HFC Q&A with Leading Candidates For Honolulu Mayor

By Edwin Quinabo

The 2020 Election was supposed to be the big story of the year. But it has been for the most part overshadowed by the coronavirus pandemic as residents have had to make major life adjustments to work and school, and practice socially awkward (wear a mask and keep your distance) but necessary health precautions.

But as crucial this Primary Election is, specifically the big local race for mayor of Honolulu, it’s time for voters to focus and know that the Primary is already in full-swing under the first all-mail voting system.

Registered voters should have received their ballot package via mail and should have returned it to the self-addressed clerk’s office. Or at the very latest, voted ballots should be sent out by mail by August 4-5 to meet the Aug. 8, 7 p.m. deadline.

Don’t’ want to mail back your ballot? There are 36 ballot box drop-off locations statewide. Ballots are also being collected at eight voter service centers.

The second option of in-person voting has also started as of July 27 at select voter service centers that will be open until Aug. 7, Mon.- Sat., 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.; and on the day of the Primary, Aug. 8, with extended hours, 7 a.m. to 7 p.m.

Voters must be reminded that neighborhood precinct voting will not be available for in-person voting as in previous years; but only at select voter service centers. Visit: elections.hawaii.gov to see statewide locations of voting centers and ballot box drop off locations.

Not registered to vote? Hawaii residents who failed to meet the registration deadline still have a chance to vote by going to a voter service center where residents can do same-day voter registration and voting. 

Unprecedented Challenges
Honolulu’s mayor-elect already had daunting challenges ahead to manage one of the world’s most famous and diverse cities even before COVID-19. Since the crisis, the next mayor must manage normal city business in a “new normal” setting of soaring unemployment (among the highest in the nation) and a crippled tourism industry on life support.

While state and federal government are mostly tasked with unemployment, Honolulu’s mayor-elect, working with State and private-sector leaders, will play a pivotal role in rebuilding tourism and jumpstarting the economy.

The urgency for economic recovery is such an overwhelming priority that the candidate who can win public confidence as the best person to get this done – most likely will be the candidate elected.

And the situation could become more dire as the end of July had unemployment benefits reduced (federal funding for additional COVID-19 assistance expired). And the national moratorium on evictions also expired which could be a double whammy for unemployed renters. Experts say unemployment in an “unaffordable” rent environment as in Honolulu could worsen the City’s homeless problem; or at minimum, put extra demand on the already limited affordable housing inventory.

An option for residents could be to leave the state, which has been ongoing for at least 20 years. Honolulu’s population has been shrinking and is 7.8 percent smaller than it was in 1990. But that is a last option to kamaaina with strong family and cultural ties to the islands.

Working people could come out in record numbers
Voters traditionally vote based on their pocketbooks. Based on this trend, political analysts and academics will be looking closely at this first election of the COVID-19 era. How will the most severely impacted socioeconomic group — workers under mid-management with incomes on the lower end and lower skill set – turnout to vote?

It’s uncertain where this group of workers political preferences lie between 1) wanting change from a system that has not given them job and health coverage security (tourism, employment-based insurance) in which case the agents-forchange candidates (Amemiya, Blangiardi) could benefit; or that 2) workers would want to elect someone experienced to “right the ship” as soon as possible, and favor a continuity of a system with changes to come once stability resumes.

Favoring change versus continuity is less clear cut this cycle in the Honolulu mayor’s race in part because there is no incumbent to place direct blame to justify change. Every candidate in the mayor’s race can reasonably claim to be for change. While the top two veteran politicians Hannemann and Hanabusa have served years in public office, they also haven’t held elected office for some time.

Based on some respondents’ comments in our HFC 2020 election poll, most of the dissatisfaction with government affairs that would warrant change is directed at the federal level, the presidency. Few have complained about local government.

High cost of living and affordable housing
Besides the economy-jobs and public safety over COVID-19 as the overwhelming priority, Filipinos also have mentioned as pressing issues the high cost of living and housing. On housing, the City can do more with additional city-state-private sector projects to expand affordable housing inventory, as some candidates have mentioned. But market forces are the main drivers of the high cost of living in Honolulu and it’s doubtful how much the City can do to change this.

