Cabinet Kala: Who Gets Campaign Cash From Top State Officials

Civil Beat
By Blaze Lovell

Gov. David Ige has received $103,000 from his current and former cabinet members, who have also donated more than $86,000 to state and county lawmakers.

High-ranking state officials in Gov. David Ige’s cabinet have donated generously to their boss’s campaign and to the campaigns of local officials and state legislators.

Since 2015, the year Ige took office, current and former members of the governor’s cabinet have donated more than $189,000 to candidates running for state or county offices, according to data compiled from the state Campaign Spending Commission.

Ige is the top recipient of those funds, having gotten $103,000 from his appointees. The lion’s share of the rest, about $86,000, went to members of the Legislature, which has had a testy relationship with the administration in recent years.

Neal Milner, a former political science professor at the University of Hawaii, said that donations from cabinet members to both the governor and lawmakers is not out of the ordinary.

“If there’s an opportunity to give money and the rules allow it, people give money to those in important positions,” Milner said.

Civil Beat analyzed the political donations of more than 50 current and former state department heads and their deputies. All donated some money to campaigns with the exception of about a dozen sitting government officials.

Six of those cabinet members were appointed in the last year. They include Hawaiian Home Lands Deputy Director Tyler Gomes, Health Director Libby Char, First Deputy Attorney General Holly Shikida, Labor Director Anne Perreira-Eustaquio, Public Safety Director Max Otani and DPS Deputy Director Jordan Lowe.

Government officials flocking to fundraisers to give up kala for their candidates is nothing new.

In 2011, half of former Gov. Neil Abercrombie’s cabinet donated money to his campaign. Abercrombie also accrued a significant chunk of campaign money from his cabinet while in office.

In his last year in office, former Honolulu Mayor Kirk Caldwell also reported raising campaign funds from more than a dozen city officials.

Besides Ige, top recipients of those cabinet donations were Sen. Jill Tokuda and Sen. Donovan Dela Cruz.

Dela Cruz is the chair of the powerful Senate Ways and Means Committee, which has control of the state budget and dozens of bills affecting state agencies that move through the Legislature every year. Tokuda is the immediate past chairwoman of the same committee.

The $9,300 Dela Cruz got from officials over the years is a small fraction of his total donations.

In just the first six months of this year, Dela Cruz reported raising $65,000 for his campaign. Political action committees for local labor unions, lobbyists and business owners are among his major donors. His campaign has $871,000 on hand.

Eight state officials also made donations to Dela Cruz’s campaign this year including state Comptroller Curt Otaguro ($500), state Budget Director Craig Hirai ($250), Deputy Comptroller Audrey Hidano ($200), Agribusiness Development Corporation Executive Director James Nakatani ($500), University of Hawaii President David Lassner ($250), Agriculture Director Phyllis Shimabukuro-Geiser ($200), Office of Hawaiian Affairs Board of Trustees Chair Carmen Hulu Lindsey ($300) and UH Board of Regents Chair Ben Kudo ($200).

Ige’s administration and the Legislature have often been at odds, particularly over the last several years. In 2018, many high-ranking legislators donated to Ige’s opponent in the governor’s race, Colleen Hanabusa.

The pandemic further strained that relationship, with lawmakers and Ige often appearing at odds over handling the outbreak of cases in 2020.

And last month, the Legislature took the extraordinary step of overriding six of the governor’s vetoes.

Strained relations or not, cabinet officials have still doled out some campaign cash to lawmakers.

Craig Hirai, the state budget chief, topped the list of cabinet donors, having given $20,000 to lawmakers since 2015, according to state data.

Hirai maxed out his contribution to Ige in the run-up to the 2018 election and has also contributed to the campaigns of 21 other legislators.

But the donations don’t necessarily get the administration officials any favors.

Hirai faced a tough set of confirmation hearings in the Senate last year before being approved by a majority of its members.

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