Two first-time candidates are advancing to a one-on-one battle in November to become Honolulu’s next mayor, besting a large field that included three seasoned politicos.
Former television executive Rick Blangiardi and fellow businessman Keith Amemiya finished first and second, ahead of former U.S. Rep. Colleen Hanabusa, City Councilwoman Kym Pine and former Honolulu Mayor Mufi Hannemann.
Blangiardi had 25.7%, followed by Amemiya with 20.6%, Hanabusa with 18.6%, Pine with 14.4% and Hannemann with 10.1% in the second printout of results released shortly after 10 p.m.
The second printout accounted for an astounding 256,344 votes on Oahu alone. That eclipses the previous record of 225,406 total votes cast on Oahu in the 1994 primary.
This is the first time since 1980 a candidate without previous elective office experience will become Honolulu mayor. That year, Eileen Anderson, then Gov. George Ariyoshi’s budget director, beat Frank Fasi. Fasi re-captured the seat in 1984, and successors Jeremy Harris, Mufi Hannemann, Peter Carlisle and Kirk Caldwell all previously held elective office.
The 2020 mayoral campaign has been dominated by the argument over who best can lead Oahu out of the COVID-19 pandemic. A sub-theme has been experience, something touted by Hanabusa, Pine and Hannemann, versus fresh perspectives as trumpeted by Blangiardi and Amemiya.
The pandemic and the social distancing requirements imposed as safety measures caused candidates to tear up the traditional campaigning playbook of fundraisers, coffee hours and door-to-door canvassing. For the most part, the major candidates stuck to broadcast, online and print advertisements, “virtual fundraisers” and relying on their performances in forums and debates held on Zoom and other online platforms.
Under the Honolulu City Charter, the first-place finisher in a city race can win outright in the primary and avoid a general election runoff by capturing more than 50% of votes cast, excluding blank and spoiled votes. Otherwise, as is the case here, the top two finishers need to gear up for a Nov. 3 general election.
The first-place finisher in the primary isn’t always the eventual winner. Eight years ago, Charles Djou finished first in the primary only to see Kirk Caldwell, the second-place finisher, win three months later.
Voters who supported mayoral candidates who are not advancing to the general ultimately will decide who will take over the third-floor corner office at Honolulu Hale on Jan. 2.
Blangiardi, 73, retired as general manager of Hawaii News Now in January and officially announced his candidacy for mayor in February. He’s touted his business experience coupled with his work with nonprofits as positives, and talked about the need to bring a new leadership style to Honolulu Hale.
One key issue where Blangiardi has shown a clear difference from his opponents is the city’s troubled $9 billion rail project. Among the top five candidates, Blangiardi has appeared to be the most willing to stop the project if the city is forced to raise more money.
In an interview after the first printout, Blangiardi said he did extensive research at the outset of his campaign and discovered “there was a very low premium being placed on political experience. We knew that, tantamount to anything, people wanted a leader, someone they could trust and somebody who would be decisive.”
He added: “That was all pre-COVID. I think COVID’s just amplified everything.”
Blangiardi had the support of former Gov. Linda Lingle and a few unions, most notably the State of Hawaii Organization of Police Officers.
Amemiya, 54, is best known as the executive director of the Hawaii High School Athletic Association from 1998 to 2010. An attorney by trade, he has been senior vice president of Island Holdings, a company that includes subsidiaries Island Insurance and Atlas Insurance Agency.
Amemiya represents a contradiction of sorts. Like Blangiardi, a first-time candidate, Amemiya said he brings a fresh perspective and he is the second youngest of the top five candidates. “People want change,” he said after the first printout. “They’re tired of the same old politics and the same old politicians, and they want a new approach to government. They want people who will represent the interests of the general public at large.”
But it’s also been clear that Amemiya is close to a number of key Democratic figures, including former Island Holdings colleague Colbert Matsumoto and Honolulu businessman Duane Kurisu. He is also the cousin of current city Managing Director Roy Amemiya and the son of former state Attorney General Ron Amemiya.
Keith Amemiya captured a large share of union endorsements, including key ones from the Hawaii Government Employees Association, the United Public Workers and the Plumbers and Fitters UA Local 675.
The varied nature of his supporters shows “that I have the ability to work with people from all walks of life,” Amemiya said.
Hanabusa, 69, a labor attorney by trade, campaigned largely on her broad range of political experience. She served in Congress twice, from 2011 to 2015 and then from 2016 to 2019. She made an unsuccessful attempt to unseat Gov. David Ige, a fellow Democrat, in 2018. Hanabusa previously served in the state Senate for more than a decade, including a stint as Senate president. She was also appointed by Caldwell to the Honolulu Authority for Rapid Transportation, where she served 10 months before resigning to run for Congress.
She was supported by the Hawaii State Teachers Association and the Laborers’ International Union of North America Local 368.
Hanabusa said after the first printout that she wasn’t ready to concede that a majority of voters favored new blood over political experience. “I think you’ve got to give both the Amemiya campaign and Blangiardi campaign credit for being able to run a media-intensive campaign,” she said.
Because voters were home more as a result of the pandemic, television advertising may have been a key factor in the voting, she said, noting that both the campaigns of Blangiardi and Amemiya outspent hers through last week.
Pine, 49, pointed out to voters that she is the only candidate currently working in City Hall. Before serving two, four-year terms representing West Oahu, she served four terms in the state House of Representatives.
She has focused on her reputation as a fighter for those without a voice.
Like Hanabusa, Pine dismissed the theory that voters were sending veteran politicians a message. “I don’t think it’s about rejecting experience, it’s just about who has the most money and the most connections,” she said.
“Whoever has the most power and most money get through and the only way to change that is to get more people involved in the political arena,” Pine said.
Hannemann, 66, served as Honolulu mayor from 2005 to 2010 and is currently chief executive officer and president of the Hawaii Lodging and Tourism Association.
Arguing that he was the only candidate who truly knows what the job entails, his theme was “If you put me back in my old job, I will put you back in yours.”
He has now lost four straight elections. He was defeated in a 2010 governor’s race, the 2012 Congressional contest and the 2014 gubernatorial race.
Hannemann had the support of several unions, including Teamsters and Allied Workers Local 996.
The former mayor conceded after the first printout and said he believed the issue of new blood versus political experience factored into the voting.
“It was my hope that an experienced hand at the helm of the City government would better enable us to control the pandemic, enable people to safely return to work, and revitalize our economy,” Hannemann said.
“But contrary to that message, it appears that the voters of the City and County of Honolulu were seeking a fresh face at City Hall. Whomever is elected mayor will face a very tough task. I stand ready to assist that person in the difficult tasks that await.”
Others in the race included Realtor and community advocate Choon James, former state Rep. William “Bud” Stonebraker and former state Sen. John Carroll.