Money Is Flowing Into Maui County Races As The Primary Election Nears

In the month before voting started for the Aug. 13 primary election, recent campaign finance data shows that almost $282,000 flowed into the campaigns of candidates trying to lead Maui County’s $1 billion government.

This is a pivotal primary, with voters casting ballots in the nonpartisan race for mayor and for four of the nine seats on the County Council. A number of those candidates, especially those backed by Maui’s progressive movement, have pledged to reject cash from corporate donors and special interest groups. At the same time, donors from Maui’s political establishment — like developers, real estate investors and their attorneys — are pouring thousands of dollars into their opponents’ campaigns.

In the race to lead the county, Mayor Michael Victorino, who’s seeking a second four-year term, raised and spent the most campaign cash in the latest reporting period, which spanned from July 1 through July 29. In that month, his campaign received almost $86,000 and spent almost $172,000, according to the latest campaign finance data. He still had $45,000 in cash on hand.

Among some of his top donors who gave the maximum $4,000 allowed were Honolulu-based real estate investment and development firm the Kobayashi Group, Paul Cheng of Dallas-based Revalen Development, Friends of Kirk Caldwell, Las Vegas-based investor Ernest Lee and the Hawaii Fire Fighters Association.

Former Judge Richard Bissen, who for months outraised his opponents by tens of thousands of dollars, took in about $31,000 and spent about $105,000 in July. His top donors in July who gave $4,000 are Raymond Michaels of Maui Plumbing and Preston Cheng of Dallas-based Revalen Development. The Hawaii Government Employees Association Political Contribution Account also gave his campaign $3,000.

Council member Kelly King, who launched her mayoral bid June 7, has sworn off taking donations of more than $100 from corporate interests, such as luxury or out-of-state developers, hotel conglomerates and lobbyists. In July, she raised almost $11,000 and spent $23,000. Her largest donors in the most recent filing period were Maui residents Richard Michaels, Lili Townsend and Mark Hyde.

Another mayoral frontrunner, Mike Molina, who’s serving his seventh term on the council, raised $250 and spent $2,700. Since he didn’t receive any donations higher than $100, his campaign doesn’t have to report the names of donors.

With King and Molina leaving their seats open to run for the county’s top job, there’s a lot at stake when it comes to the future of the council — and whether Maui’s progressive movement continues to shape its path forward.

King and Molina were among council members who made up the progressive majority in recent years and steered the county away from the status quo. The council has recently made a number of major changes, including putting county dollars once earmarked for tourism promotion toward supporting small farmers, temporarily halting the construction of new hotels to curb overtourism and raising taxes on second homes to pay for affordable housing.

In recent months, political donors who want to shift power away from the progressives have dumped money into campaigns for candidates who might change that balance if elected.

In South Maui, which King currently represents, Tom Cook, who’s worked as a general contractor, has raised $25,000 and spent almost $29,000 in his campaign. His top donors in July include Patrick Kobayashi and Kris Kobayashi of the Kobayashi Group, who each gave $2,000.

His leading opponent, progressive Robin Knox, has pledged to reject money from development interests. The environmental scientist raised $4,600 in July, almost 25% of which came from donations less than $100.

In the race to represent Makawao-Haiku-Paia, Nohe U’u-Hodgins, a political newcomer, is also raising more than a number of mayoral candidates. She currently works as a permit facilitator for a real estate development company and the backing of Be Change Now, a super PAC funded by the carpenters union that’s made headlines for its attack ads this election season. Her father is Bruce U’u, who served as the Maui representative for the Hawaii Carpenters Union.

Her campaign raised $23,000 and spent $43,000 in the month leading up to the August primary. Top contributions in July included $2,000 from Patrick Kobayashi of the Kobayashi Group, $2,000 from California-based Operating Engineers Local Union No. 3 and $2,000 from the Hawaii Laborers Political Action Committee.

U’u-Hodgins has pulled in more money than all of the other four candidates running for the seat combined, including Dave Deleon, who raised $5,200. Deleon is now retired but once worked for former mayors Linda Lingle and Alan Arakawa before becoming the government affairs director for the Realtors Association of Maui.

Meanwhile, Nara Boone, the progressive frontrunner who’s promised to put Maui families first over business, has vowed to reject corporate dollars. Instead, at least half of the $2,000 her campaign raised in July came from donations less than $100.

In Kahului, Maui’s establishment power players are throwing their weight behind Buddy Nobriga, whose campaign raised $30,000 and spent almost $23,000 from July 1-29. Some of his top supporters last month included Edward Freedman of California-based Stable Road Capital and the Ritz Carlton Kapalua.

He significantly outraised incumbent Tasha Kama, whose campaign took in almost $5,000. Meanwhile, Cara Ram Flores and Carol Lee Kamekona, who are both running on progressive platforms, have raised $1,300 and $1,700, respectively. Both Flores and Kamekona have said they’ll reject donations from big business and corporate special interest groups.

Among the three people vying to represent Upcountry on the council, incumbent Yuki Lei Sugimura, who has long aligned with Maui’s old guard, is pulling in and spending the most cash. Her campaign brought in almost $15,000 and spent almost $18,000 last month. Her biggest donors in July included members of Maui’s powerful Goodfellow family, which runs the construction company Goodfellow Bros.

Sugimura’s most competitive contender, Jordan Hocker, has vowed to reject donations from luxury real estate developers and out-of-state investors. Hocker has been backed by a number of progressive organizations, and her campaign took in almost $3,000 in July.

Voting is already underway for the Aug. 13 primary election. That’s when residents will pick their favorite candidates for mayor and in all of the four council races on the primary ballot. The two top vote-getters in each race will then face off in the November election.

Civil Beat’s coverage of Maui County is supported in part by grants from the Nuestro Futuro Foundation and the Fred Baldwin Memorial Foundation.

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