As Rick Blangiardi celebrates his Honolulu mayoral election win, political observers are crediting his consistent projection of confidence, experience and leadership for his defeat of Keith Amemiya.

With 58.2% of the vote to Amemiya’s 38.8%, Blangiardi secured the most decisive mayoral election victory in recent memory, and pre-election polling showed Blangiardi had broad support across almost all demographics.

State election data shows that Blangiardi crushed Amemiya in nearly every one of the island’s precincts and beat him by 20 percentage points – a gap that hasn’t been seen in at least 28 years, according to Colin Moore, director of the University of Hawaii’s Public Policy Center.

This is the biggest one since the Fasi era,” Moore said. “Since then, this is by far the biggest win.”

Mayoral Candidate Rick Blangiardi is interviewed before the first print out.
Mayor-elect Rick Blangiardi benefitted from his strong communication skills, political experts say. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2020

As the island is suffering a public health and financial disaster, voters were likely looking for a steady hand from someone they felt they could trust, experts said.

Voters got to know Blangiardi, a former general manager of Hawaii News Now, from his days airing editorials on the news. On TV and throughout the election, the former University of Hawaii football player spoke with the authority of a coach, Moore noted.

And throughout the campaign – in interviews, debates and advertisements – Blangiardi hammered on the same simple message: I am the leader that can get us through it.

“In this time of uncertainty, someone who comes across as large and in charge appeals to a lot of people,” said John Hart, a communications professor at Hawaii Pacific University.

Former Congresswoman Colleen Hanabusa, who came in third in the August mayoral primary, endorsed Blangiardi soon after her defeat. She said the mayor-elect’s overwhelming victory is a “real statement” that people believe Blangiardi can serve Honolulu in these difficult times. She said people were drawn to Blanagiardi because they felt he would take care of them.

“I think everyone realized, yes, we do want a different way of looking at things, however, we still want someone who can run things and hit the ground running,” she said.

With his background as a businessman leading large companies, including through difficult financial times, Blangiardi could argue that he was up for the challenge, Moore said.

Amemiya, who had headed the nonprofit in charge of Hawaii high school sports, came across as a “very likable, very nice guy” but sometimes appeared stiff or nervous, according to Moore.

Mayoral candidate Keith Amemiya interviewed at campaign rally along King Street. October 12, 2020
Amemiya won in only four Oahu precincts. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2020

Amemiya, at the end of the day, couldn’t convince voters that he had the experience and maybe even gravitas to lead the city,” said Moore, who has worked as a paid commentator for HNN. “Rick Blangiardi has a certain natural charisma that Keith Amemiya does not. And people respond to that.” 

From the start of his campaign, Amemiya tried to sell himself as a “change” candidate, but it was a tough sell to make considering his familial and political connections to the establishment. He is the son of former Attorney General Ron Amemiya, the cousin of Caldwell’s Managing Director Roy Amemiya and the former campaign treasurer for U.S. Sen. Brian Schatz. He has also been a prolific campaign donor for years and was appointed to government boards by former governors.

“His background is pretty elite,” Moore said. “Running as a self-made person and outside of politics, I think people saw that and said: ‘No you’re not.’ And that’s not a great way to introduce yourself.”

In contrast, Blangiardi campaigned as a “not a politician” candidate at a time when people want a change from the current mayor, Kirk Caldwell, who is viewed negatively. In that sense, Hart said, city voters may have embraced the sentiment that got President Donald Trump elected in 2016: “We’re tired of politics, let’s let a businessman fix it.”

For that reason, Hart believes Amemiya hurt his chances by reminding voters he is a Democrat, despite the mayor’s race being nonpartisan.

“Perhaps this was not a good time to associate yourself with the Democratic Party,” Hart said. “At this time, people can’t vote against Ige or Caldwell but can vote against someone who claims to be the heir apparent in the party.”

The Amemiya campaign also delivered conflicting messages about who the candidate was, according to Moore. On one hand, the campaign portrayed him as someone who brought people together for the common good. But then the campaign went negative with attack ads tying Blangiardi to Trump, who he voted for in 2016, and insinuating Blangiardi represented “hate and division.”

“It felt out of character and it seemed to run counter to this narrative of him as a peacemaker,” Moore said. “You can’t be a peacemaker and be nasty.”

Amemiya, who was the first candidate to announce his run in August 2019, appears to have lost some steam in the final weeks of the election, according to Noelani Goodyear–Ka‘opua, a University of Hawaii political science professor.

From Sept. 27 through Oct. 19, Blangiardi raised and spent more money than his opponent, campaign finance records show. 

“Blangiardi had that push at the end,” she said. 

Councilwoman Kym Pine, who finished fourth in the August primary for mayor, noted that Blangiardi also benefitted from Be Change Now, an influential super PAC funded by the carpenters union and the companies that work with the carpenters and other trades. Pine said she endorsed Amemiya because she felt he had done more homework to understand the inner workings of the city.

“Leadership is not enough during this time,” she said. “It’s the knowledge of how the city works so you know how to fix and tweak the problems … When I see someone new at this very powerful position, I worry for them. I’m concerned for Honolulu.” 

Goodyear–Ka‘opua, who said she too supported Amemiya, said she wasn’t particularly impressed with Blangiardi in debates and interviews. She felt his answers lacked substance and that he didn’t provide concrete plans in the way that Amemiya did.

But this wasn’t an election based on ideas, she said. 

“We’re in this moment when personality and what the individual candidate projects is more important to a lot of people than what their actual policy plans are,” she said.

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