Honolulu mayoral candidate Keith Amemiya is calling on his opponent Rick Blangiardi to debate him after Blangiardi declined two invitations to do so.

According to the Amemiya campaign, KITV4 and Hawaii News Now informed it last week that two planned televised debates were canceled because Blangiardi turned down the opportunities. The debates would have aired on Oct. 12 and Oct. 14, respectively, the campaign said.

Blangiardi said on Monday he will participate in the KITV4 debate after all, but not the one on HNN.

Amemiya said voters are losing out by not being able to assess the candidates’ stands on issues that would come out during debates.

“My opponent is running to be CEO of Honolulu where he would make the rules for everyone else to follow,” Amemiya said in a statement. “So if he decides he doesn’t want to debate anymore, voters have to live with fewer opportunities to make an informed decision.”

Rick Blangiardi Job Interview Mayor Elections 2020
Rick Blangiardi initially turned down two debates but now says he’ll do one of them. Kuʻu Kauanoe/Civil Beat/2020

Since they became the top two vote-getters in the August primary, Amemiya and Blangiardi have already appeared together via online events with the Kokua Council, the Local 5 union and PBS Insights. However, the Amemiya campaign said the only other televised debate on any of the main news stations would have been on KHON2 on Oct 14, a week after ballots are expected to be mailed to voters.

The declined invitations meant fewer chances for citizens to learn about the issues and the candidates’ leadership styles and that Blangiardi has “decided to protect himself,” Amemiya said.

“It is unclear why Rick Blangiardi, who boasts of being a strong communicator, believes it is OK for voters to have less information in such an important election year,” he said.

In a statement, Blangiardi said he chose not to debate Amemiya on HNN because he used to be the boss there.

“As the former General Manager of Hawaii News Now, I personally hired everyone who would be associated with that broadcast, and I did not feel it would be appropriate to put my former colleagues in a position to be possibly criticized in any way for their handling of this debate, given our lengthy professional relationship,” he said.

HNN news director Scott Humber said on Monday that “both myself and General Manager Katie Pickman have spoken with Rick today and we are in agreement on his decision.”

Blangiardi said he didn’t think another Zoom debate on KITV was necessary “particularly since I will have appeared with Keith Amemiya 19 times in various debates and forums.” He was apparently referring to events both before and after the primary.

Blangiardi added that he will now participate in the KITV4 debate because the station has changed it to a live in-studio debate. It’s set for Oct. 10.

Amemiya has been arguing that he has specific plans to solve the city’s problems and that Blangiardi does not.

Amemiya may be trying to use debates to highlight areas where Blangiardi hasn’t articulated a policy plan or taken a firm stance on an issue, according to Colin Moore, director of the Public Policy Center at the University of Hawaii Manoa.

Moore is a paid commentator for HNN and was in that position when Blangiardi ran the station.

Moore likened the approach to that of Sen. Elizabeth Warren, who touted that she had a plan for many of the country’s ills when she was running for president.

The problem for Amemiya is that Blangiardi’s campaign is not about policy, Moore said.

“Blangiardi’s campaign is about who he is,” said Moore. “It’s that he is a successful businessman who can make hard decisions and can turn around failing companies.” 

Hammering a candidate on policy details is only helpful if you can leave an impression in voters’ minds that the candidate isn’t up for the job, Moore said.

“But I think that is a hard thing if you’re running against Rick Blangiardi, who people see as a local media mogul, very competent and an intelligent businessman,” he said. “Politically, I don’t think that’s what is going to be much of a liability for him in people’s minds.” 

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