POSTED: 1:30 a.m. HST, Jun 20, 2012
LAST UPDATED: 7:38 p.m. HST, Jun 22, 2012
A new political action committee and ad blitz attacking former Gov. Ben Cayetano is not overly negative, an analyst says, but signifies that efforts touting the positive aspects of rail are not having the desired effect on his mayoral campaign centered on killing the project.
The new PAC, ReadBensRecord.com, was launched Tuesday by the Pacific Resource Partnership, an advocacy group for contractors and unionized carpenters and construction workers that has tried to make an issue of illegal campaign contributions made to Cayetano's campaign for governor.
Cayetano dismissed the PAC as a desperate move by an interest group worried about losing the $5.27 billion rail project.
"The way that you get at the anti-rail message is to get at the anti-rail messenger," said Neal Milner, professor emeritus of political science at the University of Hawaii. "You get at the anti-rail messenger by saying that he's like a lot of other politicians that you can't trust and that he's just one of those kinds of folks.
"I think what they've decided is you can't just deal with anti-rail by being pro-rail about ridership and all of those other things. It's important that you have to really decide that the candidate himself needs to be attacked."
Cayetano, the lone anti-rail candidate, has led in most polls in the race against incumbent Mayor Peter Carlisle and former city Managing Director Kirk Caldwell.
PRP's new website and ads urge voters to look at public documents detailing campaign contributions to Cayetano's last gubernatorial campaign in 1998 that were later found by the Campaign Spending Commission to have been donated under false names. In those situations, the commission goes after the donor and orders the campaign to forfeit the money to the state.
Officials have said Cayetano repaid about $8,000 but closed his gubernatorial campaign still owing about $530,000. Once the campaign is closed, the commission can no longer pursue the money because it is not considered a debt or a fine.
Cayetano did nothing illegal. But PRP says he exploited a loophole to avoid repaying the money.
John White, executive director of PRP, stood by the ads, saying everything posted online is a matter of public record.
"Gov. Cayetano is the front-runner for mayor," White said. "If he becomes mayor, he's going to have an ability to award many, many contracts. I think it's fair to look back at his record at an area that is questionable. This is certainly one of those areas."
Cayetano called PRP "amateurs," and accused White of dirty tactics and a smear campaign against him. Campaign donations typically are spent in good faith as the money comes in, he explained, and neither he nor his campaign knew that the donations were made illegally until months or sometimes years after the money had been used.
"PRP would like people to feel that we knew because they're so damn desperate," Cayetano said. "They're worried about losing this election. … There's no obligation — moral or otherwise — to pay something back that you did not know was illegal."
Milner said he did not expect the strategy to backfire and turn negative against PRP or either pro-rail candidate, but he also does not expect the website and ads alone to turn the tide against Cayetano.
"I think it might leak a few votes away from Cayetano," Milner said. "Or, as these ads often do, it could get people who were going to vote for Cayetano not to vote at all."
Carlisle said he did not know what effect the PRP-Cayetano fight was having on the race, but he backed PRP's questions about the campaign contributions.
"That's a fair inquiry when there is clear and unequivocal evidence that there had been illegal campaign contributions, which I don't think former Gov. Cayetano disputes … he just says he didn't know about it," said Carlisle, a former prosecutor. "According to the law, you have to then be able to back up what you knew or didn't know or should have known with a series of facts."
Caldwell did not return messages seeking comment.