The same group funded by the construction industry that has made headlines across Hawaii for political attack ads in past elections is throwing its weight behind a few Maui County races — putting tens of thousands of dollars behind one candidate in particular.

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Hawaii residents may already be familiar with the negative ads pushed by Be Change Now, a super PAC backed by the Hawaii Regional Council of Carpenters that spent more than $3 million in the primary race for lieutenant governor in an unsuccessful attempt to defeat Rep. Sylvia Luke. Besides spending massive amounts of cash in hopes of swaying voters, Be Change Now also endorses candidates who it says are committed to advancing its “shared vision for a better Hawaii.”

Be Change Now is throwing its support behind three people running for the Maui County Council who, if elected, could take control away from progressives who have made up the council majority over the last four years.

A photograph of the county building in Wailuku.
Candidates for the Maui County Council are nonpartisan, meaning they don’t run as Democrats or Republicans. Each member serves a two-year term. Marina Riker/Civil Beat/2022

Of those candidates, Be Change Now has put the most financial backing behind Nohe U‘u-Hodgins, a political newcomer who works in the construction industry and has strong family ties to the carpenters union.

U‘u-Hodgins is up against Nara Boone, who, despite having hardly any campaign money, defeated other candidates in the primary election and has joined forces with an organized group of progressives to try to win the Makawao-Haiku-Paia council seat.

“The interesting thing is it’s not just the money issue, but it’s whether this is an example of an attempt at progressive grassroots, which is always evolving in a more public way in the neighbor islands,” said Neal Milner, a political science professor emeritus at the University of Hawaii.

He said people often make all kinds of assumptions about how large amounts of money might influence politics.

“Without saying anything else, people would develop a pretty clear stereotype: We don’t like big money politics,” Milner said. “But this story is obviously richer and more complicated than that.”

Nohe U‘u-Hodgins is running to serve as the representative for the Makawao-Haiku-Paia seat on the Maui County Council. 

Maui County’s group of progressives has become perhaps the most organized and influential across Hawaii’s counties, Milner said.

In recent years, they’ve been able to win seats on the council and encourage new candidates to run, even though they have a slim fraction of the financial backing as their opponents with the support of the construction and tourism industries.

This year, for example, Be Change Now spent almost twice as much on a single Maui candidate than three progressive super PACs spent supporting a dozen people.

“They don’t even deserve the title of dark money,” Milner said of super PACs that are backing Maui’s progressive candidates.

Known in Hawaii as an independent expenditure committee, a super PAC is a type of political group that can spend unlimited amounts of money advertising for or against candidates. The entities, however, aren’t allowed to coordinate with candidates and can’t contribute money directly to their campaigns.

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Lee Tokuhara, a spokesperson for Be Change Now, said the super PAC aims to be the voice of the carpenters union’s 6,000 members and exists to advocate for working families across Hawaii. She said the group endorsed the candidates on Maui because they’ll fight to build housing for residents and “bring a balanced approach to policy.”

This isn’t the first time that a super PAC connected to the carpenters union has spent big money trying to influence Maui County voters. In 2014, the union’s super PAC, then called Forward Progress, spent at least $98,000 trying to defeat Elle Cochran in the race to represent West Maui on the council, according to campaign spending data. The super PAC didn’t succeed in ousting Cochran, a progressive known for defending environmental issues.

Nara Boone is trying to win voter support to serve as the Makawao-Haiku-Paia representative on the Maui County Council. Courtesy: Nara Boone

This year, Be Change Now has on its website endorsed three Maui County Council candidates. They include John Pele, who’s trying to unseat Keani Rawlins-Fernandez, the Molokai representative who’s championed policies to curb overtourism, including by stopping the construction of new hotels. And in South Maui, the group endorsed Tom Cook, a general contractor who’s facing Robin Knox, an environmental scientist and small business owner.

But Be Change Now has thrown by far the most support behind U‘u-Hodgins. On her campaign website, U‘u-Hodgins says her priorities are creating a balanced government and tackling Maui’s housing problems. With a background in home building, she understands why families struggle with the rising cost of living and how it can be difficult to navigate the county’s bureaucracy, her website reads.

