Former TV executive Rick Blangiardi and former insurance executive Keith Amemiya will face off in the November general election for mayor after they scored the top two spots in the primary.

Blangiardi secured 25.3% of total votes, and Amemiya got an even 20%, according to final results released by the state Elections Office Sunday.

In the race that garnered a record number of ballots cast, the frontrunners were followed by former Congresswoman Colleen Hanabusa with 18.2%, Honolulu City Councilwoman Kym Pine with 14.5% and former Mayor Mufi Hannemann with 9.8%.

Blangiardi, a first-time candidate, campaigned as a pragmatic outsider with a track record for successfully managing big enterprises. The former Hawaii News Now general manager rejected criticism that he wasn’t qualified to run the city and promoted the classic refrain, often touted by Republicans, that he would run the city as a business.

During the primary, he said he hadn’t read the city budget but said if elected, he would surround himself with smart people.

“Look, the mayor is the CEO of the city,” he said in a June interview. “It is about managing – managing people, decision-making.”

Blangiardi’s exact political leanings are hard to pin down. He identifies as an independent and said on his website that he is “liberal in some areas and conservative in others.” However, one of his key backers was former Republican Gov. Linda Lingle and he was endorsed by the state’s police union, which has resisted progressive-led reforms. But his campaign said he is not a supporter of President Donald Trump.

Rick Blangiardi announces his run for Mayor of Honolulu at Old Stadium Park.
Rick Blangiardi ran in the nonpartisan race as an independent. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2020

Island residents got to know Blangiardi as a broadcaster who delivered his take on local issues on HNN’s Local Connection segment. Some of his stances on the show were controversial including supporting the construction of the Thirty Meter Telescope. He referred to protests against other unpopular projects as “lawlessness.”

On HNN, Blangiardi has also touted a “tough love” stance on homelessness and suggested that the “criminally homeless” should be locked up. In other episodes, he criticized Gov. David Ige, calling his first three years in office “directionless and mediocre.”

On rail, Blangiardi has expressed a willingness to pause the project amid pandemic-related revenue problems.

“If you can’t pay for something, you can’t pay for it,” he said.

Blangiardi received some backing from wealthy and powerful business leaders, but his single greatest contributor was himself. He loaned his own campaign $400,000 – nearly half of his total campaign revenue. His campaign also got a $30,000 boost from his wife, Karen Chang, a former financial services executive.

On Saturday night, Blangiardi said he felt encouraged and grateful for the showing in early returns. He said he believes voters chose him based on his engagement in the community in the 55 years he’s lived in Hawaii, from coaching University of Hawaii football to working with small businesses as the boss of Hawaii News Now.

This is a town where reputation really counts,” Blangiardi said. 

If Amemiya is his November challenger, the race will be “very competitive,” Blangiardi said.

“I think it’ll establish who we are and what we’re about,” he said.

The business community and big money donors consolidated most behind Amemiya. The first-time candidate raised over $1.2 million in contributions and loaned his campaign over $218,000 of his own money. The money funded a sustained advertising blitz on television and the radio, plus a $50,000 front-page Mid-Week advertorial that proclaimed Amemiya was “born to lead.”

Best known for running the Hawaii High School Athletics Association for 12 years, Amemiya also used to work for Island Holdings, the parent company of Island Insurance, Atlas Insurance Agency, IC International, Pacxa, and Tradewind Capital Group. He has also served on numerous citizen boards including the Honolulu Police Commission, the Hawaii Board of Education and the Aloha Stadium Authority board.

He resigned from Island Holdings last year to campaign for mayor full time.

Amemiya promised a fresh vision for city hall and advocated for a Housing For All policy that he said would fill the 22,000-unit housing need on Oahu. He made a point of campaigning as a Democrat in the nonpartisan race and was backed by several unions including the state’s largest, the Hawaii Government Employees Association, the United Public Workers, and the unions representing plumbers and fitters, painters and dock workers.

Malia Kaaihue, an Amemiya campaign spokesperson, said on Saturday that the team was excited by and grateful for the early results.

“We think they demonstrate the change people want to see,” she said. “Voters came out in record numbers and are calling for a fresh perspective.”

Honolulu Mayoral Candidate Keith Amemiya with left, wife Bonny Amemiya and son, Christopher Amemiya at the corner of Punchbowl and Beretania Street. August 8, 2020
Keith Amemiya campaigned as a fresh face but was criticized for connections to the status quo. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2020

Recently, Amemiya has been dogged by accusations that he was too close to the status quo. He is the son of former Hawaii Attorney General Ronald Amemiya and the cousin of Roy Amemiya, Mayor Kirk Caldwell’s managing director. And for years, Keith Amemiya has been a prolific donor to the political campaigns of Hawaii politicians.

The biggest beneficiaries of Amemiya’s political generosity have been Caldwell and U.S. Sen. Brian Schatz, for whom Amemiya served as campaign treasurer.

An anti-Amemiya super PAC attacked him for his connections and for other perceived wrongdoing, although much of the information it shared was inaccurate. The group, Aloha Aina Oiaio – led by a Hawaiian man who proclaimed and then denied his support for Hanabusa – spent thousands on television, radio ads and robocalls portraying Amemiya and former Mayor Mufi Hannemann as corrupt.

In a case of unfortunate timing, Roy Amemiya received an FBI subject letter and testified before a grand jury last week after ballots had already landed in thousands of Oahu mailboxes. The PAC seized on that in ads.

Hanabusa‘s campaign pitch focused on her experience in the state and federal governments. She argued that now, during a crisis, is the time for “decisive leadership,” not a novice. And she has suggested her relationships in Washington, D.C. would be an asset in terms of getting federal funds to the island.