Nationally, Honolulu already has one of the lowest property tax rate (the City’s primary income generator). It’s possible for county services fees and car registration fees to be reexamined, but lowering them will hardly reduce the high cost of living by much.

Mayoral candidates know the limitations of city governance in reducing the high cost of living, but some have made it a campaign talking point that’s more rhetoric than realistic.

Rail, again, matters this election
In yet another race for Honolulu mayor, rail will once again have weighted prominence this election, but for different reasons this time — namely the completion of the rail project on budget, and finding cost-effective ways for its maintenance.

A third consideration related to rail not being discussed much except mentioned by Hannemann and Amemiya is development and redevelopment of businesses and affordable housing along the rail transit route. While developers, investors, and locals wanting more affordable housing are most likely to be the groups looking forward to “smart development” near rail routes; the issue could pose as a problem for anti-development and environmental groups.

Q&A (with leading Honolulu mayoral candidates Keith Amemiya, Rick Blangiardi, Colleen Hanabusa, Mufi Hannemann, Kym Pine)

HFC: COVID-19 has shown our state-city’s economic vulnerabilities, specifically an overreliance on tourism. What specific economic initiatives you would support to lift Honolulu from the current economic depression and make it stronger against tourism-driven future recessions?

AMEMIYA: I would get people back to work immediately, including opening up tourism safely and investing in construction projects to jumpstart the economy. Long-term, I seek to re-envision a better, more diversified economy that invests in our people, innovation and technology, and new industries like agriculture, aquaculture, and renewable energy.

BLANGIARDI: I will support our small businesses by distributing federal COVID-19 aid to them, ensuring they have the proper training and resources to operate safely, and helping them navigate COVID-19 relief programs. For our workers, I will bolster our City’s workforce development efforts to ensure our workers can seek diverse employment.

HANABUSA: There are two phases. First will be to secure federal funding to stabilize our economy. We cannot over rely on tourism, but it will be part of [our] economy; we must define what kind of tourism. [Second] We must take this opportunity to truly develop technology/science jobs for the next generation.

HANNEMANN: We must build on our core competence of tourism by developing synergistic industries such as sports, film-TV production, and agriculture/cuisine; broaden infrastructure support for farmers; and promote transit-oriented development to create more housing and business-industrial opportunities, while supporting the construction industry.

PINE: As the Chair of the City Council’s Economic Committee, I have proposed plans to diversify our economy, which we can start in 6 months. This includes advanced technology, biotech, clean energy, specialized military contracts, and agriculture. Numerous new inventions, Hawaii’s unique time zone and remote working makes this possible.

HFC: Sen. Mazie Hirono mentioned in an HFC interview that the federal government is working on getting state and counties federal support to deal with our budget shortfall. Even with that additional money, should it eventually come, cuts in City services, possible furloughs are possibilities. What areas would be the first to adjust or scale back to balance the city’s budget?

: The government needs to step up during this crisis and respond with hope and opportunity, not fear and scarcity. Many people rely on City services so cutting services would be a last resort. I would first freeze hiring vacant positions, improve city efficiency, and seek private-public partnerships.

BLANGIARDI: I will look to systematically eliminate waste in every City department. Our taxpayers must get more ‘bang for your buck,’ and doing so can help the City make do with less money. I will also eliminate vacant positions in the City, which the City currently budgets for.

HANABUSA: The revenue for the City comes primarily from real property taxes and federal grants. The Hotel tax does not add much. We must concentrate on the basic services of the City: public safety, rubbish, sewers, roads, water. If the federal grants are cut, then those programs may be scaled back.

HANNEMANN: It would be premature to propose cutbacks until the incoming mayor can assess future revenues and expenditures, commitments by the current administration, federal pandemic relief funding, and other factors that affect the City budget.

