Bogus Ploy To Discredit Cayetano

Ben Cayetano

Former governor Ben Cayetano. Jamm Aquino photo / Honolulu Star-Advertiser

You’ve probably seen the ad by now. An off-camera interviewer stops a muumuu-clad local woman on the street, hands her a sheet of paper, and says, “Excuse me. Have you seen the facts about Ben Cayetano’s illegal contributions?”

“A half-a-million in illegal contributions?” she asks.

Cut to a bald-headed man in an aloha shirt reading the half-million figure. “It’s all here in black and white.”

Cut to another woman on the street: “That’s incredible. Did he have to give it back?”

“No,” says an off-camera voice in disgust. “He found a loophole. He’s keepin’ it.”

Cut to a Filipino man on the street who says, “And now he wants to be our mayor?”

“Not with my vote,” says the woman, who previously found the half-million figure “incredible.”

Back to the bald-headed man. “It’s all here in the record,” he concludes.

It’s tough stuff, and I suppose we should have seen it coming – or something like it. When a politician threatens a $5.3 billion infrastructure project backed by years of planning, an apparent approval by the electorate, and powerful labor, political and business interests, there was bound to be pushback. Pacific Resource Partnership, a strong supporter of the rail project, sponsored the ads (which come with a few different riffs, but the same basic structure).

Cayetano has fired back that he knew nothing of the “false name contributions” to his gubernatorial re-election campaign:

“During my 1998 campaign for re-election, our supporters raised more than $5 million in campaign contributions. I did not handle fundraising. There was a committee of several supporters that did the work.” When he became aware of the violations, Cayetano “called Bob Watada, who was Chairman of the (Campaign Spending) Commission back then and informed him that there was no way the funds could be returned because it had already been spent for the campaign.” Watada instructed him to return what was left in the campaign account, and the case would be considered closed.

Since PRP began to run its ads, both Watada and former campaign spending commission member Della Au Bellati have come forward in support of Cayetano. Watada and state Rep. Bellati are upright public servants. So is Cayetano.

But the stench of big money and the corruption it fertilizes has filled Hawaii politics for as long most of us can remember. The illegal “false name contributions” of 15 years ago may have besmirched the campaigns of Cayetano 1998 and Mazie Hirono in 2002. But they ended the political career of Mayor Jeremy Harris the same year. And they showered fines and opprobrium on offending developers, architects and engineers.

Today we’re faced with legal corruption. The scads of money in candidates’ campaign coffers allow them to avoid debate and spread falsehoods about their opponents. It allows contributors to buy access to elected officials, if not worse. It reminds all of us that we are among those who “are created equal,” but nowhere near so equal as those who can give generously to political candidates.

On the national level, campaign financing has grown even more obscene. For more than a year, Barack Obama’s campaign officials crowed that they would run the first $1 billion presidential campaign. Last week, they acknowledged that they would be outspent by Mitt Romney and his super PACs.

We can thank the Supreme Court’s decision on Citizens United. U.S. Sen. John McCain recently characterized it as “arrogant, uninformed, naïve.” New York Times columnist Andrew Rosenthal has credited it with creating “the super PAC freak show that is the 2012 election.”