He says it used to happen a lot more, but the last time was at about four or five years ago. Mike Molina was still a Maui County Councilmember then, and he’d just walked into the Burger King on Dairy Road in Kahului. Immediately, he says, the woman behind the counter began giggling. He says she then got her manager.
“They thought I was Rick Moranis,” Molina is telling me at Wailuku Coffee Co. one recent Thursday morning. As he’s telling me this, I’m mentally trying to match Molina’s mug up to the most recent image of Moranis, which (like most people, including apparently the woman behind the Burger King counter) comes from the 1997 movie Honey, I Shrunk The Kids. It’s taking me a while, but Molina happily continues with his story.
“I decided to have some fun,” he tells me. “So I said I was Rick Moranis’ stunt double. When the manager offered to buy me my lunch, I thought I’d better say something.”
There are at least two extraordinary things about this story (though Molina’s at least passing resemblance to Moranis isn’t one of them). First, that the staff at the Burger King on Dairy Road four or five years ago felt that it was at least possible that Rick Moranis would patronize their establishment. Second, and more importantly, that Molina–a target of MauiTime hit pieces over his unabashed support for land development going back at least a decade–is voluntarily telling me this story.
Then again, a lot has changed for Molina in the last few years. Four years ago he was a powerful county council members in Maui County. Election after election, he beat opponents like Lance Holter, Pat Borge and Kai Nishiki by margins ranging from four percentage points to 36. But now, Molina is an underdog candidate taking on his successor, the well-funded Mike White, in the four-way race for the council seat representing Makawao, Haiku and Paia. Because there are so many candidates, the race will be on the Aug. 9 Hawaii Primary ballot.
It’s not an enviable position for Molina to be in, especially considering that White is an incumbent who can draw on substantial private wealth in his bid for reelection. It’s a position requiring Molina to make new alliances with old adversaries like the Sierra Club. It’s a position Molina knows well, because beating an incumbent is how he first came to power.
* * *
Two years ago, Mike White–first elected in 2010–ran unopposed for his second term of office and cruised to an effortless victory. Since then, he’s assumed the chairmanship of the council’s powerful Budget Committee. He’s also set himself as a major critic of Mayor Alan Arakawa, publicly and loudly ripping his decision to demolish the old Wailuku Post Office, proposed purchase of 186 acres of Launiupoko for a Pali to Puamana Park and the 2013 plan to raise property taxes. Indeed, he’s gone after Arakawa so many times in the last two years it was genuinely surprising when he announced he had no interest in running against him.
Nonetheless, White–who did not respond to a July 14 call for this story–is a formidable candidate. He spent five years in the state House of Representatives, from 1993 to 1998. But for the last 27 years, his main job has been general manager of the Ka‘anapali Beach Hotel. He’s also the GM of Ka‘anapali Properties, a real estate firm. This is entirely legal, especially given that the office of Maui County Council is considered a part-time job. According to White’s 2014 Financial Disclosure Statement, which he filed on May 22, White makes between $50,000 and $99,999 for each of this three jobs.
White made headlines early in his first term when he decided that the Maui Visitors Bureau (MVB)–of which he’s served on the board of directors–should get even more county money (it gets about $3 million a year). In the spring of 2011, the Maui County Board of Ethics dismissed a complaint on this that was instigated, in part, by Kai Nishiki, White’s 2010 council opponent.
That being said, White is also upfront that even being a county councilmember won’t stop him from assisting the KBH in its business before the county. On the portion of his Financial Disclosure Statement marked “ITEM 9–PERSONS, FIRMS OR ORGANIZATIONS YOU HAVE REPRESENTED BEFORE COUNTY AGENCIES IN THE LAST YEAR,” White wrote that he had represented the KBH before the Planning and Public Works departments for “Building Permits & SMA Extension.”
Of course, not everything White has done has been to further his hotel, the MVB or attack Arakawa. Last summer, White put forward a strong anti-nepotism bill that would have banned the hiring of relatives throughout the County of Maui bureaucracy. But in no time at all, county attorneys eviscerated it, removing the provisions that it include the Maui County Council (in 2012, Councilman Riki Hokama made headlines when Hawaii News Now reported that he was paying his nephew $25 an hour to be a part-time aide) and be retroactive. In July 2013, the council’s Policy and Intergovernmental Affairs Committee shelved the bill, though last month it reappeared on that committee’s List of Matters for it to address.
