In what was likely the last major televised debate between Honolulu mayoral candidates Rick Blangiardi and Keith Amemiya before the Nov. 3 general election, the two men traded barbs at each other at a forum broadcast on KHON-2 Wednesday night.
During a direct questioning period between the candidates, Blangiardi objected to a series of critical campaign ads Amemiya’s campaign has put out against him.
“You’ve resorted to lies and personal attacks as your primary campaign strategy, how do you defend this approach to young people?” Blangiardi asked, alluding to Amemiya’s former tenure as head of the Hawaii High School Athletic Association.
“Rick, I’m not sure what you’re talking about,” Amemiya said. “My campaign and my entire career has been based on integrity, character and trust. Ask anybody who’s worked with me.”
Blangiardi said that Amemiya asked for “a truce” and an agreement to stay away from negative campaigning and that he has stayed civil throughout. “But the personal attacks that are going on, and the lies that you’re spreading, and your campaign team, I find really reprehensible.”
Amemiya responded: “If anyone’s been on … the receiving end of smear campaigning it’s myself.” Amemiya’s claims of being a political outsider have been at the center of a super political action committee’s campaign that questions his status as a political newcomer, noting his ties to the current Caldwell administration and his cousin Roy Amemiya, the city’s managing director.
Asked by the Honolulu Star-Advertiser after the debate to clarify and expand on the “lies” raised by Blangiardi, a spokesman for the former TV executive said the campaign had no comment.
The Amemiya campaign, in a statement, said “our campaign stands for the truth and have only shared facts about our opponent. It is Rick Blangiardi who is making the baseless attacks.”
Among recent Amemiya ads that have gone after Blangiardi directly were pieces that focused on the fact that Blangiardi said he voted for President Donald Trump in 2016 and that he, like the president, is a business executive who believes he can make drastic changes to government.
Blangiardi said in a recent a interview with online news organization Civil Beat that that he had voted for Trump.
What’s not mentioned in the Amemiya ads are that Blangiardi went on to say he is disappointed at Trump’s performance and will not be voting for him again, although he stopped short of saying he would vote for Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden this year.
Blangiardi has insisted he is a political independent who enjoys support from both former Republican Gov. Linda Lingle and former Democratic Gov. Ben Cayetano.
Amemiya has also said that Blangiardi has reversed his position on the city’s financially strapped rail project, and that was a topic of another heated exchange Wednesday night.
Amemiya reminded viewers that Blangiardi, on several occasions, said he would consider “a pause” of construction at Middle Street or elsewhere instead of going to Ala Moana, but that he then changed his position after receiving the support of the politically powerful Hawaii Regional Council of Carpenters in early September.
“I’ve been consistent in saying that rail should be completed all the way to Ala Moana,” Amemiya said. “Sure, I’m as frustrated and upset as everyone else about the status of the rail project up to this point but we need to get it completed. Rail is an important part of any successful, thriving city.”
Blangiardi said he has always supported the rail project because of its importance connecting the island and the developments of communities around its hubs and he accused Amemiya and his campaign for taking his comments about considering a Middle Street pause out of context.
Since the onset of the coronavirus pandemic, he began to question the viability of the financing plan, he said.
“There are so many unknowns and I’ve tried … to figure out if I could get any insight but to be candid here, it’s all speculative,” he said. “We have a tremendous challenge, we know that … but at the end of the day, I’m in favor of building this project from East Kapolei to Ala Moana and I will do everything in my power to see if we can get the financing to take is as far and make it as good as possible.”
Both candidates said they are hoping for new federal stimulus monies for transit-related projects — designed to help stimulate state economies in the aftermath of the pandemic — might help provide more dollars for Honolulu’s rail.
Amemiya also said he would also “look at modifying the rail line on the last leg, whether it’s modifying stations or modifying the last leg in general to reduce expenses.”
Given the chance to ask Blangiardi a question directly, Amemiya questioned why his opponent “belittled” his public service activities in the community. “What experience do you have in working directly with our communities and having an impact on the daily lives of those in need in our communities, which is the single-most function of our mayor?”
Blangiardi said he’s never publicly belittled Amemiya in public.
As for his own resume, “I don’t think (Amemiya) understands what it means to be the general manager of a television station, especially in Hawaii. My work in this community has been extensive.”
How they would tackle Oahu’s economic emergency from the COVID-19 pandemic was also a topic raised several times by KHON reporter Gina Mangieri, the debate’s moderator.
Both candidates said they basically support current Mayor Kirk Caldwell’s four-tier approach to reopening businesses and other activities.
“We’ve seen warnings be done publicly and even citations without having much affect,” Blangiardi said. But at this point, he said, he trusts “our local people” to do the right thing by wearing masks, washing their hands and practicing social distancing.
Amemiya said he would have tried to reopen businesses sooner and thinks he might seek to modify Caldwell’s current plan to allow for reopening sooner.
While ultimately the city needs to rely on scientific and medical experts on how to reopen, he said, “if we keep our counts down, low enough, we would be able to … more fully reopen much sooner.”
Both men were vague on the idea of requiring visitors to take a second COVID-19 test for visitors as planned by several outer island mayors.
“If the second test will … ensure that our tourists don’t spread COVID into our communities and that we can bring in even more tourists and keep our tourism economy going, I’m in full support of that as well,” Amemiya said.
“If we can develop a second test pattern, if you will, and make it work with the incoming amount of visitors we hope to see here on Oahu, then I’m going to be all in favor of that,” Blangiardi said.