Keith Amemiya, a former director of the Hawaii High School Athletic Association, is relying heavily on his past success in local sports in his first television spots advertising his run to be Honolulu’s next mayor.

It makes sense, too. Amemiya has never held public office. He lacks the track record of a career politician, but also lacks the baggage that comes with holding office.

The fours spots, titled “Fixing,” “Bold,” “Can Do” and “Bleachers” began airing on local network television Wednesday and will run through March 17 at a total cost of $93,455, according to a review of media contracts filed with the Federal Communications Commission.

Keith Amemiya announces his candidacy for the office of Mayor at Ala Wai Field with his family and supporters.
Keith Amemiya, candidate for Honolulu mayor, has spent over $93,000 on TV ads running between February and March. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

Amemiya leads the pack in fundraising and spending. Between July and December 2019, Amemiya raised over $940,000 and spent over $228,000.

He’s up against Rick Blangiardi, former managing director at Hawaii News Now; former congresswoman Colleen Hanabusa, who lost her gubernatorial run to Ige in 2018; and Kym Pine, the city councilwoman and former House Republican from Oahu’s leeward coast.

No other candidate is running television ads this far out from Election Day.

Amemiya’s efforts to get out early and often are an effort to get potential voters acquainted with his name months ahead of Election Day. 

He may be unfamiliar to many viewers of his ads, and he admits as much in “Fixing.”

“I’ve never run for office before, but I’ll clean things up,” Amemiya says to the camera with Koko Marina in the backdrop.

Besides promising Oahu voters a new future, Amemiya often calls back to his time as HHSAA director.

“When I ran sports in Hawaii, I learned to stretch the dollar,” Amemiya says as football linemen explode off the line of scrimmage in the opening of “Bold.”

He uses a variation of the same line in “Bleachers,” which sees Amemiya talk about his time at HHSAA while sitting in what are presumably bleachers at a high school stadium.

One television spot, “Can Do,” is made entirely of a narrator reading quotes from newspaper stories between 2009 and 2018, all having to do with Amemiya’s involvement in local sports.

Amemiya worked nearly 12 years at HHSAA. A former attorney, he used his connections to broker a landmark deal between public and private high school football programs to compete against each other in the regular season.

The deal was the subject of a four-page spread in the July 22, 2018 edition of the Honolulu Star-Advertiser.

Amemiya’s commercials also pull quotes from a 2009 Honolulu Advertiser profile on Hawaii’s top 50 sports figures as well as a 2015 column in the Hawaii Tribune-Herald advocating for Amemiya to become the University of Hawaii Manoa’s new athletic director.

He wasn’t recommended for the position by a UH Board of Regents subcommittee, but then-Manoa Chancellor Robert Bley-Vorman considered him for the job. Bley-Vorman ultimately went with the committee’s recommendation and hired Dave Matlin.

Amemiya promises change in his ads but relies heavily on his history in Hawaii sports to establish his credentials. PF Bentley/Civil Beat

In the television spots, Amemiya makes the most common political promise out there: change.

In Amemiya’s campaign announcement he criticized the game of musical chairs politicians play with elected offices. He called for a stop to scandals.

Honolulu Mayor Kirk Caldwell’s legacy may be the beleaguered Honolulu rail project, which Amemiya supports. Rail has a tentative opening date in December, just after the election. But the next Honolulu mayor will need to see the project the rest of the way.

Amemiya supports getting it to Ala Moana, but rail will be just one issue mayoral candidates face.

The Honolulu prosecutor’s job will also be up for grabs. Honolulu Prosecutor Keith Kaneshiro has been on paid leave since being named in the public corruption scandal involving Katherine Kealoha and her husband, the former Honolulu police chief.

The mayor appoints members of the Honolulu Police Commission, who have oversight of HPD and can appoint its chief.

Compared to other familiar faces in the Honolulu mayor’s race, he could be seen as the populist candidate in the election. In the ads, Amemiya tries to set himself apart from other candidates, promising to take Honolulu in new, bold directions.

But his list of campaign donors reflects his business connections and reads more like the supporters of a seasoned politician than an outsider.

Amemiya’s ads are scheduled to run during morning and afternoon news programs as well as during evening primetime shows, according to ad contracts. 

Those 15-second ads also have other advantages for Amemiya’s campaign. They typically cost less than 30-second ads, so Amemiya’s campaign could buy more of them with less money.

Commercials, and other political ads, typically run 30 seconds each; however networks often run shorter 15-second commercials at the beginning and end of commercial breaks, so Amemiya’s spots may catch viewers while they’re still engaged.

He’s had ads on social media since at least November. Amemiya spent a total of $38,696 on advertising between July and December. His most recent campaign spending reports show payments of $6,383 to Facebook and $3,663 to Google in November for digital ad buys. Some of the digital ads have appeared on YouTube as pre-roll to videos.

His campaign also spent $11,442 on production costs and ad buys with Snyder Pickerill Media Group, the same Chicago-based marketing agency that worked on Gov. David Ige’s reelection campaign in 2018.

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