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Pay-to-Play Legislation Takes Center Stage in Honolulu Mayoral Race

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The phenomena of outside groups attacking a political opponent with thinly-veiled allegations that he is corrupt is certainly nothing new. Sliming one’s opponent over the airways with allegations that she awarded government contracts to unworthy major donors draws a collective yawn from our now-jaded electorate. What we are seeing in the Honolulu mayoral race right now, however, takes this phenomenon to a new level: mayoral candidate Ben Cayetano is currently under heavy fire for his position on pay-to-play legislation he vetoed as Governor back in 2002.

To hear the story told on Honolulu’s airwaves, the attacks sound familiar and can be heard here. 


The reality is more subtle (shockingly) than as portrayed in this ad and highlights an emerging political risk for legislators and chief executives as they seek to strike the proper balance between public corruption and harmful over-regulation of the public procurement process. An angry public wants absolute transparency and prohibitions against government contractor contributions. Responsible legislators on the other hand, also see the need to ensure that the law-abiding 99% operates within an environment free of legislation that does not impose unworkable restrictions or unintended consequences.

Honolulu’s race highlights the risks involved. In recent political advertising against Cayetano, the Pacific Resource Partnership, cited “insiders” who “revealed” that Governor Cayetano had been squishy soft on curbing pay-to-play while in office. As reported by the Hawaii Reporter, these insiders alleged (in part):

“Pay-to-play is real and has been part of Hawaii’s political culture for decades. I know because I am a retired engineer who managed the Hawaii businesses of two different engineering companies. Few bothered to challenge the awarding of contracts to those who “paid to play” because speaking out would guarantee no future work on government projects.

“In 2002, the Legislature passed a bill to ban direct political contributions from government contractors and corporations to county and state elected officials who issue contracts. It was vetoed [by then-Gov. Ben Cayetano], even though supporters said it was the most significant campaign finance reform bill in decades. … The ban would have been a good first step, but the veto stopped any chance to weaken the pay-to-play culture. …

As long as elected officials permit their campaign contributors to exercise influence, the “pay-to-play” system will continue. I hope the people will finally wake up and refuse to elect such officials. We don’t need “pay-to-play” in Hawaii.”

 Strong stuff, and a powerful populist message that has gained traction in campaigns and state legislatures across the country. In reality, however, if one gets in our “way-back” machine to 2002, then-Governor Cayetano actually announced he was vetoing the legislation in question because the State’s legislators had exempted themselves from its provisions banning contributions from government contractors! (As a side note, the Pacific Resource Partnership behind that negative advertising may have some “essplaining” to do of its own before the Hawaii Campaign Spending Commission).

Unfortunately, the toll of such rough and tumble attacks are more than theoretical. Unworkable legislation can make its way onto the books due to misplaced public pressure. The toll can also be personal. This week, mayoral candidate Ben Cayetano was admitted to Queen’s Medical Center in Honolulu with a bleeding ulcer which his wife attributed, in part, to the wave of negative advertising against him.

We wish you a speedy recovery Governor Cayetano and are submitting a travel request for a visit today.