Cayetano, the PRP, and Politics as Usual

By Galen Chee

Welcome to election season 2012, where anything goes! It’s a battlefield out there with bluffers, mud-slingers, and name callers who would be the ne’er-do-wells of society if not for their quick wit, money, networking skills. Political affiliates and special interest groups are on a mission; working hard to get their man in office, or in this case prevent one from getting in. They know their way around an election and will spare no expense to meet their goals. In the campaigns of today, advertising is the main weapon utilized to get the candidate’s name and message out into the public. There are an infinite number of methods and medias to choose from when advertising, but one form in particular takes the cake when it comes to reaching the largest available audience; TV ads. Within the scope of TV advertising, negative ads always seem to attract the most attention. While there are an enormous amount of negative ads being circulated in the media at this time, in this essay, I will focus one ad in particular, produced by a company by the name of The Pacific Resource Partnership (PRP), as well as an ad created in response to the PRP ad. Through subtle wording and presentation, these negative ads and smear campaigns promote negativity and the spread of misinformation as an acceptable, even essential part of the election process. Covered in this essay is an examination of the tactics being employed by PRP this election season through their TV advertisements. Hawai`i’s public needs to be able to see through the proverbial veil of ignorance that is manifested in negative ad campaigning in order to formulate and informed opinion of our candidates and political affiliates.

Before we dive into the main issue, a little background information to set the stage is in order. In this election season the Mayor’s seat is up for grabs. There are three mayoral candidates making local headlines daily; the incumbent, Peter Carlisle, former acting mayor, Kirk Caldwell, and former governor, Ben Cayetano. These three democrats campaigning for the City’s top spot do so for various reasons, but one candidate in particular holds a different view on what is the main issue of this election; rail.

Cayetano is a staunch opponent of rail and has vowed to shut it down if elected. PRP is heavily affiliated with the Hawai`i Carpenter’s Union, which will benefit from the construction of rail.  It is for this reason PRP launched its negative ad campaign against Cayetano. PRP’s campaign consists of TV commercials, radio ads, mass-emails, and a website titled, Read Ben’s Record. Costing PRP over half a million dollars so far, the objective of their smear campaign is to make sure Cayetano is not elected by using their ads to cast Cayetano as a corrupt politician, thereby creating a negative public opinion of the former governor.

Being a public relations firm, PRP knows all of the ins and outs of marketing and advertising. They understand that the general public more often than not, tends to take things at face value. They know that the majority of people are content with being spoon-fed rather than taking the time to examine whether the information presented is true, false, or taken out of context. But imagine buying a new car. One wouldn’t simply waltz into the dealership and purchase the first car that catches their eye. Anyone in their right mind would first research factors such as, the amount one is willing to spend, seating capacity, gas mileage, etc., then use that information to decide on which car will best fit their needs. It is imperative that the public becomes more aware of the different angles the opposing entities are employing to discredit each other.

If you’ve watched TV within the past six months, chances are you’ve probably seen a PRP advertisement. The “Read Ben’s Record” ad that has been aired in the recent months is a crafty example of PRP’s silver tongue, and has become a hot topic as of late. In “Read Ben’s Record”, PRP alleges Cayetano exploited a loophole in the system which allowed him to keep $500,000 in illegal campaign contributions. The TV commercial depicts citizens being interviewed in Downtown Honolulu reading a piece of paper, expressing comments of disappointment and shock at what is revealed to them. By featuring local people being interviewed in a public setting, an illusion of public disapproval of Cayetano is created. Though the commercial itself may be convincing, a deeper look into the issue being discussed shows information regarding Cayetano keeping the $500,000 was distorted. In reality, the Cayetano Campaign did receive half a million in campaign contributions, but was not aware of it due to donor(s) filing under a false name. He did not personally keep the money as the ad suggests as it was spent during his campaign for governor in 1998. Also, without saying it, the ad hints at Cayetano being aware of the illegal campaign money, when that has not been proven true or false.

The accusations made by PRP rehash old arguments about Hawai`i’s “Pay-To-Play” culture of the 1990’s. Basically, “Pay-To-Play” meant that in order to secure government contracts, one had to donate money to candidate’s campaigns during election periods. According to PRP this immoral practice flourished under Cayetano’s time as governor. Most recently, PRP has called out Dennis Mitsunaga, a Democratic campaign contributor, and member of the Carpenter’s Union. They allege that Mitsunaga’s company, Mitsunaga and Associates, was able to reap massive profits in the ‘90’s by securing government contracts only because of donations made out to the Cayetano Campaign. In an unprecedented response, Mitsunaga recently paid $30,000 out of his own pocket to fund two radio ads that denounce the accusations and retaliate against PRP’s Executive Director, John White. The 60 second ads, featuring the voices of Dennis Mitsunaga, and his daughter Lois, call White a hypocrite for attacking himself and Cayetano, when during his unsuccessful run for City Council, White asked Mitsunaga to help raise funds for his campaign; and also because White is currently under investigation for missing monies from his 2008 bid. In the ads, it can be clearly discerned that Dennis and Lois Mitsunaga are both born and raised in Hawai`i from their accents. In her ad, Lois subtly reminds the public that White is originally from Arkansas, in an attempt to garner local sympathy. Relying heavily on pathos, the sly rebuttal by the Mitsunagas takes information out of context. The Mitsunagas state in their commercials that White took money out of his campaign during the 2008 City Council race and is currently being investigated by the Campaign Spending Commission (CSC) for illegal activities. They cite Civil Beat as the source for this information. Civil Beat clarified the situation and stated that the CSC merely wants documentation from White for funds that went unaccounted for during his campaign.

Naturally there is always more than one force at work in any given situation. Two forces adverse to the opinion voiced in this argument must be identified. First off, while all advertisements aired are regulated by the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), the freedom of speech is ultimately protected under the First Amendment. Negative ads are often very personal, and in using information taken out of context, are immoral and unethical. Nonetheless, they are a form of free speech and as such, constitutional. Secondly, there are people that have made up their minds when it comes to elections, and are perhaps so disheartened by the current state of affairs that they refuse to participate in the election process. This essay is not written for those people.

The ongoing ad war between PRP and Cayetano is a classic example of the dark side of elections and politics in general. What we have examined is two sides and their supporters taking potshots at each other with the sole purpose of demeaning the opposing camp. Our complacency towards falsities published in our local media can be likened to a stagnant pool of water. Just as mosquitoes will proliferate and spread disease, politicians and their affiliates, the people we elect to lead us, will keep on spreading negative propaganda, leading to an acceptance of this ideology. As a citizen and spectator, negative ads are disheartening and in my opinion depict a sense of desperation from the sponsors of those ads. Negative ads only promote and endorse more negative rhetoric. It is an immature and dirty tactic, not to mention down right silly. How can politicians and political backers promise to work towards a better future for Hawai`i, when all they are currently doing is slinging mud? While an important question, a more fundamental one concerning not politicians, but the public, needs to be brought to light. How do politicians obtain the power to lead? We elect them. And as such, responsibility for obtaining the truth lies with the citizenry. We hold the power. As we have the ability to vote people into office, we also have the ability to see the truth behind issues such as “Read Ben’s Record”, “Pay To Play”, and the Mitsunaga response ads. The road to a better future, one free of negative ads, is decided as a result of our actions. A better tomorrow starts with the individual; and developing an interest in the affairs that shape our society.



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