In a replay of a 2014 West Hawaii council race, a powerful Honolulu pro-construction political action committee has targeted a sitting councilwoman by standing up a well-financed challenger in an attempt to unseat her.
In the latest case it’s the Kona District 7 council seat now held by freshman Councilwoman Rebecca Villegas. The super PAC Be Change Now has spent $85,897 in advertising promoting challenger Jane Clement, a former aide to then Kona Councilman Dru Kanuha.
The two candidates on their own have raised just $51,070 between them in a two-woman race that will be decided in the Saturday primary election.
“I am honored to receive their support but they are acting completely independently from my campaign. I stand with their efforts to promote issues that support working families in Hawaii,” Clement said, “in particular, the creation of more housing that local residents can afford.”
Be Change Now is financed by the Hawaii Carpenters Market Recovery Program Fund, the same group that sponsored the 2014 super PAC Forward Progress that attempted to unseat former Kohala Councilwoman Margaret Wille. Wille prevailed despite the super PAC pumping more than $100,000 into the race supporting her challenger.
Forward Progress was formed in 2014 by Pacific Resource Partnership, a group that came under investigation by the Campaign Spending Commission after settling a defamation lawsuit filed by former governor and Honolulu mayoral candidate Ben Cayetano. Cayetano, the early frontrunner in that 2012 race, was defeated after a steady stream of negative ads of dubious veracity.
Pacific Resource Partnership was also funded by the Hawaii Carpenters Market Recovery Program Fund.
Forward Progress was headed by John White, the former executive director of Pacific Resource Partnership. White has since taken the helm of Hawaii operations for Strategies 360, a Seattle-based research, public relations and communications firm boasting it shapes business, politics and culture. Strategies 360 and its employees have together contributed another $5,500 to Clements’ campaign account.
Clement is also a veteran of Strategies 360, where she worked with White. She said Friday she has since left the position.
“He is a friend and a former work colleague,” she said.
Super PACs are allowed to collect and spend unlimited amounts supporting candidates but they aren’t allowed to coordinate their campaigns with the candidate or contribute directly to the candidates’ campaigns.
“While all the races this year are important, we decided to endorse Jane Clement in the Hawaii County Council District 7 race so she can fight for working families on Hawaii Island. Be Change Now — while based in Honolulu — represents working families across the entire state,” Communications director Lee Tokuhara said.
It’s been a tough week for Villegas. On Thursday, she was notified the International Longshore and Warehouse Union Local 142 withdrew its endorsement of her because she is opposed to Honua Ola, a 21.5-megawatt biofuel power plant under construction in Pepeekeo.
“Effective immediately, we are asking your campaign to remove any ILWU local 142 logos from your campaign material, as well as from any website and social media account that you may have during this election year,” ILWU Hawaii Division director Elmer Gorospe said in a letter.
“With our economy facing one of the worst economic periods since the Great Depression, hundreds of thousands of workers statewide have lost their jobs; if any, only a very few will likely be returning to the workforce in the coming months,” Gorospe said in the letter. “It is extremely important that our elected officials support a strong and diversified economy on the island that they represent.”
Gorospe didn’t return a telephone message by press-time Friday asking if any other candidates had their endorsements revoked.
Members of the community have been coming to Villegas’ defense, submitting letters to the editor and contacting reporters.
“It’s unfortunate that the ILWU have resorted to this strong arming tactic,” said Hamakua Councilwoman Val Poindexter. “That’s the message they are sending out — do as I say or else.”
Janice Palma-Glennie, of Kailua-Kona, in a letter to the editor, described a half-page ad in the newspaper where Clement makes “a big campaign promise she can’t keep: to provide affordable health care.” That’s outside the county’s purview, she said.
“No matter how much money is in your coffers, truth and experience count. Clement seems like a nice woman whenever we’ve met in her capacity as aid to then-councilman Dru Kanuha,” Palma-Glennie said. “At this stage, I’d hope that a candidate I was dropping big bucks and effort into would understand the duties she’d face if elected. And when our district already has a dedicated, hard-working, experienced businessperson holding that seat, Clement and her backers have yet to articulate what she brings to the table that incumbent Villegas doesn’t — beside lack of experience.”
Villegas said her constituents can look at her record during her first term and see that she’ does her research and speaks truthfully, even when it costs her endorsements.
“I’m grateful for, and humbled by, the outpouring of contributions from Hawaii residents to my campaign for re-election, especially during these challenging economic times,” Villegas said. “I have faith that our voters recognize and question the implications and potential obligations of enormous amounts of money being poured into a race by outside enterprises and special interest groups.”