DARK MONEY GOES DOWN THE DRAIN: Secretive Hui O Maui and other groups spent big bucks on the 2020 election, with few results

December 30, 2020

On January 2, the most progressive Maui County Council in recent history will officially be seated. It includes newly elected Lana’i representative Gabe Johnson and incumbents Tasha Kama, Kelly King, Alice Lee, Mike Molina, Tamara Paltin, Keani Rawlins-Fernandez, Shane Sinenci and Yuki Lei Sugimura. Their selection, and the passage of six of the seven charter amendments, represents a stunning rebuke to the “dark money” that flooded Maui County in the run-up to November 3.

They will be inaugurated despite the expensive efforts of the 501(c)(4) fake-named group Hui O Maui, which sought to push voters towards its pro-business candidate slate and against all seven charter amendments with a spending spree that set state records. Its donors remain hidden, thanks to the 2010 U.S. Supreme Court Citizen’s United decision.

According to final reports filed with the state of Hawaii’s Campaign Spending Commission earlier this month, Hui O Maui contributed $327,500 to two entities–$192,500 to the Hui O Maui Citizens for Change super PAC and $135,000 to the Vote No on Ballot Amendments Hui O Maui Nui We Can’t Afford It ballot issue committee (hopefully, the last time I ever have to write that ridiculously-worded name). Neither group reported donations made by anybody other than Hui O Maui.

Hui O Maui’s money drop made it into the record books. Of the 104 races in the state, the Campaign Spending Commission named Citizens for Change number two in contributions received by a super PAC during the General Election. The first was the Oahu-based group Be Change Now, which was involved in the Honolulu mayoral race. The commission ranked Vote No on Charter Amendments, etc. the highest recipient of both contributions and expenditures by a ballot issue committee in the state during the 2020 General Election cycle.

As the chart above indicates, Hui O Maui Citizens for Change burned through $173,755 to (indirectly) support candidates Claire Kamalu Carroll, Tom Cook, Stacy Crivello, Alberta de Jetley, and Rick Nava, and incumbents Kama, Lee, Molina, and Sugimura. That’s about $20,000 per candidate. But let’s parse further. Lee and Sugimura ran unopposed. Molina, who was also supported by the progressive non-candidate groups, really didn’t need anyone’s help. Carroll, Cook, Crivello, de Jetley and Nava lost. So, in the end, it cost Citizens for Change $173,500 to get Tasha Kama re-elected—and she won by the smallest margin of all the candidates. Not a great return on their investment.

The Vote No ballot issue committee was chaired by Roselani ice cream executive Buddy James Nobriga, who never answered questions about who was funding his organization. He spent $130,381 to defeat all seven charter amendments, almost $19,000 per amendment. The efforts included an anti-Managing Director radio ad by Mayor Michael Victorino, who also refused to answer questions about Hui O Maui’s donors. In the end, six of the charter amendments passed. Voters rejected only the amendment calling for the creation of a new county Office of the Managing Director. On a per-amendment basis, that’s close to $112,000 in squandered cash.

And let’s not forget the 501(c)(6) National Association of Realtors, which flushed $60,200 down the drain on its solitary, unsuccessful effort to put Stacy Crivello into Keani Rawlins-Fernandez’s Moloka’i seat.

In all, those three groups accounted for 83.3% of all 2020 non-candidate committee expenditures on Maui. They outspent the top three progressive non-candidate organizations by about 5 to 1.

Progressives Spend Less Money, Enjoy More Success

 Unlike their dark money counterparts, the progressive non-candidate committees–Maui’s Green Future Project super PAC, and the ballot issue committees Holomua Ohana for Professional Management and Grow Maui Jobs—were entirely transparent. They were run by Maui residents who were easily accessible, and funded by donors identified by name on the groups’ campaign spending statements.

These three groups spent a total of $72,474, or about 17% of the six committees’ total expenditures listed above. The money was used in indirect support of candidates Johnson, Carol Lee Kamekona (who lost to Kama), King, Molina, Paltin, Rawlins-Fernandez and Sinenci, and in favor of all seven charter amendments. Of the three, the $24,420 spent by Holomua on the failed Managing Director amendment represented the second highest campaign spending by a ballot issue committee in the state—still some $110,000 less than top-ranked Vote No on Charter Amendments, etc..

So who were the winners in this non-candidate committee spending frenzy? Ignoring the candidates and the charter amendments, it was first and foremost the U.S. Postal Service, which raked in more than $77,460 from the six groups listed above. Pacific Media Group’s six Maui radio stations and its information website Maui Now came in a close second, reaping almost $74,000 in election cash from the six non-candidate committees.

The Oahu-based communications company CommPac placed third, with $67,853 spent entirely by Hui O Maui Citizens for Change on strategies that clearly weren’t effective. Perhaps a local communications group would have better understood Maui’s voter dynamics. The Wailuku-based Sae Design was a big local business winner, billing more than $29,000 in work for the Citizens for Change and Vote No committees.

It is also interesting to note that the dark money groups spent no money at all on Facebook, which banked $11,861 in expenditures from progressive groups. The Maui News, its ad revenues shrunk by COVID and its staff decimated by buyouts and layoffs, took in only $20,000 from the six groups during the general election.

Among the administrative expenses filed by all non-candidate committees, Hui O Maui Citizens for Change reported a measly $2,000 in payments to its chairman, Grant David Gillham, a Las Vegas-based political strategist who apparently spent the entire general election campaign in Mexico. At least that two grand probably came in handy for his greens fees and margaritas.

It’s doubtful we’ve seen the last of Hui O Maui. Its Citizens for Change super PAC still has around $20,000 left in its coffers; Vote No has about $5,000. During the next election, maybe Hui O Maui should stop throwing money around and try spreading some transparency instead.