HONOLULU, Hawaii (HawaiiNewsNow) - Among the five front-runners vying to become Honolulu’s mayor, three have spent years serving in public office and two — Keith Amemiya and Rick Blangiardi — are trying to convince voters why that’s not a prerequisite for the job.
But Amemiya and Blangiardi are hardly running on similar platforms.
Amemiya, who has taken pains to identify himself as a Democrat in a non-partisan race, is positioning himself as a fresh face and someone who will offer innovation and new approaches to old problems. Blangiardi, meanwhile, is pointing to a successful career as a television executive on the mainland and in Hawaii as proof that what voters will get in him is a leader.
“My whole life has been about putting other people first ― starting with my family, my employees, various stakeholders. I don’t perceive my running for office as an individual experience. You have to have enough, I think, understanding and humility to realize that it takes a team,” Blangiardi said, during an hour-long interview with panelists from Hawaii News Now and Honolulu Civil Beat.
Whether voters go for Blangiardi’s pitch is a gamble.
His opponents who have held political office for years, including former Mayor Mufi Hannemann and former Congresswoman Colleen Hanabusa, have sought to campaign on a platform of experience — and as a sensible choice at a time when Hawaii is facing an unprecedented economic crisis and incredible uncertainty as the pandemic continues.
During his interview, HNN and Civil Beat panelists found Blangiardi light on specifics on how he’d tackle key problems facing the city and big on sweeping statements, including a pledge to woo new talent to city hall and use their expertise to shore up city finances and improve the quality of life. When asked who he’d hire, he said he “didn’t know that yet.”
But voters don’t just gravitate to politicians because of what they say. Sometimes, it’s how they say it. Do they inspire confidence? Do they come across as up to the task?
[Read Civil Beat’s profile: Rick Blangiardi: This Former TV Exec Wants To Be CEO Of Honolulu]
That “likability factor” could prove a powerful tool in the Blangiardi campaign’s arsenal, political onlookers say.
“He sees his campaign as about who he is rather than exactly what he’s going to do in office. That may work for voters,” said Colin Moore, HNN political analyst. “They may very well respond to this message: I have the leadership skills and when I get there, I’ll figure it out.”
But Moore added that Blangiardi’s lack of specifics on key issues is “disappointing.”
One thing Blangiardi was specific about: He would do away with “compassionate disruption,” Mayor Kirk Caldwell’s approach to the homeless crisis that has sought to push people out of parks and off sidewalks as a way to convince them to seek help.
“I think that compassionate disruption doesn’t work. I really think we need to go back and look at the systemic issues of what causes homelessness,” Blangiardi said.
He added, “I’m really worried about the amount of homeless people we may see on a going forward basis, and for that, I don’t have an answer right now. There’s so much that can happen.”
Blangiardi also said that while he wouldn’t increase property taxes on residential properties, he does support asking hotels “to make a bigger contribution.”
“If there’s anybody we would look at for a form of revenue, it would be the hotels,” he said.
Blangiardi, 73, retired as general manager of Hawaii News Now in January and announced plans to run for mayor a month later. At the time, coronavirus was a problem mostly for China and socially distancing wasn’t a fact of life.
Fast forward several months and Blangiardi acknowledges that his campaign hasn’t been anything like he imagined it would be.
He’s struggled to get his message out, he said, and hasn’t been able to have the kind of meetings with stakeholders and city officials that he’d planned in order to craft more tailored responses to key problems or, as several of his opponents have done, release specific plans detailing how they’d address issues like the dearth of affordable housing on Oahu.
Blangiardi said he still has time to develop those strategies.
What his opponents don’t have that he does, he says, are his leadership skills — and the ability to put together a team of people who are accountable and bring innovative ideas.
“I’ve been in different crises for different reasons, at different times, and so leadership during a crisis moment is different. But this is more so than anything we’ve ever experienced. I’m not gonna revert back to an old playbook. It’s gonna be decision-making, it’s the team of people we put around us and ... finding the smartest thinkers and the smartest doers,” he said.
He added, “I’m asking for the responsibility to run the city. But it’s gonna take a lot of talented men and women to do it. And so I think more than anything, that ability to collaborate, communicate, delegate, I think are the kinds of skills that are gonna help us. It’s gonna really take a lot of people to make this happen.”
And while Blangardi didn’t offer specifics in several areas, he also didn’t seek to sugar coat the scale of the problems facing the next mayor. He said the economic crisis and the “changing landscape” amid the pandemic make planning infinitely more difficult — and will undoubtedly require tough decisions.
“I don’t wanna be in a position where we make statements about what we’re gonna do that don’t hold up,” he told the HNN-Civil Beat panelists, in response to a question about how he’s prepared to serve as mayor.
“I’ve gotten things done everywhere, anywhere I’ve been. My work in broadcast over the last 43 years is only part of what I’ve done. I’ve worked extensively here, this newsroom (HNN) has afforded me a real lens on this community, but I’ve also worked diligently in this community out there, so there’s not like there’s some secret club in some secret mystery here. We’re gonna take things head-on and I think that’s part of what has to happen.”