WASHINGTON — Hawaii Congressman Kai Kahele continues to raise money from corporate donors, lobbyists and political action committees for his federal campaign committee despite a gubernatorial campaign promise not to do so for his state campaign, federal campaign finance reports filed last week show.
Kahele still operates Gil PAC, a federal leadership PAC that’s received nearly $60,000 in contributions since he was first elected to Congress in 2020. Some of his biggest donors include the Air Line Pilots Association, which he’s a member of as a Hawaiian Airlines pilot, defense contractor BAE Systems and the American Crystal Sugar Co.
Just last month Gil PAC — which is named for Kahele’s late father, former state Sen. Gil Kahele — pulled in $5,000 from Nike and Microsoft, according to reports filed with the Federal Election Commission.
The most recent reports covered contributions and spending for the month of April.
Kahele cannot use any of the money he’s raised for Gil PAC in his state race. But the contributions do stand in stark contrast to his vow only to accept grassroots donations while running for governor.
Many of the special interest contributions Kahele received through Gil PAC came in as he was preparing for his gubernatorial campaign, which he told supporters he was considering at least since January. The same is true of his federal campaign committee.
Kahele did not respond to a Civil Beat request for comment.
Leadership PACs in general are used by members of Congress to advance their own political relationships, for instance, by donating to colleagues or party organizations, such as the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.
In Kahele’s case, he gave $15,000 to the DCCC. Much of the rest of his money has been spent on fundraising consultants and events, including $22,000 to Lori LaFave, a Washington-based fundraiser whose clients include U.S. Sen. Brian Schatz and Lt. Gov. Josh Green, who is also running for governor.
Schatz and U.S. Sen. Mazie Hirono are the other members of Hawaii’s federal delegation who have their own leadership PACs. Hawaii Congressman Ed Case does not.
Since the beginning of 2021, Schatz and Hirono’s leadership PACs have raised more than $810,000 between them. Like Kahele, much of the money came from a range of special interests, from Native American tribes and defense contractors to transportation unions and Fortune 500 companies.
Hawaii PAC, which is Schatz’s leadership committee, spent large sums on fundraising over the past two years, but the senator also gave tens of thousands of dollars to political campaigns across the country, including at least $85,000 to the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee.
In April alone, Hawaii PAC donated $5,000 to Democratic senate candidate Cheri Beasley in North Carolina and another $5,000 to the Minnesota Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party.
Hirono’s Pineapple PAC, meanwhile, has directed at least $175,000 in direct contributions to her Democratic colleagues, including $10,000 to Schatz, who faces reelection this year. She’s also given to other political organizations, including the DSCC, the Hawaii Democratic Party and EMILY’s List, which aims to elect more Democratic pro-choice women to Congress.
“Leadership PACs were established as a way for politicians to spread their financial wealth around,” said Michael Beckel, research director for Issue One, a bipartisan political reform organization based in Washington, D.C. “Politicians are able to use their leadership PACs to raise extra cash that cannot be used for their own campaigns, but that can be given out to friends and political allies.”
Last year, Issue One released a report in conjunction with the Campaign Legal Center that found that 120 lawmakers with leadership PACs spent less than 50% of their money on politics between 2019 and 2020.
The analysis found that a number of politicians were using their PACs as their own personal slush funds to pay for meals at expensive restaurants, rounds of golf and stays at luxury resorts.
“Giving to leadership PACs is a way to gain access and influence in Washington,” he said.
Schatz sees it differently.
“Other than operating costs including staff, the money we raise through Hawaii PAC goes to Democratic candidates across the country,” he said through a campaign spokesperson. “We need Democrats in office everywhere to enact the policy goals we all share — but we need to win elections. That’s what the money is for.”