Union PAC shifts attention to Maui races amid contentious debate over development

Be Change Now is targeting three council races on the Valley Isle where slow-growth and development interests often clash.
Published: Nov. 3, 2022 at 5:44 PM HST
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HONOLULU (HawaiiNewsNow) -The same union Political Action committee that spent millions on the races for governor and lieutenant governor in the primary has shifted its attention to Maui.

“Be Change Now,” a PAC controlled by the Carpenters Union, is dominating spending in key council races in a county where slow-growth and development interests often clash.

The PAC is focusing on three races that observers say could flip the council to a more pro-growth posture.

Christine Uechi, managing editor of the Maui News, said the the current council has been criticized for what it calls a “smart growth” policy that has sometimes rejected housing projects and sought to limit tourism.

She said it’s clear “Be Change Now” sees an opportunity.

“They could take a majority on the council, and that could definitely change the dynamics and the direction that the council goes,” Uechi said. “And so both sides, I think, are kind of seeing this as a very crucial moment.”

Be Change Now Communications Director Lee Tokuhara said the PAC is seeking a “balanced” approach, particularly when it comes to housing and tourism.

“Maui is at a critical juncture. With the continued lack of affordable housing and perhaps a looming recession,” Tokuhara said.

Uechi said one significant reason the PAC can be so influential in Maui County is that even though candidates must live in one of nine districts, voting for each is county-wide. That means they have to campaign across the entire county, which includes three islands. It’s very difficult for newcomers to break in without significant resources.

The three endorsed candidates are all newcomers, but were already significantly better funded than their opponents ― even without the PAC’s help.

The PAC is not allowed to cooperate with the candidate, but is not limited in how much it can spend. In campaign spending reports, it’s clear that the Carpenters Union spending dwarfs spending by all council candidates.

Campaign Spending Records
Campaign Spending Records(HNN)

On Molokai, John Pele is challenging incumbent Keani Rawlins-Fernandez.

Pele’s campaign spent $121,907 and be change now has spent another $157,048. Combined, that’s nearly $280,000 ― about seven times more than Rawlins-Fernandez campaign and progressive PACs that support her.

The pattern holds in battles for two vacant seats.

Campaign Spending Records
Campaign Spending Records(HNN)

In South Maui, Thomas Cook’s campaign clout against Robin Knox was more than doubled by the PAC’s $169,520 in spending up against Knox’s total $44,234.

In the Makawao to Paia race, Nohe Uu-Hodgins’ combined $332,221 spend is 14 times higher than opponent Nara Boone.

Campaign Spending Records
Campaign Spending Records(HNN)

Uechi said the result is an inundation of ads, flyers and signage.

“There’s so many mailers that are going out and I’ve seen the ads on social media as well,” Uechi said. “So, it looks like it’s pretty widespread across a lot of different media types of, of onslaught of advertising.”

All nine seats on the council are up this year.

Be Change Now strategically chose the most competitive races, with a specific goal.

“I think we need a more balanced approach to both tourism and housing development by the Council,” Tokuhara said. The PAC is also supporting mayoral candidate Richard Bissen against incumbent Mayor Mike Victorino.

And the PAC support gubernatorial candidate Josh Green.

Sylvia Luke, Green’s running mate, refused to accept the support of Be Change Now after it spent hundreds of thousands trying to defeat her in the primary with ads some experts called a smear campaign.