In any case, White seems to be taking no chances in this election. Indeed, he’s already begun to tap family wealth in his campaign. His campaign spending report for the first six months of 2014 shows that his campaign has already cashed a $8,000 check from his wife Whitney, a board member with SPCA Maui.
And the money’s going to good use. For instance, White’s most recent campaign report shows he’s already spent $694.20 on “consulting services” from Honolulu-based Pacific Resource Partnership (PRP), an advocacy group made up of local contractors and construction unions.
What PRP is doing for White isn’t known–the company didn’t respond to my request for comment. But they achieved statewide notoriety in 2012 during the Honolulu mayor’s race for running wildly negative and deceptive attack ads that implied candidate/former Governor Ben Cayetano (who opposed the city’s proposed light rail project–a darling of the local construction industry) was a criminal. Cayetano threatened to sue them after he lost the race, but instead dropped the matter when they issued a rare public apology.
White’s campaign spending report shows that White’s campaign paid PRP on June 30, the last day of the filing period, which was also about two weeks after the company issued their apology to Cayetano.
* * *
This kind of political firepower shows that White clearly knows this race won’t be a repeat of his earlier runs for office. In fact, he’s got three challengers running against him–Henry Kahula, Jr., Alex Haller and Molina.
Kahula has run for office before, though never successfully. Born and raised in Hana, he told the couple dozen people at a July 17 Haiku Community Association (HCA) candidates forum that he went to Kamehameha Schools on Oahu. After spending three years in the army, he said he worked as a driver–trucks, taxis, tour buses–before retiring. He moved to Paia in 1972, where he’s been ever since. As for why he’s running now, Kahula stayed away from specifics, but spoke as plain-spoken as you’d expect from a man who made a living, as he said, “on the highway.”
“I thought there were things that needed to be done that were not being done,” he said at the HCA forum. “We’re spending money on stuff that’s not being done.”
Haller is the opposite. Just 26, he’s currently working as a landscaper, as well as a member of Maui Invasive Species coqui frog eradication team. Born and raised in Haiku, he got a degree in business finance from Cal Poly San Luis Obispo. Like Kahula, Haller has no campaign finances to speak of, and is doing virtually no campaigning. But whereas Kahula speaks in general, common-sense terms, Haller’s interest in the seat stems from a very specific, even technical issue surrounding White’s insistence that Arakawa’s Launiupoko land deal appraisal was too high.
“I went to a county meeting, and one appraisal had a $6.6 million valuation,” Haller told me in a July 18 phone interview. “I looked into his Discounted Cash Flow [DCF] analysis, and saw he used a 20 percent rate. His rate was different from another appraisal, which used a 15 percent rate. That’s why the [land] values came out so different. You couldn’t compare the appraisals in the first place. But none of the councilmembers knew about DCF analysis, and that was a huge red flag.”
Haller declined to tell me whether he supported Arakawa’s actual proposal, but did say that he “support[s] open space.”
The most recent campaign statements show White has $20,641.51 in the bank. Molina has just about a third of that–$6,478.53 (though Molina is far from a pauper–his Financial Disclosure Statement shows that he has an interest in the brokerage house Morgan Stanley worth between $100,000 and $199,999; White, by coincidence, earns between $1,000 and $9,999 a year from his stake in Morgan Stanley).
Haller and Kahula have no campaign finance statements on file because they say they have no money.
* * *
There were a variety of candidates at the small HCA forum, which focused entirely on the 13th District House race (a sprawling territory that covers Hana, Haiku, Kaupo, Kipahulu, Nahiku, Paia, Lanai and Molokai) and the Makawao-Haiku-Paia council district (Haller and White weren’t there, though–organizers said both had declined invitations). While most candidates (and even Rep. Mele Carroll) were content to stay in one part of the room before the official event began, Molina alone worked the room in a traditional sense, shaking hands with everyone he could.
