Editor’s Note: This is the second in a series of profiles of the leading Honolulu mayoral candidates.
If voters want a Honolulu government that is run like a business, Rick Blangiardi says he is the candidate for them.
The former television executive and first-time candidate says he can fix what he calls a “leadership crisis” at city hall. While his more seasoned political opponents have argued they don’t need “training wheels” for the job, Blangiardi says government experience is unnecessary.
“Look, the mayor is the CEO of the city,” he said. “It is about managing – managing people, decision-making.”
A critic of Mayor Kirk Caldwell and Gov. David Ige, Blangiardi has positioned himself as a pragmatic outsider who is “not building a political career.”
In the nonpartisan race, Blangiardi is one of the more conservative contenders and is backed by former Republican Gov. Linda Lingle. A self-identified independent, he says he represents a mix of compassion on social issues with fiscal conservatism. His campaign said he is not a supporter of President Donald Trump.
A novice candidate during a tough year for campaigning, Blangiardi has benefitted from name recognition earned through his TV career. A Civil Beat/Hawaii News Now poll in May showed Blangiardi at the top of a crowded field of candidates, followed by former Congresswoman Colleen Hanabusa. The biggest group of respondents, however, was undecided.
In such unprecedented times, Blangiardi is arguing that a politician is no better equipped than he is.
“This is a rebuild which will be slow and painful,” he said. “There is no playbook for that.”
Blangiardi is in the sweet spot of being able to project experience without having the baggage of a public record in politics, said Colin Moore, director of the University of Hawaii’s Public Policy Center.
“That’s really advantageous in this election,” he said.
Primary election ballots are scheduled to be delivered to mailboxes by July 21, and must be mailed back or dropped off by primary day, Aug. 8. If no one garners over half the vote – which is unlikely in a field of 15 candidates – the top two candidates will face off in November.
Blangiardi’s political leanings could be an asset going into the primary but may become a challenge if he gets to the general, Moore said.
“Going into the primary, I think he’ll get most of the people who lean conservative, a lot of people in the business community,” he said. “If he makes it to the next round, that’s where it’s going to become a problem for him. The mainstream Democratic vote, the union vote, might not feel comfortable with him.”
Blangiardi, 73, is the only top-tier candidate from the mainland. He said he grew up in an immigrant family that spoke both Italian and English in a tenement in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
“We didn’t even have a bathroom in my house at the age of 12,” he said. “Those are my roots.”
Blangiardi said he was the first in his family to graduate from college. His professional bio says he obtained his bachelor’s degree from Springfield College in Massachusetts in 1969 and then got his master’s in education in 1973 at the University of Hawaii where he played football.
While at UH, he became a football coach, a role he held until 1977 when he left to start a career in broadcasting at KGMB. His wife was expecting their first child at the time, and money was tight. He was only making about $15,000 a year, he said.
“I changed my life’s direction, and that wasn’t easy,” he said. “It was a major turning point. Since then, there have been ups and downs in my life.”
In the early ’80s, Blangiardi got embroiled in a bank fraud scheme in which he acted as a “straw man” to obtain a mortgage for a shady real estate broker. In exchange, he received $1,500, he said in a 1985 affidavit. The broker also promised him increased KGMB ad buys and a cut in a future real estate deal, Blangiardi’s lender said in court records.
Blangiardi was sued by the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. for his role in a related deal involving a Kansas financial institution. He maintains he was an unwitting victim of a scam. In the end, Blangiardi said he testified against the main perpetrators and helped put them behind bars. As for Blangiardi, he filed for Chapter 7 bankruptcy and left Hawaii in 1989.
Throughout the 1990s, Blangiardi held leadership positions at television stations throughout the mainland with stints in Seattle, New York, San Francisco, St. Louis and Los Angeles. At the end of the decade, he was president of Telemundo Group, the Spanish language television network. In that role, he said he led the 2001 sale of Telemundo to NBC, “the largest acquisition of a foreign-language broadcaster in the United States by one of the major television networks,” according to The New York Times.
In 2002, he was hired to head both KHON and KGMB. After the 2008 financial crash, Blangiardi led the consolidation of two stations, KGMB and KHNL, into Hawaii News Now, which is Civil Beat’s broadcast news partner.
“I’m very proud of what we built,” he said. “That was born out of a lot of tough decisions.”
Blangiardi, a father of three adult children, has served on the boards of the YMCA, Central Pacific Bank, the Aloha Council Boy Scouts of America and the Chamber of Commerce of Hawaii, among other organizations.
Despite his humble roots and the financial hit he took in his 30s, Blangiardi is the wealthiest candidate in the mayor’s race, according to his financial disclosure form. He was making more than $1 million a year managing Hawaii News Now and owns a $2 million penthouse in the Admiral Thomas condominium near Thomas Square with his wife, Karen Chang.
Chang has done well for herself, too. A former executive for Charles Schwab and American Express, she sold her oceanfront mansion in East Honolulu for $19.8 million in 2015, according to Pacific Business News. She owns a separate $1 million unit in the Admiral Thomas condo, property records show.
Chang was a member of the Honolulu Police Commission until she resigned ahead of Blangiardi’s run for office.
At HNN, Blangiardi became a familiar face to viewers with “Local Connection,” an editorial segment in which Blangiardi spoke about the news of the day. The pieces give a glimpse into his thinking on public policy issues.
In a 2019 segment, he defended advocates of the Thirty Meter Telescope and criticized protesters who say the “modern stargazers are desecrators.”
“This slur unfairly focuses anger on innocent and well-intentioned people,” he said. “Turning away the TMT may make a few people feel good for the moment while damaging Hawaii’s reputation and economy for years to come, and doing literally nothing to address the legitimate grievances of the Hawaiian people.”
