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Editorial: Mayoral hopefuls face tough vetting

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It was an astounding win for Hawaii’s first all-mail-in election, and the highest voter turnout in recent history sent a strong message: We want fresh leaders with new approaches to help residents recover from the devastation of the coronavirus pandemic.

Oahu residents will be pressing hard for strategy details from mayoral front-runners Rick Blangiardi, who finished with 25.6% of the votes in Saturday’s primary election, and Keith Amemiya, who came in second with 20.2%. The businessmen, both seeking elective office for the first time, will go head-to-head in the Nov. 3 general after beating seasoned politicians Colleen Hanabusa, Kymberly Pine and Mufi Hannemann.

For a state that routinely favors established politicians, having two rookie candidates as finalists for Oahu’s top job is stunning. That outcome surely was enabled by the record turnout — more than 256,340 votes on Oahu alone, topping the previous primary high of 225,406 in 1994 — a happy turnaround from Hawaii’s usual dismal ranking among the lowest in the nation.

The new-leader theme also surged strong on Hawaii island, with the surprise toppling of longtime mayor, Harry Kim, who finished third behind prosecuting attorney Mitch Roth and community activist Ikaika Marzo. The Top 2 will face off in the general, leaving behind Kim, who had drawn some criticism for his handling of the Thirty Meter Telescope and moving too slowly on coronavirus restrictions.

Statewide, the coronavirus crisis looms larger than ever with record numbers of cases, leaving voters anxious for smart, decisive leadership to contain deadly spread and to rally economic recovery. The inescapable message from the Oahu and Big Island mayoral results: We need new perspectives and better actions to overcome this COVID crisis.

The months-long shutdowns and recent retrenchment have allowed more people — voters stuck at home — to watch Hawaii’s political process at work, in real time, as government officials struggled to get a handle on the pandemic and its severe impacts. Unfortunately, it too often was an exasperating look into sluggish operations enabled by ill-prepared government bureaucrats, or political leaders lacking the sense of urgency or sharp coordination required of this crisis.

More than ever before, Oahu’s next mayor will have to hit the ground running. Over the next few months, in Zoom forums and broadcast debates, Blangiardi and Amemiya will need to convince voters about how they will help families hungry for food, businesses to stay afloat with few customers, and tourism to recover amid a near-total collapse.

Just Friday, talks deteriorated in Congress on a new relief bill for millions of hard-hit Americans — and for now, there will be no federal bailout funds for local governments to shore up sagging coffers for operations. That surely will lead to painful budget belt-tightening on both state and city levels — and for the city, that would affect essential services ranging from parks, roads and sewers, to entrenched problems such as homelessness.

Beyond generic visions for the future, pointed answers will be required from Blangiardi and Amemiya about Oahu’s fiscal picture. The troubled $9.2 billion rail, for instance, is entering a critical juncture with the awarding of a costly public-private partnership to finish the project and operate it for 30 years. The next mayor must tell voters how he will bring needed oversight and public transparency into this consequential deal before and after it’s done.

Joining the new mayor in January will be a reconstituted City Council, with five new members alongside four incumbents. Andria Tupola and Calvin Say each won more than half their district votes, so have been elected outright; three districts will have general-election runoffs. Let’s hope the fresh starts for both Council and mayor’s office will bring an action- oriented dynamic that serves the public well.

The hunger for change also was strongly seen in the embattled Prosecutor’s Office, where top vote-getters Steve Alm (40%) and Megan Kau (24%) will vie in the general after handily beating current office-holder Dwight Nadamoto (7%). Nadamoto became acting prosecutor when Keith Kaneshiro went on paid leave after being targeted in an ongoing federal investigation; Nadamoto’s connection to his former boss was not viewed as a public positive.

The 380,150-plus voters in Hawaii’s inaugural all-mail election experienced convenience, and thankfully, very few glitches. The roughly 48% turnout was the best since 1998, a resounding success worth repeating. Voting and civic engagement cannot be taken for granted, especially not in this year when we’ve endured so many necessary limitations due to the pandemic.

All eligible voters should now reset their sights to the general election, to help decide who will be our next mayor, Council members, prosecutor, legislators and leaders. And remember: The presidency of the United States also is at stake, and with it, the world we’ll all live in for the next four years, and beyond.

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