Hanabusa said she was running in part to restore trust at city hall, where she feels the Caldwell administration has lost the public’s confidence.

Colleen Hanabusa mayoral candidate.
Colleen Hanabusa has touted her federal government experience. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2020

A 20-year veteran of Hawaii politics, Hanabusa has previously come within a hair of a U.S. Senate seat but came in several points behind David Ige in a run for the governorship. Being mayor would be the former legislator’s first executive role.

With built-in name recognition and yearslong relationships in politics, Hanabusa garnered significant union support including from groups representing teachers, laborers, dock workers and operating engineers. City Councilwoman Ann Kobayashi chaired her campaign.

Hanabusa seemed to have momentum in the last few weeks of the campaign. She outraised all of her competitors in July and spent thousands of dollars on mainland contractors that help left-leaning candidates boost their image.

The former state Senate president has been criticized though for never staying in one job for too long. She left the board of the Honolulu Authority for Rapid Transportation to run for Congress in 2016. And after two separate stints as a congresswoman, she left her seat to run for other offices, ultimately unsuccessfully.

Despite having a three-year head start on fundraising and campaigning for mayor, Councilwoman Kym Pine failed to gain traction.

One of the top recipients of donations overall, Pine’s fundraising lost steam over time. The Ewa Beach representative brought in only $20,609 in July, the lowest of the leading five candidates. And unlike her competitors, the term-limited representative didn’t secure a single endorsement from labor unions or prominent members of the community.

Pine was the only candidate currently in elected office and tried to argue that her current role best positioned her to lead the city. In recent months, her office has sent out a slew of press releases promoting her response to COVID-19.

Honolulu Mayoral Candidate Kym Pine waves at passing motorists along Beretania Street near the Capitol.
Councilwoman Kym Pine has been running for mayor since 2017. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2020

But with a legislative record comes criticism. During her council tenure, Pine voted in favor of controversial developments Hoopili and Koa Ridge, both of which involved rezoning agricultural land for residences. In general, some consider Pine too close to developers but Pine has said she’s just an advocate of affordable housing. More recently, however, Pine has voiced support for community members in Kailua who are fighting against the development of an affordable housing project.

It’s not the first time Pine’s beliefs appeared to have flip-flopped. She was first elected to public office as a Republican state representative in 2004. But in a recent interview, she claimed she “wasn’t even a Republican” and just chose to run in the opposite party of the incumbent. She said she defected to the Democratic Party after President Donald Trump was inaugurated.

In a statement, Pine congratulated Amemiya and Blangiardi and thanked her supporters.

“They worked so hard to get our message of change out to the people. I am humbled to have their support,” she said. “I will continue to strive for a clean, efficient, affordable, ethical and resilient city as I complete my term as a City Council member.”

Once again, voters made clear they are not interested in a Mufi Hannemann comeback.

The former mayor, who announced his candidacy at the last minute, was able to attract a considerable amount of campaign donations in a short time – about $500,000 since June. The chief lobbyist for the Hawaii Lodging & Tourism Association, Hannemann spent the funds on ads that promoted a compelling message: “If you put me back in my old job, my mission is to put you back at yours.”

But the spiffy advertising didn’t translate into enough votes.

As the only candidate to have held the job previously, Hannemann had the asset of experience but also the albatross of rail around his neck. For years, residents have been frustrated with the project’s ballooning costs and the prospect of criminality, and now the tourism-based funding for it has turned to dust.

Mufi Hannemann has lost his last three elections. Civil Beat, Hawaii News Now/2020

Many of the failures at HART can’t be blamed on Hannemann, but auditors have faulted him for signing contracts too early. The decision, ahead of his resignation from Honolulu Hale to run for governor in 2010, cost taxpayers millions of dollars of cost overruns, the state audit found. To this day, Hannemann takes responsibility for none of it, and that may have cost him votes.

Hannemann’s response to homelessness, or lack thereof, has also been a point of criticism. As mayor, Hannemann pointed to the state to fix the issue and focused his administration’s energy on sweeping people out of city parks – a practice that continues today as homelessness here remains among the worst in the country per capita.

This is now Hannemann’s fourth consecutive political loss after leaving office during his second term as mayor. He came up short in the governor’s race against Neil Abercrombie in 2010, the congressional election against Tulsi Gabbard in 2012 and another governor’s race against David Ige in 2014.

In a concession statement, Hannemann said he entered the race because of the devastating impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic on residents and the economy.

“It was my hope that an experienced hand at the helm of the city government would better enable us to control the pandemic, enable people to safely return to work, and revitalize our economy,” he said.

“I was deeply touched and moved by the support I received from countless people who encouraged me to return to City Hall. But contrary to that message, it appears that the voters of the City and County of Honolulu were seeking a fresh face at City Hall. Whomever is elected mayor will face a very tough task. I stand ready to assist that person in the difficult tasks that await.”

Former state representative and pastor Bud Stonebraker got 6.4%, state results showed. He campaigned on a message of bringing “common sense” back to city government. The candidate, who defied public health guidelines by not wearing a mask at public events, promoted “individuals liberties” and reducing regulations.

Activist and real estate broker Choon James ran a populist campaign against her better-known competitors on Facebook but secured only 2% of the vote. She pushed the message online that voting for one of the top five candidates is “a vote for the same ole same ole.”

The longtime city hall gadfly touted an anti-corruption message, advocated for stopping rail at Middle Street and has lamented the “oligarchy that holds the power, money and opportunities at the expense of our residents.”

Most of the other candidates in the mayoral race barely registered in the results. On the ballot were David Bourgoin, Ernest Caravalho, former state Sen. John Carroll, Karl Dicks, Tim Garry, Audrey Keesing, Micah Mussell and Jason Wong.

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