The invitations began appearing in e-mail boxes in mid-December, much to the surprise of some:
“Senator Russell Ruderman extends a warm invitation to you to join him for his first ever fundraiser in Honolulu at the Mandalay Restaurant,” it read. “Come support and meet the man who represents all of the district of Puna and the town of Pahala in Ka’u at the Hawaiian State Legislature. Enjoy delicious Cantonese cuisine and the elegant atmosphere of the Mandalay…. Thursday, January 8, 2015 from 5:00 PM to 8:00 PM (HST).”
The surprise came because Ruderman has been an outspoken advocate for campaign finance reform. In fact, when BIC perused the fundraiser notices at the Campaign Spending Commission’s Web site, it appeared that Ruderman was the only member of the Big Island’s state delegation who had NOT to held a fundraiser on O`ahu during the previous election cycle.
“I introduced ‘clean elections’ bills each year so far. If/when we achieve that, I will do public financing happily. Meanwhile, raising money is part of the game.” responded Ruderman, when asked about the fundraiser.
So why the change?
“As of now my funds have come from constituents, about 80 percent,” said Ruderman. “I planned fundraisers in district several times this summer/fall. I cancelled them as the storm and the flow caused stress and harm in my community, as it seemed insensitive at this time. I also cancelled three scheduled legislative trips…. The stakeholders and lobbyists are there [on O`ahu], not on Big Island. While “lobbyist” sounds like a dirty word there are legit ones, as well as legit groups such as environmental and good government groups….”
Ruderman was hardly alone in the practice. Since January 1, 2013, State Sens. Josh Green (D-Kona, Kohala) and Gil Kahele (D-Hilo), State Senator-Elect Lorraine Inouye (D-Hilo, Hamakua, Kohala, Kona), State Reps. Cindy Evans (D-N. Kona, N. and S. Kohala), Richard Creagan (D.-S. Kona, Ka`u), Nicole Lowen (D-S. Kona), Mark Nakashima (D-Hamakua, N. and S. Hilo), Richard Onishi (Hilo, Kea’au, Upper Puna), Malama Solomon (D-Lower Puna) and State Representative Elect Joy SanBuenaventura (D.-Lower Puna), who defeated Solomon, have all held one or more fundraising dinners on O`ahu–m0re than half of them at the Mandalay. Apparently Big Island legislators have developed a fondness for Cantonese cuisine.
Ruderman’s fundraising goals were relatively modest, compared to some: suggested donations were $50-100 per plate. Green, in contrast, held three O`ahu fundraisers in 2013 and 2014, with suggested donations of $500. Inouye’s O`ahu fundraiser last September asked attendees to cough up $250 apiece. Onishi’s bash at the Mandalay last March suggested donation in three categories: $50, $500 and $1000. Lowen’s two O`ahu events, April of 2013 and March of 2014, also followed the $50/$500/1000 formula. SanBuenaventura’s fundraiser last September followed a $100/$250/$500 pricing structure.
The danger of off-island fundraising, of course, is that a legislator can develop two parallel constituencies: voters at home and special interests outside his/her district. And fundraising dinners are just the tip of the iceberg: thousands more come in through one-on-one contacts and donations.
Ruderman says he has several strategies to avoid conflicts of interest, beginning with “holding it [the fundraiser] when we are NOT in session.” He refuses funds from opponents—he notes, for instance, that he gets “no GMO money”—and makes “no no promises or compromises based on donations, not even implied.” He’s proud of his record for “never selling a vote in any way, shape or forms; establishing and upholding my reputation for integrity in my political life. I cannot be bought, and I’m one of approximately three legislators who have this reputation. ‘They’ don’t even try.”