Almost all county council candidates supported by super PAC Be Change Now were successful in the general election, changing the makeup of the councils in every county and setting up a potential leadership shakeup on Maui.

Be Change Now was the super PAC that pumped about $3 million into the lieutenant governor’s race, supporting Ikaika Anderson and running attack ads against Sylvia Luke, who eked out a win in August and was sworn in as the new lieutenant governor Monday.

After the primary election, Be Change Now diverted its resources to council candidates and spent at least $708,000 on advertising for a slate of county council candidates, according to campaign finance reports filed Thursday afternoon. The PAC also backed the election of Gov. Josh Green with around $500,000, and legislative newcomers Darius Kila and Kirstin Kahaloa as well as the reelection of House Speaker Scott Saiki.

The super PAC is funded by 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. 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.
A super PAC with ties to the local construction union has helped to elect a slate of county council candidates. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2018

County councils have a tremendous impact on the daily lives of Hawaii residents. Issues with roads, traffic signals, water, sewer and trash most often fall on the county’s shoulders. The councils play a role in shaping policies that affect the price of housing, reducing homelessness and managing tourism.

The election of candidates endorsed by special interest groups like the carpenters union or other labor unions also raises a question of whether candidates will feel obligated to toe the line of contributors.

Be Change Now’s website advocates for “an economy that puts working families first” and calls for “meaningful investments in building affordable housing, in job creation and small business.”

Of the seven council candidates that Be Change Now endorsed or provided outside financial support to during the Nov. 8 election, six won election. The only one who lost was John Pele, who ran for the Molokai seat on the Maui County Council against Keani Rawlins-Fernandez.

But it’s in Maui County where the election of Be Change Now-backed candidates may have the biggest impact. The election of two candidates there with ties to development interests may block a group of progressives on the council from maintaining a majority.

In 2018, the group that calls itself Ohana took control of the council. By 2020, it held a 6-3 majority. This year, some of the members left the council to run for other offices and candidates who would have replaced them lost.

Now, the Ohana group’s numbers have been whittled down to four: Council members Rawlins-Fernandez, Tamara Paltin, Shane Sinenci and Gabe Johnson.

Council members Tom Cook and Nohelani U‘u-Hodgins, who had support from Be Change Now, beat out Robin Knox and Nara Boone, who were endorsed by Maui groups that helped elevate the Ohana candidates.

In the last term with the Ohana faction at the helm, the council put a moratorium on hotel development and created new agencies to oversee agriculture and indigenous resources in the county. A political reorganization on Maui could put the brakes on some of the initiatives the Ohana put in place to control development and put additional taxes on tourism and vacation rentals.

“It’s a sizable tectonic shift in the whole council,” retired Maui College professor Dick Mayer said. “It’s not unlike what goes on in Congress, when you switch from Republican control to Democratic control or vice versa, everything changes.”

Spending In Other Counties

The impact of outside spending on the makeup of the other county councils may be less pronounced. There was also less super PAC spending in those races compared to the races on Maui.

The PAC’s spending made a big difference for new Hawaii County Council member Jenn Kagiwada. She trailed her opponent Matthias Kusch in fundraising and campaign spending, having spent about $43,000 compared to Kusch’s $74,000 during the election period.

Big Island residents said an influx of mailers in the last several weeks before the election may have pushed Kagiwada ahead. Those ads came thanks to $23,261 worth of ad spending from Be Change Now on Kagiwada’s behalf in the last days of October.

On Oahu, Be Change Now spent about $24,000 supporting Matt Weyer and $20,000 supporting Tyler Dos Santos-Tam; both won. Meyer was in a close race with surfer Makua Rothman. Both candidates reported spending about $146,000 on the council race to represent the North Shore.

Honolulu City Council with in person session and a hand full of public in person testimony.
The Honolulu City Council will see two more candidates who are backed by the carpenters union take office. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2022

Dos Santos-Tam easily outspent his opponent, Traci Toguchi, $202,000 to $68,000. Dos Santos-Tam is a former executive director for the Hawaii Construction Alliance and previously lobbied on behalf of the carpenters union.

Hawaii County and the City and County of Honolulu are both undertaking a review of rules that could affect the cost of housing and where development can take place.

In Honolulu, the City Council recently advanced a revision of land use ordinances, which drew criticism from communities but support from groups like PRP. That measure has since stalled but could be revived in 2023.

On the Big Island, a sweeping update of the building code that’s been in the works for several years has also drawn interest from the construction unions over provisions on modular homes.

Those types of developments could lower housing costs, but there have been concerns that cheaper homes could depress wages for construction workers that build them.

On Kauai, the PAC spending may have helped out another first-time council member.

In a previous race, Addison Bulosan came within a few hundred votes of securing a seat on the Kauai County Council. This year, Bulosan finished third out of the field of 14 Kauai candidates. He spent just $18,229 this year compared to the $35,000 he spent in 2020.

Be Change Now spent more than $53,000 in support of Bulosan’s winning bid.

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