Former Hawaii County Mayor Billy Kenoi, once a rising star in the Hawaii Democratic Party, died Tuesday at his home in Volcano after a bout with a rare form of cancer. He was 52.
Praise and tributes poured in from fellow politicians and constituents who admired Kenoi’s leadership skills, empathy and understanding of Hawaii and its people.
The affable Kenoi, born Nov. 9, 1968, in Kalapana to a Native Hawaiian father and a mother from the Midwest, connected with everyday folk across the state. He captured an audience’s attention with his storytelling, infusing pidgin English and humor touched with heartfelt emotion in his speeches.
Kenoi, who served two terms as mayor from 2008 to 2016, seemed destined for higher office until allegations of abuse of a county-issued credit card for personal use surfaced, followed by a trial, then an acquittal by a Hilo jury.
His popularity grew after a 2014 Hawaii Pacific University commencement speech that went viral. His last speech was delivered Dec. 7 when he gave the welcome address at the Hawaii County inauguration of elected county officials.
“A lot of people on the Big Island are reeling right now,” said Hawaii County Councilman Aaron Chung. “It’s definitely a stunner. I’m having a drink with friends in honor of Billy’s life. I just had lunch with him on Friday. I had no way of knowing he would be gone in a few days. He was as sharp and entertaining as ever. … He was a special guy for sure.”
His family issued a statement Tuesday afternoon on the I Mua Billy Kenoi Facebook page:
“Our Billy, beloved husband, father, uncle, brother, friend, and former mayor of Hawaii County, passed away today at home with his family after his long battle with cancer. His ʻohana thanks everyone for their support and for respecting their privacy at this time. Details on memorial services to come.”
Kenoi was a deputy public defender in Honolulu when he called then-Mayor Harry Kim, saying he wanted to return to the Big Island and work for Kim.
Kim gave Kenoi a job as executive assistant from 2000 to 2008, which was the steppingstone to his political career.
In his second bid for mayor, Kenoi nearly lost to Kim.
Kim had not only been Kenoi’s political mentor, but his football coach from the age of 9 in Waiakea Pop Warner football and on through his years on the Waiakea High School varsity team, where Kenoi was captain on defense.
Kim said that people might “misinterpret our relationship. I ran against him, but politics is politics. Relationships are a whole different issue.”
The last time Kim saw Kenoi was at a restaurant three months ago.
“We talked, and he said, ‘I love you, coach.’ I told him, ‘I love you, Billy.’ That’s our relationship.”
“I was very surprised and taken aback” by the news of his death, Kim said. In his last public speech, “he was still the same old Billy, full of energy and spirit. God rest his spirit.”
In turn, Kenoi mentored many other politicians and civil servants.
“I lost a good friend and a mentor today,” said Bobby Command, who worked under Kenoi as executive assistant, deputy planning director and deputy managing director. “He was brilliant and funny, intense at times, but always humble.”
“We spoke a few days ago, and he was the same old Billy,” said Command, current deputy managing director. “He was telling me this and scolding me for that. But the last thing he told me was, ‘I’m proud of you, Bobby. You going do well. You learned from the best.’”
Many say they were stunned to learn of his death because he had rallied back before.
In March 2018 Kenoi said in a Facebook message that a rare form of bone cancer he had been diagnosed with three years earlier had returned with a vengeance.
He had been diagnosed in late 2015 with myelofibrosis but shared it only with his closest family members so as not to cause a distraction or to burden anyone with the information.
That was just months after he first spoke to the media in April 2015 concerning allegations of abuse of his county-issued credit card following a story in the Hawaii Tribune-Herald.
Kenoi was tried and found not guilty on all counts related to his alleged abuse of a county-issued purchasing card on Nov. 1, 2016. He faced four counts of theft.
He apologized publicly after the spending from 2011 to 2014 was reported, and he reimbursed the county $31,112.59.
The spending included personal expenses, alcohol, lavish dining and tabs at two hostess bars in Honolulu.
In 2017, Kenoi had undergone treatment and a bone marrow transplant in California but began feeling tired and lethargic in March 2018 and returned for further treatment.
Bill Takaba, managing director for Kenoi from 2008-2012, said, “I was very saddened when I heard of his passing today. It really hurt, and a lot of our friends feel the same way.”
Takaba delayed his retirement after serving as Kim’s finance director from 2000-2008, where he got to know Kenoi and agreed to serve as his managing director.
“I saw a lot in him,” he said. “I agreed to serve because he was a real special guy. He was bright, and knew how to get things done.
“The nation was going through the Great Recession in 2008. I saw that he was someone who could pull us out of a recession.”
“Because he worked in Washington, D.C., under Sen. Dan Inouye, he knew a lot of people nationally and in the state who could provide a lot of assistance.
“With his connections and his energy and his ability to get things done, he was able to do a lot of projects on the Big Island that helped move the county forward and get the economy stimulated again,” Takaba said, including road projects, recreational facilities, “things that were amazing he could do in that short period of time.”
Mayor Mitch Roth said that Kenoi had a “tenacity, vigor, aloha and a can-do attitude.” And when faced with challenge, Kenoi would say, “If can, can, if no can, still can!”
Takaba added, “I wish his family well. He was really a family man, who loved his wife and kids. He always made sure he took time out to attend their activities, and was so devoted to his family.”
Kenoi is survived by wife Takako, daughter Mahina and sons Justin and Liam.
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