Saturday, Feb. 24, 2024 |
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Mayor Derek Kawakami
Roven Michael Poai
LIHU‘E — Mayor Derek Kawakami has spent more than 10 times the funds on his re-election campaign than all three of his opponents combined, financial disclosures show.
Kawakami emerged from his 2018 election victory with $137,039 remaining in his war chest, added $158,842 to that total, and has spent $195,451 on his 2022 bid during this election period.
His opponents — political newcomers Mitch McPeek, Megeso-William Denis and Michael Roven Poai — have together raised and spent less than $10,000 on their campaigns, albiet over a shorter period of time.
Campaign finance reform has become a hot-button issue this election season following two bribery scandals involving major players in Hawai‘i political fundraising — wastewater executive Milton Choy and businessman Dennis Mitsunaga.
Former state Senate Majority Leader J. Kalani English and former state Rep. Ty J.K. Cullen admitted in February to accepting bribes from Choy in exchange for introducing and killing certain wastewater-policy legislation.
Mitsunaga was arrested on federal bribery charges this June, with an indictment alleging that he paid Honolulu Prosecutor Keith Kaneshiro a total of $45,000 in campaign contributions in exchange for prosecuting a former employee of Mitsunaga’s firm.
Both Mitsunaga and Choy contributed thousands in legal donations to politicians throughout the state, including the Kawakami campaign.
Lawmakers established the Commission to Improve Standards of Conduct in response to the scandals — which will submit
recommendations to the state Legislature this December. Up for discussion are major reforms like boosting public financing of campaigns, lowering the maximum individual contribution, and capping the amount allowed in candidates’ war chests.
The mayor largely deferred opinions about finance reform to this commission, telling The Garden Island it was “best to let the experts make those recommendations.”
Generally, he viewed systemic reforms as less important than the individual character of elected officials and their team.
“Whether it’s $1,000, or $4,000 or $100, what matters the most is how an individual performs once they’re in office,” said Kawakami when asked his opinion on lowering the maximum allowable contribution.
The vast majority of Kawakami’s new individual contributions, $152,083, were over $100.
Of note are two $4,000 contributions (the maximum allowable by law for a mayoral race) from individuals tied to Meridian Pacific, the developers involved in the contentious luxury condo project in Po‘ipu, which has sparked backlash from community groups who claim that the development will harm endangered species and affect ancient burial sites.
Kawakami reported that his campaign does not have an official process in place for screening potentially problematic contributors, but that they had turned away some funds and volunteering help from donors who do not meet a “standard of conduct.”
“If somebody has a pending lawsuit, if somebody who’s reputation is known, we say ‘thank you but no thank you,’” Kawakami said.
Kawakami said his fundraising process looked different this year. His team did not hold a fundraising event, and a larger chunk of their contributions came from the web.
Kawakami’s opponents were more vocal in their support for campaign finance reforms.
Poai, 47, a longtime county employee who spent $4,532 on his campaign but only brought in $450, leaving him $4,081 in the red, said that Kawakami’s war chest could be intimidating for potential donors.
“People are like, ‘we’re not going to waste a dollar on you,’” he said.
He was supportive of public financing, lowering the maximum campaign contribution, limiting bundling (the practice of combining several individual contributions into a large one) and banning union and corporate funding.
McPeek, 61, a self-employed contractor, largely self-funded his campaign, spending a total of $1,966 and receiving only $550 in outside contributions.
“I haven’t asked for a dime,” said McPeek. “I can’t do that. That’s not me.”
He was not specific about which reforms he would support, but was generally in favor of changes that would “level the playing field.”
Megeso-William Denis, 71, a spiritual counselor and retired business operations manager, saw the campaign financing system as a key problem facing American democracy.
“There should be limits on how much a candidate can receive,” said Denis. “It’s not about the money. It’s supposed to be about the message. We’re supposed to be voting on the character of the person, not how much money they raise.”
Denis, who spent $1,631 of $3,587 raised, reported that he had not held a fundraiser, and would screen potential donors he didn’t know.
He supported various campaign-finance reforms, including lowering the individual contribution limits to $1,000, and limiting total campaign spending to $25,000 for a local election.
Though far outspending his competition, Kawakami’s fundraising totals pale in comparison to his last run, when he had raised $448,228 and spent $303,459 at this point in the election season.
In 2018, Kawakami faced more well-funded opposition in former Kaua‘i Mayor JoAnn Yukimura and former County Councilman Mel Rapozo. Rapozo had dropped $115,513 on his campaign at this point in 2018, while Yukimura had spent $70,772.
Incumbent mayors throughout the islands have been spending big on re-election, with Maui Mayor Michael Victorino spending $412,070 on his campaign and Honolulu Mayor Rick Blangiardi spending $707,219, according to the latest disclosures.
Guthrie Scrimgeour, reporter, can be reached at 808-647-0329 or email@example.com.
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