For the first decade of the 21st century, Molina–a former public school teacher–served comfortably as Maui County Councilmember for the Makawao-Haiku-Paia district. His first race, in 1998 for an open seat, ended badly for Molina, with him losing to John Wayne Enriques. But two years later, Molina ran again. That time he won, unseating Enriques. So far, Molina hasn’t lost an election since.
Term limits meant that his 2008 reelection would be his last, for at least a while. In 2011, Molina moved up a floor in the county’s Ka Lima O Maui building to the Mayor’s Office, where he’s been working ever since on Boards & Commissions.
“I was going to become a school teacher again,” Molina told me over coffee. “But then the Mayor asked me to join him. But I didn’t close the door to running again, as I told The Maui News in an exit interview in 2010.”
He also denied that Arakawa asked him to run against White, the most vocal opponent of the Mayor’s Office in the last two years. He also denied that he’d be a “rubber-stamp” for Arakawa on the council.
“The mayor and I have had our disagreements,” Molina said. “In the recent budget he said that he’d raise taxes if we didn’t get the TAT [transient accommodations tax] monies. We did get that, but I wanted to keep it simple. And when he was mayor during his first term, he wanted to open the Hamakuapoko Wells. I was definitely against opening them until we could show there were no pesticides in the water.”
Molina’s campaign materials haven’t changed much from a decade ago. In fact, they still include his name with a saxophone substituting for the “L”–a distinctive logo, even though Molina himself doesn’t play the instrument.
“The advertising agency I was working with when I first ran for public office in 1998 asked me what do people on Maui know about the Molina family,” Molina told me in an email. “Besides politics, the only other thing that came to mind was the Molina Brothers dance band which was popular from the 1930’s to the early 1970’s. My dad and several of my uncles played the saxophone. The ad agency suggested the sax in place of the ‘L’ in Molina and the rest is history. I have had people tell me they actually voted for me because they played the sax themselves and one person voted for me because he thought my logo was a tribute to President Bill Clinton!”
The logo may be the same, but Molina’s running on some very different issues these days–affordable housing, helping homeless people and even the environment are talking points he stressed with me and in his appearance at the Haiku Community Center. He also told me that both the Hawaii Government Employees Association (HGEA) and the local chapter of the Sierra Club had endorsed him.
White’s Feb. 23, 2014 Maui News op-ed piece calling upcoming government worker raises “alarming” probably played a role in Molina getting the nod from the HGEA. But the Sierra Club? Molina is, after all, the same guy who a decade ago arranged to get a second Board of Ethics ruling after the first one said he had a conflict in voting on Makena development because of land interest he held there.
“It was for his plastic bag ban,” Lucienne de Naie, who sits on the group’s executive committee, told me. She was referring the ban on plastic bags that Molina moved through the council in his last few years of office. “We interviewed Molina,” she continued. “White did not choose to be interviewed. Mike was very friendly, and his answers were acceptable.”
* * *
During our chat, Molina told me that “White says he’s saving the county money,” but then handed me a copy of a county brochure (pictured left) that was mailed out before the council began its spring hearings on the 2015 budget. The full-color brochure–which was not paid by White’s campaign–includes White’s photo, a schedule of Budget Committee hearings, a pie chart showing the previous year’s budget priorities (listed under the helpful headline “What is the Budget?”) and a postcard–postage required–in which constituents can check off boxes for what they think should be the county’s budget priorities and then mail it back direct to White’s office.
“That came out of his office budget,” Molina said. “There’s nothing illegal about it, but it also doesn’t show pictures of any other council member.”
As far as negative campaigning is concerned, that’s pretty thin stuff. Councilmembers–like most legislators–have office budgets so they can keep their constituents informed. That some, or even most, tend to send out splashy newsletters and brochures during election year is one of many perks of being an incumbent.
But then Molina told me something else–something a bit more damning. He said one of the reasons he’s running against White is that he’s simply not available for his constituents.
“I still get calls from people who think I’m their councilmember,” Molina told me. “The last one was a few months ago. It’s somewhat flattering. I guess people felt I was more accessible.”
I told Molina that White had often not gotten back to me when I made inquiries, and that he had yet to respond to my phone call for this story. Molina smiled.
“Running a hotel is a tremendous responsibility,” he said.
Photo of Mike Molina courtesy Mike Molina Campaign