HONOLULU, Hawaii (HawaiiNewsNow) - A fundraiser hosted by Kirk Caldwell on Wednesday afternoon is raising eyebrows. That’s because proceeds from the virtual event go to his run for governor in 2022.
Past mayors who wanted to be governor have raised money while in office. But the pandemic has created a new normal for campaigning ― and fundraising.
“It raises a lot of questions about the priorities of the mayor right now,” said Hawaii News Now political analyst Colin Moore.
Moore, director of the Public Policy Center at UH-Manoa, said what Caldwell’s doing isn’t unusual but he questions whether it’s appropriate during the pandemic with so many struggling.
“It’s an advantage that all politicians use. This is hardly unique to Mayor Caldwell," Moore said. "Does that mean it’s right? I’m not sure that it is. Especially right now.”
A flyer advertising the lunchtime meet-and-greet was emailed to prospective donors across Oahu.
Entitled “Mahalo Mr. Mayor!” it lists Caldwell’s perceived accomplishments and concludes by saying the event is "a time for all of us to thank Mayor Caldwell.”
Suggested donations to attend Wednesday’s virtual event ranged from $500 to $6,000.
HNN asked the Caldwell campaign to be allowed to attend the fundraiser, but that request was declined. At a news conference on COVID-19 after the event, Caldwell said he couldn’t comment on it.
“I can’t comment on any political questions right now. I’m on city time. On city property. And so I’m not going to talk about any political questions you may ask me," Caldwell said.
Lex Smith, the chairman of Caldwell’s campaign, said he wasn’t sure how many people showed up for the virtual fundraiser or how much money was raised.
But he defended the event, saying Caldwell was off the clock.
“He did this over his lunch hour,” Smith said. “It certainly did not detract his duties as Mayor in any way.”
Caldwell acknowledged he missed an 11:15 a.m. leadership meeting Wednesday with the governor and other top state officials, but denied it had anything to do with the fundraiser.
“I attend some and I don’t attend others,” Caldwell said. “I make the priorities that are important to the city first. And then go to the meetings.”
Caldwell’s fundraising ability as mayor was evident before the pandemic.
In the fall of 2019, he raised more than $250,000. Public records show much of it was from construction industry insiders and other executives who could benefit from help from the city.
Smith said the mayor "has never leveraged his public duty to try and get money out of anybody.”
The Campaign Spending Commission says there is nothing illegal about a virtual fundraiser and that other politicians have been holding them this year.
What’s unclear is how fundraising in a pandemic will look to voters.