Rick Blangiardi, the former television executive who campaigned on a message of strong leadership, will be the next mayor of Honolulu after his opponent Keith Amemiya conceded the race when the first round of election returns showed he had no path to victory.

Blangiardi secured about 58.2% of the vote compared to Amemiya at 39%, according to results released early Wednesday morning. 

“My heart is full of appreciation and gratitude,” he said in remarks late on Tuesday.

Blangiardi thanked his supporters and his family and urged all of Oahu to be “unified” as the island works its way out of the public health and financial crisis.

“I want to bring everybody together,” he said.

The first set of election results that came in around 11:30 p.m. represented about 65% of the vote and includes all ballots received via mail and drop boxes as of Monday evening, and all ballots submitted at the Honolulu Hale voter service center through Tuesday evening.

According to the results released Wednesday morning, voter turnout was nearly 67%.

Honolulu mayoral candidate Rick Blangiardi flashes the shaka to oncoming motorists along Beretania Street fronting the Capitol. October 13, 2020
Rick Blangiardi was a longtime television executive. He retired to run for mayor. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

Amemiya admitted defeat during a televised broadcast Tuesday evening and encouraged his supporters to support Blangiardi.

Blangiardi, 74, ran as a business-savvy political outsider in the race to replace Mayor Kirk Caldwell, who is term-limited. 

Voters got to know Blangiardi over the years as the general manager of Hawaii News Now where he would air editorials about his views on local issues with his distinctive New England accent. 

Previously, he headed broadcast stations in Hawaii and on the mainland and also coached football at the University of Hawaii. 

As a mayoral candidate, Blangiardi asserted that he has the leadership and management skills to turn the island around during its current crisis, even if he doesn’t always have a specific plan or precise answers to policy questions. 

Blangiardi has said one of his biggest priorities will be addressing the economic impacts of the pandemic, including reopening businesses and getting people back to work. His other priorities include addressing homelessness and bringing more accountability and transparency to the rail project, although he hasn’t provided details on how to accomplish those goals. 

While Amemiya ran as a Democrat in the nonpartisan race, Blangiardi ran as an independent, stating that he holds both conservative and liberal views in various areas. 

Mayor Kirk Caldwell gives a lei to Mayoral candidate Rick Blangiardi at the Alohilani Hotel.
Mayor Kirk Caldwell stopped by the Alohilani Hotel to give Blangiardi a lei on election night. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

Blangiardi’s backers include former Republican Gov. Linda Lingle, former Hawaii First Lady Vicky Cayetano, and the State of Hawaii Organization of Police Officers. He was also supported by Be Change Now, a super PAC funded by Hawaii carpenters that is formerly known as the Pacific Resource Partnership. 

In the race to become what Blangiardi calls “the CEO of the city,” the first-time candidate beat out a roster of seasoned politicians in the August primary including former Congresswoman Colleen Hanabusa, who later endorsed him. 

Blangiardi was able to cultivate support from people who voted for unsuccessful primary candidates, including Hanabusa, Honolulu City Councilwoman Kym Pine, former Mayor Mufi Hannemann and former state Rep. Bud Stonebraker, according to a Civil Beat/Hawaii News Now poll.

The poll found Blangiardi had broad support among male and female voters, young and old, those with and without college degrees, affluent and not, and from a variety of racial and ethnic backgrounds.

The poll found that Blangiardi has strong support among voters who identify as Republican and conservative, or independent and moderate.

By choosing two first-time candidates as the victors in the primary, voters made clear that they wanted a fresh face at city hall. 

Amemiya was backed by a long list of unions and community organizations including the Hawaii Government Employees Association, United Public Workers, Unite Here! Local 5, Planned Parenthood Hawaii, the Sierra Club of Hawaii and the LGBT Caucus of the Democratic Party. He was also endorsed by five sitting City Council members. 

However, Amemiya’s connections to the status quo may have been what held him back.

Although he had never ventured into politics before and centered his campaign on a “change” message, he struggled to overcome the perception that he wasn’t truly the reform candidate he portrayed himself to be. 

In particular, Amemiya carried the liability of his closeness to Caldwell, who is unpopular with his constituents, according to the Civil Beat/Hawaii News Now poll. As of last month, the mayor had a 28% approval rating and a negative rating of 42%. 

Where Amemiya Fell Short

Throughout the campaign, Amemiya, 55, leaned on his record of running the Hawaii High School Athletic Association. He emphasized how his leadership of the nonprofit expanded high school athletics options and helped programs survive the last economic recession. 

Mayoral Candidate Keith Amemiya and wife Bonny Amemiya wave at cars while campaigning along King Street. October 12, 2020
Keith Amemiya conceded in a televised speech on Tuesday night. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

He also highlighted his personal background as a local boy with a difficult upbringing. In his political ads, he spoke about how his mother’s struggles with mental illness shaped who he grew up to be. 

While the Blangiardi campaign focused on promoting Blangiardi as a decisive leader who had the experience to do the job of mayor, Amemiya took a different approach. The Amemiya campaign made a point of proposing specific policy ideas.

For instance, Amemiya was the first to release a pandemic recovery plan, although Blangiardi later followed suit.  

To address the high cost of living in Honolulu, Amemiya promoted a Housing For All plan that he said would address the 22,000-unit need on the island. 

Regarding police reform, Amemiya signaled an openness to demands from activists nationwide to increase accountability and transparency for officers. When the Caldwell administration spent over $30 million of CARES Act funds on the Honolulu Police Department, including new ATVs for officers to ride, Amemiya said that money would’ve been better spent helping struggling families and businesses.   

Amemiya also envisioned an Office of Community Engagement to hear resident feedback and concerns. 

Throughout the campaign, Amemiya’s messaging focused more on his high school sports career than his time as a senior vice president at Island Holdings where he worked with politically connected executives like Colbert Matsumoto and Franklin Tokioka. 

Those kinds of relationships helped Amemiya fill the coffers of his $2.5 million campaign but also opened him up to criticism about being too close to the establishment. 

Before Amemiya was a candidate, he was a prolific donor to political campaigns, and Caldwell was the biggest recipient of his donations. 

Amemiya is also the cousin of Roy Amemiya, Caldwell’s managing director – a relationship that was used against Amemiya in attack ads run by the Aloha Aina Oiaio super PAC, especially after Roy Amemiya received an FBI subject letter. 

Correction: An earlier version of this story said Roy Amemiya received an FBI target letter. In fact, he received a subject letter which means his conduct is within the scope of an investigation but he is not specifically a target of the investigation.

In general, Keith Amemiya has longstanding relationships with powerful Hawaii Democrats, including U.S. Sen. Brian Schatz, which undercut his attempts to market himself as a political outsider.

Mayoral Candidate Rick Blangiardi is interviewed before the first print out.
Blangiardi promoted a message of unity after first-round results came in. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

As polls showed Amemiya trailing Blangiardi in recent weeks, he tried to highlight his opponent’s ties to the Republican Party. 

He pushed out an ad featuring Blangiardi saying in a Civil Beat interview that he voted for President Donald Trump in 2016. In the interview, Blangiardi said that he was disappointed in the president’s performance and didn’t plan to support him again. He didn’t say, however, that he would support Joe Biden. 

Amemiya tried to hold the admission against Blangiardi with an ad connecting his opponent to “hate and division.” 

In Blangiardi’s political ads, he maintained a no-nonsense posture against a minimalist backdrop and kept his messages simple.

“This is not the time for politics,” he said in a recent commercial. “This is the time to get it done.” 

This is a developing story. Check back for updates as more results come in.

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