She works in the construction industry as a permit expeditor for F&W Land, better known to many Maui residents as development company Frampton & Ward. She is also the daughter of Bruce U‘u, the longtime Maui representative for the Hawaii carpenters union.

Leading up to the Aug. 13 primary election, Be Change Now poured $71,292 into buying ads and other materials to try to convince Maui County residents to vote for U‘u-Hodgins, according to campaign spending data. By comparison, three different super PACs aligned with the progressive movement spent a combined $39,290 in support of 12 different Maui County Council candidates.

U‘u-Hodgins declined an interview. In an email, she credited Hawaii’s unions for fighting for more jobs and housing for residents.

“My family and I are proud to receive support from our working class men and women, and I am humbled that our local unions feel like they have a voice in me,” U‘u-Hodgins wrote.

Money can’t guarantee the outcome of any election, but it does go a long way in getting relatively unknown candidates’ names and messages in front of voters. In Maui County, where candidates ideally need to have a presence on three different islands, money is needed to mail campaign materials across the county and cover the costs of running ads that reach thousands of people on platforms from TV to radio to Facebook.

“In Honolulu, $70,000 wouldn’t get you very far, but that’s big money in Maui,” said Colin Moore, director of the Public Policy Center at the University of Hawaii.

The carpenters union, Moore said, has been pretty transparent in its desire to build more. Maui doesn’t have a monster public works project like the rail on Oahu that the union supports, but it does have an organized group of progressive council members who took over the majority in 2018 and have since looked to halt the construction of new hotels.

While some residents have celebrated their actions as a long overdue shift away from a system of power that favored the tourism industry over residents’ quality of life, others argue their policies will hurt businesses.

People aligned with the carpenters union have also argued the current council also hasn’t done enough to spur the construction of new homes, including affordable ones, as Maui’s cost of living has soared. Others see the influx of cash as an attempt to oust progressive leaders who’ve put a focus on ensuring that the homes that are built are within residents’ financial reach.

Regardless, players in the real estate, tourism and development industries are now pouring money into campaigns of candidates that could shake up the progressive stronghold.

Up through the primary election, U‘u-Hodgins raised $103,000, according to campaign spending data. That’s tens of thousands of dollars more than current council members Kelly King and Mike Molina, whose campaigns raised $61,000 and $9,000, respectively, in their bids for mayor.

Boone’s campaign, on the other hand, took in $5,600. But she still won the second highest number of votes in the Aug. 13 election, edging out Dave Deleon, who is now retired but once worked for former Maui mayors Linda Lingle and Alan Arakawa before becoming the government affairs director for the Realtors Association of Maui. Deleon’s campaign had raised almost $23,000.

“When I agreed to run, the people that were helping me in the very beginning told me that I need to raise about $12,000 to $17,000 to run a successful campaign,” Boone said. “I just wonder, why is so much money being raised?”

Maui County residents wait in line to vote before the polls closed during the Aug. 13 election. Marina Riker/Civil Beat/2022

Like her opponent, Boone also comes from a family that’s well known in the Maui community. Her late mother was Tina “The Midwife” Garzero, who served as a midwife on Maui for almost four decades and worked to expand families’ access to reproductive health care.

Boone said she was asked to run for the seat and agreed because she’s living the reality that so many other Maui residents are facing — with soaring costs of housing, food, gas and other basic necessities, it’s becoming harder to survive and secure stable housing for her family.

Boone, who works as a voice teacher with a goal to help people process trauma through music, said she’s looked to other ways that don’t involve massive amount of campaign cash to gain voters’ support — including partnering with the other progressive candidates to get the word out about what’s at stake in this election.

In their view, losing representation on the County Council would mean losing the progress the group has made in recent years, ranging from pushing to take back control of water long controlled by private companies to limiting development of new hotels to raising taxes on second homes and hotels to fund affordable housing.

“Money doesn’t vote, the people do,” Boone said. “And we have the opportunity to change our living situations.”

Voters can expect to start receiving mail-in ballots for the Nov. 8 election starting Oct. 21. Maui County residents will be asked to choose who is best qualified to represent them as mayor of the $1 billion local government and in all nine county council seats.

Civil Beat’s coverage of Maui County is supported in part by grants from the Nuestro Futuro Foundation and the Fred Baldwin Memorial Foundation.

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