Facing off against household political names, Keith Amemiya sees outsider status ‘as a plus'

The five leading candidates for Honolulu Mayor sit down for an extensive job interview with six journalists from Hawaii News Now and Civil Beat
Updated: Jul. 16, 2020 at 5:49 PM HST
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HONOLULU, Hawaii (HawaiiNewsNow) - Keith Amemiya knows a lack of political experience could be his biggest weakness. He’s trying to convince voters it’s his biggest strength.

On his campaign website, in interviews and in TV ads, the mayoral candidate has sought to use his outsider status to his advantage. He declares he’s got a “fresh perspective.” He says he’s out to end the “status quo.”

And he promises he’s running for the job — and not to climb the political ladder.

But whether voters buy what he’s selling is the question.

And it might come down to whether he can back up his big statements with bigger policies — and provide a vision for Honolulu that his opponents can’t match with pitches or name recognition alone.

“I view my lack of direct experience in politics as a plus,” Amemiya said, in an hour-long interview with a panel of journalists and political analysts from Hawaii News Now and media partner Honolulu Civil Beat.

“Too many of our candidates ... have been entrenched. They’re experienced in being involved in politics their whole career. They’re experienced in running for different offices every election cycle.”

[Watch the full one-hour interview with mayoral candidate Keith Amemiya by clicking here.]

That is, of course, a dig at two of his front-runner opponents.

Former Congresswoman Colleen Hanabusa most recently lost a primary election challenge against incumbent Gov. David Ige. And former Honolulu Mufi Hannemann left his job as mayor to mount a failed campaign for governor, and then was dealt another loss in his run for Congress against Tulsi Gabbard.

[Read Civil Beat’s profile of Keith Amemiya by clicking here.]

Both Hanabusa and Hannemann have pointed to their years serving in government office as assets and warned Oahu voters that the middle of a pandemic — as the islands face a dire economic forecast — is no time for a leader who needs “training wheels.”

It’s a claim Amemiya bristles at.

When asked about that “training wheels” comment, Amemiya shot back: “I have the experience to lead organizations. I have the experience to bring solutions to problems. They’re part of the problem. They’ve been involved in politics. They’ve had their chance.”

Journalists from Hawaii News Now and Honolulu Civil Beat recap the highs and lows of their job interview discussion with Keith Amemiya.

Up until fall of last year, Amemiya seemed an unlikely political candidate.

Before announcing his plan to run, he was senior vice president at Island Holdings. He’s also served as executive administrator to the University of Hawaii Board of Regents and was the longtime executive director of the Hawaii High School Athletic Association.

After graduating from law school in 1990, Amemiya spent eight years in private practice.

To be sure, it’s an unconventional resume for a mayoral candidate. His only in-the-trenches government experience has been as an unpaid police commissioner and a member of the state Board of Education. He also served on the Stadium Authority.

Despite being a political novice, Amemiya is shaking up the mayor’s race.

He’s peppered local TV with ads promising a new approach to old problems — and the growing problems Oahu will encounter because of the pandemic and its fallout.

Amemiya has also netted some of the biggest endorsements for the race, including from the Hawaii Government Employees Association and United Public Workers.

And he’s sought to bring partisan politics to a nonpartisan contest, regularly reminding voters that he’s a Democrat — and on the liberal end of the spectrum.

When asked why he felt compelled to advertise his party affiliation, potentially alienating a portion of the electorate, Amemiya said it was simple: He wanted to take a stand and “show what party I belong to.”

“It’s a non-partisan race, but almost everybody I come across asks me what party I belong to. I’m not afraid to say, ‘I’m a Democrat,’” he said. “Now, of course, I’m willing to work with everyone, whether they be Republican, Independent, Aloha Aina party or whatever other party that’s out there.”

In his interview with HNN and Civil Beat, Amemiya said homelessness and the lack of affordable housing will be among his top priorities as mayor — and acknowledged while both issues are “complicated” he’ll be able to bring people together to find solutions.

His “Housing for All” plan suggests using tax incentives, public-private partnerships, and out-of-the-box thinking to generate more housing for low- and moderate-income families.

“The longer we delay these tough decisions, the harder it’s gonna get to build more housing,” he said. “We can look at financing, interest rates are still relatively low. We can look at partnerships with the private sector. We can’t wait any longer.”

On homelessness, he said he didn’t support the city’s enforcement of sit-lie or stored property laws that force homeless to move out of parks and off sidewalks. But he said he would continue so-called “sweeps” until more shelter space or affordable housing is made available.

Amemiya has often noted he brings a unique perspective to the issue of homelessness.

Amemiya’s mother, who suffers from mental illness, was many times “on the brink” of falling into homelessness, the mayoral candidate said. After his parents got a divorce, he was shuttled from one relative to another until eventually being taken in by his best friend’s family.

It’s that experience, he says, that informed his view on the importance of a social safety net, strong communities and empathy.

“They provided a lifeline to me. They provided love, compassion. They provided structure to me, and they proved to me that all it takes is one family or one person or a set of people to show they care,” he said.

“It can uplift you and change your life trajectory.”

Whether that personal insight is enough to appeal to voters being inundated with campaign promises from a crowded field of contenders isn’t clear.

Colin Moore, HNN political analyst, described Amemiya as “polished” and said he’s not only done his homework on some of the key problems facing the city but has sought to find solutions to them.

Moore added, “He does tend to show this amateur politician’s tendency to say, ‘Everything will be OK when I get there. Other folks just can’t get along but I’m reasonable.’”

In this sit-down with HNN and Civil Beat, Amemiya also struggled with a relative softball: “When was the last time you changed your mind about something important?”

After thinking for more than a minute, he finally gave up.

“I can’t think of one offhand,” he said.

Moore said he was taken aback and a little troubled by the response.

“That question is designed to get at how deeply you’ve really gotten into policy issues or even just the ability to say you were wrong in the past,” Moore said.

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