In the first forum of Honolulu’s 2020 mayoral election, nine candidates attempted to distinguish themselves as leaders who can carry Honolulu through the COVID-19 pandemic and into the future.

“We need new leadership, a fresh perspective, and we need to restore trust in government,” said Keith Amemiya, a former insurance executive and the race’s current lead fundraiser. “COVID-19 is an unprecedented situation, so the same people and the same political experience simply won’t work.”

Amid some technical difficulties, mayoral candidates shared their visions for Oahu in a Zoom call. Screenshot/2020

During the virtual event hosted by the nonprofit kupuna advocacy group Kokua Council, the candidates outlined their qualifications.

Amemiya highlighted his work directing the Hawaii High School Athletic Association through recession-era budget cuts. Colleen Hanabusa emphasized her experiences as the first woman president of the Hawaii Senate, a congresswoman and chair of the board of the Honolulu Authority for Rapid Transportation. Honolulu City Councilwoman Kym Pine noted she is the only candidate currently holding a city office making tough decisions about the coronavirus response.

“I hate to say, as much as I love my fellow candidates, this not a business, this is not state government and it’s certainly not Congress,” she said. “This is a job that the person, during a pandemic, needs to be able to do on Day 1.”

Rick Blangiardi, the former general manager for Hawaii News Now, positioned himself as an outsider with executive leadership chops.

Former U.S. Rep. Colleen Hanabusa spoke about kupuna issues. Screenshot/2020

“I am not building a political career,” he said.

Of all the candidates, Choon James, a real estate broker and activist, was the most critical of the administration of Mayor Kirk Caldwell. She stressed a need for ethics, transparency, protection of public lands and fiscal responsibility.

“Honolulu has been mismanaged and neglected. It is embarrassing,” she said, noting dirty streets and public bathrooms. “But the rich get richer and the poor get poorer.”

James suggested some of her opponents are part of the problem.

“The same politicians and insiders who have controlled and profited from their position and connections are now telling us they care for us and they want to direct our future,” she said. “I don’t buy this political stagecraft.”

Hanabusa said it’s essential that the city plan for the needs of an aging population. By 2030, nearly 30% of the state’s residents will be 60 years or older, according to the Hawaii Department of Health, Executive Office on Aging. She noted that in 2013, the World Health Organization accepted Honolulu into its Global Network of Age-Friendly Cities and Communities. But not enough has been done, she said.

Honolulu City Councilwoman Kym Pine highlighted her city government experience. Screenshot/2020

“We’ve tended not to recognize that we’re all getting there,” she said of old age. “We do need an age-friendly city.”

Housing and homelessness were recurring themes. Ernest Caravalho, an Air Force veteran who has experienced homelessness, said the city allows homeless people to cycle in and out of jail. He said he would help to end that and promote the interests of kanaka maoli, Native Hawaiian people “who are hurting the most.”

Amemiya pointed to his Housing For All plan which includes strong enforcement against illegal vacation rentals, faster permitting, taxes on vacant investor units, limits on luxury developments, affordable rentals on government land and investments in infrastructure to support private development of affordable housing.

Pine said she has already been involved in efforts to increase affordable housing, including Bills 58 and 59 which offer incentives for construction. The councilwoman, who chaired the Council Committee on Zoning and Housing, said she worked with over 100 stakeholders including developers and nonprofits in “divisive” meetings to pass the legislation.

“I was proud to lead the innovative affordable housing package which will allow us to end our shortage of affordable housing on Oahu forever,” she said.

The nonpartisan primary election will be held on Saturday, Aug. 8. This year will be Hawaii’s first election in which citizens will vote by mail, not in person.

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