three Navatek executives, including CEO Martin Kao, who were indicted earlier this year for making illegal campaign donations to a member of Congress.

It says that Luke has taken thousands of dollars from Kao and implies that she helped steer tax breaks toward Navatek.

 

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

A company affiliated with Navatek, Pacific Shipyards International, did stand to gain from a bill that Luke helped to introduce in 2017. House Bill 591 helped that company and others to relocate from a state-owned waterfront by providing tax credits for moving.

Those tenants, along with Pacific Shipyards, were forced to move by the state to clear the way for a new container terminal.

Luke voted in favor of the 2017 tax credits bill, as did Green, along with about 70 other lawmakers.

In a written statement, Luke’s campaign says there is no connection with the 2017 law and the indictments that happened just this year. Kao and other Navatek CEO’s were charged for using a shell company to funnel campaign donations to U.S. Sen. Susan Collins.

“I’m disappointed but I’m not surprised they are doing it again,” Luke said of the ad attacks during a follow up interview.

She said campaign donations did not influence her decisions as a state lawmaker. She defended the 2017 law, saying it only provided tax credits to tenants who agreed to keep their operations in Hawaii after moving from the boat harbor.

It’s not mentioned in the ad, but lawmakers also helped to steer more than $1 million worth of state grants to Navatek. Those grants are typically reserved for nonprofits.

Be Change Now says the ads raise legitimate criticisms of Luke’s record.

Campaign finance records show Luke’s campaign accepted $3,000 from Kao over the years. That includes a $1,000 contribution from Kao during the 2017 legislative session.

Although the ad criticizes Luke, Be Change Now has supported other candidates who also got money from Kao.

Updated: Kao donated $12,000 over the years to Josh Green, who says his campaign either returned or donated those funds, and $6,000 to former U.S. Rep. Colleen Hanabusa. Be Change Now ran ads supporting both candidates in 2018. In fact, Be Change Now is spending $298,000 this year supporting Green’s campaign for governor, according to campaign spending reports.

Be Change Now is also running paid ads on Facebook that direct readers to a website called Breaking Hawaii News, which is produced by the super PAC. The group also mailed ads this week tying Luke to Kao. And on Thursday, the PAC ran a full page ad in the newspaper calling on voters to reject Luke.

Another mailer criticizes Luke for campaign donations from special interest groups. Luke is one of the most prolific fundraisers in the Legislature, and the carpenters union is one of its most prolific donors, having contributed more than $84,000 to lawmakers during legislative sessions in the last decade.

The statewide teachers union rallied against the ads. In a news release, the HSTA called the ads a “mishmash of disconnected facts.”

HGEA Executive Director Randy Perreira announces HGEA endorsement of LG candidate Sylvia Luke.
Luke’s supporters, including HGEA Executive Director Randy Perreira and other union leaders, railed against the attack ads this week. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2022

In a letter to the Honolulu Star-Advertiser on Wednesday, heads of four major labor unions blasted the ads as well as other ads targeting congressional candidate Jill Tokuda. The ads attacking Tokuda are not paid for by Be Change Now, but by mainland super PACs supporting her opponent, Patrick Branco.

“We’ve reached an all-time low in Hawaii politics and it must stop,” wrote Bobby Lee, president of the Hawaii Fire Fighters Association; Damien Kim, a business manager and financial secretary for the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers 1186; Christian Fern, executive director of the University of Hawaii Professional Assembly; and Randy Perreira, executive director of the Hawaii Government Employees Association.

The four unions have all endorsed Tokuda and Luke. It’s rare to see labor unions openly oppose the actions of another union.

“We take no issue with political activism,” the four union representatives wrote. “But when that action devolves to maligning an individual’s character with ugly, unfounded claims of wrongdoing, we cannot remain silent.”

Construction Money

Be Change Now has spent more than $3.7 million this year — far more than any other super PAC in the state.

Besides Anderson and Green, records show the PAC is also providing outside support to House Speaker Scott Saiki ($35,000); Maui County Council candidate Nohe Uu-Hodgins ($71,292); Kauai County Council candidate Addison Bulosan ($25,308); and House District 44 candidate Darius Kila ($26,425).

The Hawaii Carpenters Market Recovery Program Fund provided the financial backing for much of those efforts. The fund also does business as the Pacific Resource Partnership, a partnership between the carpenters union and more than 200 contractors.

Hawaii Regional Council of Carpenters Houghtailing St.
Groups with ties to the local construction workers union have pumped millions of dollars into Hawaii elections in the last decade. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2018

Entities that entered labor agreements to employ carpenters union workers pay into the fund.

In 2011, those annual employer contributions totaled $1.8 million. Last year, the contributions ballooned to over $6.6 million. The fund supports training and workforce initiatives for the industry and events, tax filings show.

The fund appears to have significantly beefed up its financial support for political advertising, according to campaign spending reports and the organization’s 990 forms.

Between 2011 and 2016, line items for political action expenses accounted for between 3% and 43% of the fund’s total expenses for each tax year.

In the 2018 and 2019 tax year, contributions to super PACs accounted for 61% of all expenses. In the 2019 and 2020 tax year, those contributions accounted for about 57% of expenses.

Tokuhara said that although the program fund provides Be Change Now with money, the entities are separate and the super PAC operates independently of its donors.

Be Change Now is just the latest super PAC funded by the local construction industry.

Another carpenters super PAC, the PRP PAC, spent more than $3 million in 2012 to defeat Ben Cayetano. Cayetano sued the Hawaii Carpenters Market Recovery Program Fund for libel. The case settled in 2014, and PRP was forced to apologize to Cayetano and donate $100,000 to the University of Hawaii and $25,000 to the Hawaiian Humane Society.

That didn’t stop the union and its associates from creating more political action groups. The fund set up another super PAC in 2014 called Forward Progress, which spent more than $1 million supporting campaigns for several county council races across the islands.

The Campaign Spending Commission fined PRP and Forward Progress $3,100 for failing to file certain expense reports.

In 2018, employees at PRP helped to establish All Hawaii Stand Together, the name of a popular local song. The group changed its name to Be Change Now after pushback from songwriter Liko Martin.

The PAC provided more than $1 million in outside funding to help push Green into the LG’s office. Soon after being inaugurated in 2019, Green hired a lobbyist for the carpenters union to be his chief of staff.

Be Change Now also spent more than $510,000 supporting Colleen Hanabusa’s run for governor in 2018 while spending about the same on an ad campaign attacking Gov. David Ige.

The super PAC committed more than $1 million to support Honolulu Mayor Rick Blangiardi and a slate of pro-rail Honolulu City Council candidates in the 2020 election.

Other PACs Join The Race

Be Change Now is by far the most prolific super PAC this election season.

But another union-backed group, HiVISION 2020, is also wading into the races for governor and LG. The PAC, which is backed by the Plumbers and Pipefitters Local 675, spent more than $324,000 on ads supporting Green and Luke. It is also providing outside support to Honolulu City Council candidates Val Okimoto, Nalani Jenkins and Chad Tsuneyoshi.

The Our Hawaii PAC, a new super PAC seeking to support progressive candidates, spent over $109,000 on a slate of candidates including Kai Kahele.

Another super PAC supported by donors to Vicky Cayetano, called Victory Calls, spent more than $200,000 on ads casting aspersions on Green’s credentials as a medical doctor.

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