When I was in Hilo for the Merrie Monarch Festival, I decided to check in with former Big Island Mayor Harry Kim.
Kim is back on the campaign trail, running for mayor for the fourth time. He was the Big Island’s mayor from 2000 to 2008. In 2012, he almost made it back into office when he came within two percentage points of thwarting Billy Kenoi’s re-election bid.
In that election, Kenoi spent $683,774 to Kim’s $21,336.
Now Kim is running once again with the same pledge of his past campaigns: He’ll accept no more than $10 from any donor.
He has dusted off the single sign his campaign purchased years ago for him to wave. Voters will soon see him standing by the highway by himself, sign waving in his trademark jeans and aloha shirt.
And he expects that his supporters, as they did before, will create their own handmade signs and banners to help him expand his reach.
“Some of the signs are so inventive. Someone decorated coconuts to spell out my name. Another person painted, ‘I am just wild about Harry’ on their tin roof. It just makes my day, gives me the energy to keep going,” he says.
Energy is an issue, with some supporters concerned that after surviving three heart attacks, the 76-year-old Kim might lack the stamina to be in charge of such a large island with a widely spread out constituency.
My friend Josephine Crawford says, “I know we would be in safe hands with Harry, but I question his age and his health. I would like to see someone younger, someone with new ideas.”
A.K. Shingle, another friend, says, “Harry Kim has a big thing going for him, his trustworthiness. He’s honest.”
Before he was mayor, Kim was Hawaii Island Civil Defense director for 24 years, during which he earned a reputation for trust as he guided residents to safety through hurricanes, volcanic eruptions and tsunamis with his calm, reassuring voice on emergency radio broadcasts.
Honesty was a buzzword in Hilo this weekend after Mayor Kenoi was indicted on charges of felony theft, misdemeanor theft, tampering with public records and making a false statement under oath. The charges are related to expenditures on his county-issued credit card from 2011 to 2015. Kenoi has pleaded not guilty to all charges.
Kim says, “people don’t have much faith and trust in government these days, from federal government on down, not just because of certain issues here. I feel a real responsibility to do something about it. I feel there is an opportunity to make things better.”
He carefully sidesteps saying anything bad about Kenoi, who will be term-limited out of office next year.
“I’ll say his name, but I will not talk negatively about him,” says Kim.
He doesn’t have to. Most people are aware of Kenoi’s negatives.
Some of the more absurd personal charges Kenoi made on the government credit card and then paid back include nearly $900 spent in a single evening at a Honolulu hostess bar, $1,200 for a surfboard and $1,900 for a fancy racing bike, transactions not mentioned in the indictment.
Kim is also loathe to talk about Kenoi because he has known him since he was his coach in Pop Warner and later high school football.
“It is more than just the coaching. I was his friend. I have known him since he was 9 years old. He was a darned good football player and a darned good leader. I hired him to be my executive assistant during my first term.”
Kim expects the issue of his age and health will come up during the campaign. “It’s a reality of life,” he says.
Besides the three heart attacks, he has survived brushes with hepatitis, meningitis and a mysterious illness he caught while doing civil defense work in Indonesia, as well as four surgeries on his shoulder.
He laughs, “It’s become a joke. Nobody can believe it. They think, ‘How can he be alive after all that?’”
He says he’s learned to take better care of himself, eating three meals a day, instead of only dinner each day as he did for 30 years, and now exercising and getting more than a couple of hours of sleep.
“I would never consider taking this job without purely knowing I have the ability to do it mentally and physically.”
And age? “That’s a Western concept to be concerned with age. In my family, we never talked about age as a limiting factor.”
Among the key campaign issues he says he will be stressing in the months ahead is the need to make people feel like they are part of government again.
“Government should be an extension of the people. People need to feel like they belong. There is a real sadness in the separation people feel from government today,” he says.
He says if elected he will continue to fight as he did when he was mayor to retain home rule power for the counties.
And to try to address what he sees as the growing inequity between the haves and the have-nots. He says the Big Island with its large expanses of land was for a long time affordable for people, but now that’s changing.
“It’s getting bad here. So many people are living paycheck to paycheck and so many are hidden homeless with more and more residents living crowded under one roof. I don’t see how we can close our eyes to the growing difficulty people are having just to survive and not be scared stiff by it,” says Kim.
He worries about what he sees as lost economic opportunities such as the possible move of the proposed Thirty Meter Telescope to another location.
“If government officials had followed the law and filed the required environmental documents, the TMT would be up and operating by now. It would have brought jobs and spinoff jobs, but now the future of the project doesn’t look good.”
Kim will be running in a crowded field. Thirteen people have taken out papers. Seven have already filed, including Walter “Wally” Lau, who was managing director in the Kenoi administration for seven years before resigning in January to run for mayor.
Lau serves on the boards of many community organizations, especially non-profits dedicated to helping children and young people. Kim expects Lau will be his most formidable opponent.
Others who have filed include former County Council member Peter Hoffmann; Alvin Akina, Jr., who works in the hospitality industry in Kailua-Kona; Eric Weinert, a papaya exporter from Papaikou; Christian minister Timothy Waugh, and Paul Bryant, both of Hilo.
The deadline to file is June 7.