Dueling PACs show battle for votes in Maui County

Olinda’s Jake Grodzinsky logs in to vote electronically Friday at the Velma McWayne Santos Center. -- The Maui News / MATTHEW THAYER photo

State campaign spending reports show the behind-the-scenes battle for votes in Maui County in an election that pits long-established politicians against challengers who champion “the people and aina” and reject “big money interests.”

The challengers have the backing of groups like S.A.F.E. Sustainable Action Fund for the Environment and the Maui Pono Network. And, recent reports with the state Campaign Spending Commission show how such groups are attempting to make political inroads, investing not in individual campaigns but backing slates of like-minded candidates — paying for the publishing, printing and mailing of tens of thousands of flyers to Maui residents. The groups also use social media like Facebook to get their message out to voters.

Incumbent and longtime candidates continue to have the support of business and labor groups, which have greater financial resources available to outgun opponents, records filed with the commission show.

One of the leaders of the fledgling groups is Mark Sheehan, chairman of S.A.F.E. and a leader in the SHAKA Movement, which backed the 2014 initiative for a moratorium on genetically modified organisms in Maui County. (SHAKA stands for Sustainable Hawaiian Agriculture for the Keiki and the Aina.)

The “whole idea” behind S.A.F.E. was to back a group of candidates who, together, would be a new voting majority on the Maui County Council, Sheehan said Friday morning.

Early voting is open Friday at the Velma McWayne Santos Community Center in Wailuku. -- The Maui News / MATTHEW THAYER photo

“The idea was that we should be running a slate of candidates who come from the community who understand the needs of the community more than the donor class,” he said.

Island politics have been dominated by political contributions from hotel and development business interests, he said, and S.A.F.E. is an attempt to tip the scales in the other direction.

Sheehan said legislation favors resorts and developers, leaving the island with more gated communities than affordable housing and with hotels and resorts being “dramatically undervalued” for property tax purposes.

The County Council’s recent sand-mining moratorium left “two of the biggest excavators off the hook,” and the council majority allowed the removal of 2.5 million tons of dune sand from Maui for the Honolulu rail project, he said.

A reform-minded council would do more to address affordable housing and homelessness issues, he said.

S.A.F.E. is backing Council Member Elle Cochran for mayor and County Council candidates Keani Rawlins-Fernandez (Molokai residency seat), Natalie “Tasha” Kama (Kahului seat), Tamara Paltin (West Maui seat) and Trinette Furtado (Makawao-Haiku-Paia seat) in the Aug. 11 primary election.

Although the group advocates transparency in government, S.A.F.E. does not disclose the donors who gave $50,000 for its efforts to unseat incumbents. S.A.F.E. lists itself as the “contributing entity” for its activities.

Sheehan said that as a “501c4” super PAC, the group doesn’t disclose its donors.

“Our donors know they can’t be disclosed,” he said. “That’s how a super PAC works.”

An official with the Campaign Spending Commission confirmed that Sheehan is correct, a super PAC doesn’t need to disclose donors.

When asked if the group’s nondisclosure of donors is inconsistent with its advocacy for transparency, Sheehan said: “It would be wonderful if all donations were really transparent, but they’re not.”

He added that S.A.F.E. is operating within the rules set up by the commission.

S.A.F.E. has its limitations as a super PAC, though, he said. For example, it’s unable to coordinate its activities with candidates.

“I don’t go to rallies,” he said.

And S.A.F.E. did not donate to any individual campaigns, he noted.

Instead, records filed with the commission show the group spent more than $22,000 from Jan. 1 through July 27 to pay for Facebook and print advertising; and flyer printing and postage expenses.

S.A.F.E. donors are Maui residents, Sheehan said, a group of fewer than 30 people, most of whom Sheehan met through his real estate business.

A Maui News survey of a dozen recently filed noncandidate committee reports with the state Campaign Spending Commission showed that the Hawaii State Teachers Association began the reporting period with a deficit of more than $104,000 and then spent nearly $140,000.

HSTA spokesman Keoki Kerr said the negative amounts were a “bookkeeping thing” and a routine matter for the union as it donates to candidates who support public education and students.

The union has budgeted for the candidate donations and the deficit amounts should be eliminated as soon as a check is cut in a week or so, he said.

The Maui News survey did not find evidence of activity by super PAC groups such as the Maui Timeshare Ohana or Forward Progress, which spent heavily in 2014 to support County Council candidates Mike White, Joe Pontanilla and Ka’ala Buenconsejo. Only White went on to win election.

There was no available record online for the timeshare group, and the Forward Progress PAC filed its last report on Dec. 2, 2016.

* Brian Perry can be reached at bperry@mauinews.com.

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NONCANDIDATE COMMITTEE RANKINGS

The Maui News reviewed noncandidate committee reports for 12 entities that had Maui ties

Most funds available:

• ILWU Hawaii Political Action Committee, $308,984.52

• Hawaii Carpenters Political Action Fund, $173,442.96

• Patsy T. Mink PAC, $119,977.09

• Local Union 1186 IBEW PAC Fund, $103,638.58

• Alexander & Baldwin Inc. HIPAC, $88,882.39

• Operating Engineers Local Union 3 Hawaii District 17 PAC, $52,211.34

• S.A.F.E. Sustainable Action Fund for the Environment, $50,050.89

• Hawaii Operating Engineers Industry Stabilization Fund, $46,500

• Committee on Political Education (Hawaii State AFL-CIO), $32,087.46

• Maui Hotel & Lodging Association, $10,522

• Maui Pono Network, $6,074.55

• HSTA Government Relations Committee, (negative) $104,268.18

Spent most on political activity (statewide):

• HSTA Government Relations Committee, $139,875.74

• Local Union 1186 IBEW PAC Fund, $87,870.50

• Hawaii Carpenters Political Action Fund, $85,077.33

• ILWU Hawaii Political Action Committee, $80,428.55

• Hawaii Operating Engineers Industry Stabilization Fund, $46,500

• Patsy T. Mink PAC, $39,630.05

• Alexander & Baldwin Inc. HIPAC, $28,050

• S.A.F.E. Sustainable Action Fund for the Environment, $22,379

• Committee on Political Education (Hawaii State AFL-CIO), $21,500.36

• Operating Engineers Local Union 3 Hawaii District 17 PAC, $18,000

• Maui Pono Network, $6,009.37 (in-kind donations)

• Maui Hotel & Lodging Association, $4,935

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