Blangiardi also worried about protests against other projects that got the OK from the government but faced citizen opposition, including the Waimanalo sports complex and the Kahuku wind farm.
“That level of distrust in government is widely shared, and in a lot of ways, it’s justified,” he said. “Although lawlessness is not.”
On the issue of the Waimanalo development though, Blangiardi said he sided with protesters.
“I think it’s really about whether you ‘listen to hear’ or whether you ‘listen to speak,'” he said in a recent interview. “I’ve learned to ‘listen to hear’ and do what’s practical.”
On homelessness, Blangiardi complained last year about what he considered to be the government’s unwillingness to take on the “criminally homeless.” He suggested that homeless people who sleep outdoors should be arrested.
“Judges have the power to push defendants into drug or mental health care, and even into housing,” he said in the editorial. “Those who still refuse can enjoy a roof over their heads in jail.”
Blangiardi still touts a “tough love” approach to homelessness but said he would work collaboratively with the state and private sector to provide more mental health and addiction services. He said sit-lie enforcement can be a “catalyst” to get people who can’t help themselves into treatment, but in the absence of a place to put people, it’s ineffective.
Blangiardi has praised Lt. Gov. Josh Green for his efforts on homelessness and said Gov. David Ige could learn a thing or two from Green. Blangiardi has also criticized Ige more broadly, calling his first three years in office “directionless and mediocre.”
In the past, Blangiardi said he supports raising the minimum wage to $15 or even $17 an hour. In the current climate though, Blangiardi said that’s too much to ask of small businesses.
To increase city revenue, Blangiardi said he would look at raising property taxes on hotels – a move he argued for before the COVID-19 pandemic. It’s something he said Mayor Kirk Caldwell was too scared to do.
“They’re really working in an extractive business and have been for a long time,” Blangiardi said, adding that he wouldn’t raise taxes on residents.
When it comes to police, Blangiardi has taken a deferential tone. In an HNN editorial last year about a “recent spike in law enforcement shootings,” Blangiardi said the problem is people “living criminal lifestyles,” not the officers who shoot them.
“Let’s not be so quick to blame law enforcement in general for these unfortunate cases,” he said. “Let’s thank the people who protect us for their service. Of course investigate when things go wrong, but also appreciate the larger picture of why they end up in the terrible position of having to make that fatal decision in the first place.”
In a recent interview, Blangiardi said he wrote that at the time to be “sensitive in the moment to police being fired upon.”
The State of Hawaii Organization of Police Officers endorsed Blangiardi in May.
It’s a stamp of approval that could be a liability at a time when protesters in Hawaii and nationwide are demanding more accountability and transparency from the police.
But Blangiardi said he will not take orders from SHOPO. He said he supports increased transparency at HPD, including the passage of House Bill 285, which makes police misconduct records more widely available to the public. SHOPO opposed the measure.
“We need to be as open with the public as we possibly can, to build trust,” he said.
If faced with budget cuts, Blangiardi indicated that police officers would be protected to the extent possible. Public safety is essential, he said, and the department already has a hard enough time recruiting to fill vacancies.
“I’m all for accountability and transparency, but I am absolutely opposed to defunding the police,” he said, referring to the calls from activists. “Our police department here right now can use the resources we can dedicate to it.”
Regarding other demands from the Black Lives Matter movement, Blangiardi said he trusts HPD Chief Susan Ballard is listening and will follow best practices.
Blangiardi says he can lead the city out of its current crisis, but he’s light on the details.
“He’s been pretty unwilling to commit to specific policy positions,” Moore said. “It’s usually, ‘Well, when I’m mayor, we’ll study this, we’ll figure it out.’”
With the city facing potential budget shortfalls because of the pandemic, where would Mayor Blangiardi cut costs? He doesn’t know.
“I haven’t looked at that budget yet, to be honest with you,” he said in a joint Civil Beat/Hawaii News Now interview, adding that he’s waiting until he wins the primary.
Blangiardi said he would know what to do because he’s worked in environments where “$50 million was a rounding error.”
“Budgets are just a matter of zeros,” he said.
While Blangiardi lamented “waste” in city spending, he was unable to point to a single example.
Before the pandemic, Blangiardi said he believed the rail project needed to be completed. Now with the financial crisis and the public-private partnership bids still unknown, Blangiardi said it’s a question mark. The project may need to be paused, he said.
“If you can’t pay for something, you can’t pay for it,” he said.
He faulted the current administration for not doing enough on homelessness and said the issue is one of the major areas he would focus on if elected.
“Compassionate disruption doesn’t work,” he said.
However, Blangiardi acknowledged he has no specific plan to address either existing homelessness or the wave of housing instability brought on by the pandemic that experts are predicting.
“I’m really worried about the amount of homeless people we may see on a going forward basis, and for that, I don’t have an answer right now,” he said in the joint Civil Beat/Hawaii News Now interview. “And that is something that, look, we’re six months out from getting into the office. There’s so much that can happen.”
He said the city needs to help develop affordable rental units, but offered few details on how to make that happen. He said he would like to explore the development of city land, retrofitting existing structures for housing and tax incentives for the building industry.
“There are some really brilliant people in this town who care. It’s not all about greed and making money,” he said. “So I want to do that. I want to be a facilitator for that kind of change.”
Following a city audit on the problems at the Department of Planning and Permitting, Blangiardi said he’d like to improve operations to boost affordable housing construction but didn’t say how.
“I’d want to evaluate that first,” he said.
If elected, Blangiardi said he would surround himself with the “smartest thinkers and the smartest doers.”
“I don’t have a plan for everything right now, but we will, but I know how to put plans together and how to execute,” he said. “I’m a leader. I’m decisive. I probably lead as much with my heart as with my brain. And I love Hawaii.”
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