PINE: In the most recent budget cycle, in anticipation of lost revenue due to COVID-19, I proposed cuts to capital improvement projects that were unpopular with the community, including remodeling the Blaisdell Auditorium and the sports complex in Sherwood Forest. I also propose cuts for redundancy and unnecessary expenditures.

HFC: Policing reform is taking place throughout our country. There are calls for many reforms, including greater transparency in police misconduct. What policing reforms do you support?

AMEMIYA: I served on the Honolulu Police Commission and have always advocated for an honest and corruption free police force. I support greater oversight powers by the Police Commission, banning chokeholds, requiring implicit bias training for all police and all City employees, and support a duty to intervene law.

BLANGIARDI: I support any effort to increase transparency and accountability within our police department. I believe there is always room for improvement, but I do not believe that cutting police department budgets is the way to improve them, especially for a department as understaffed as HPD.

HANABUSA: I support transparency in government. Public oversight over the police department must be improved and that comes with restructuring the Police Commission. Transparency a n d oversight must be created so it is applicable to all police chiefs and officers. Any restructuring is decided by voters through Charter Amendment.

HANNEMANN: Legislation was recently passed that provides for more openness in police disciplinary cases, and I would work with the chief and police union on achieving that goal.

PINE: Bad actors in the department are shielded from public disclosure. We need to follow other states and bring body cameras, vehicle cameras and transparency. Our police commission should be strengthened to investigate complaints against officers and enforce civil procedures.

HFC: With the City’s projected budget shortfall, how could this affect rail’s completion, operation, and/or maintenance? Besides rail, do you support other traffic congestion relief?

: The major problem has been the mismanagement of past politicians and administrations. I support completing rail to Ala Moana and will ensure proper oversight and transparency to finish it. Oʻahu needs a modern, dependable, and affordable transit system, especially for those stuck in traffic or spending long hours on TheBus.

BLANGIARDI: I will seek as much federal funding for rail as possible. However, if that funding is not there, I will not raise taxes on our community for the sake of rail. For traffic, I will look to modernize our traffic light infrastructure to efficiently manage vehicle flow, and improve TheBus.

HANABUSA: The construction costs are funded by the GET and the TAT (Hotel tax). I would not divert real property tax money to complete rail. Traffic congestion requires working with the State. The freeways/highways are State run. City can relieve congestion by working from home and improving TheBus.

HANNEMANN: My goal is to complete the rail system to Ala Moana, in a fiscally responsible manner while not raising real property taxes; secure available federal funding; and establish public-private partnerships to help fund the project. We will continue to support TheBus and Handivan.

PINE: With little revenue coming into the project because of Covid-19, we cannot build a project when we do not have the money. We could change the project’s short-term loans to a longer term loans to lessen monthly payments if it makes sense. Making telecommuting the norm will reduce traffic.

HFC: Homelessness is still a lingering problem in Honolulu. What will you continue to support that have already been established by the previous administration? What new approach do you have to deal with homelessness?

: I will continue funding for Housing First and increase mental health and drug treatment facilities. My experience with Kahauiki Village — a public-private partnership with the City that created housing for 600 houseless people, including over 300 children — is an example of new approaches I would support as Mayor.

BLANGIARDI: I am for a “tough love” approach for our chronically homeless. I will cooperate with our courts, and expand the number of treatment facilities for those who are afflicted with mental health or substance abuse issues. I will work to increase housing and make Oahu more affordable for our families.

HANABUSA: The problem with homelessness is we treat the homeless as all having the same problem. Resources are wasted because the City and State both have their homeless programs. We need to have one program. Analyze the laws that affect those homeless with mental illness and build more shelters.

HANNEMANN: The City and State should collaborate with Partners in Care and others to pool resources and coordinate efforts to help the homeless; support rapid rehousing to connect people to housing/services, permanent/low-income housing, diversion/prevention response, and income support. The City must pursue all federal funding, including CARES, CDBG/HOME, and Continuum of Care.

PINE: Chronically homeless individuals require mental health and addiction treatment. We must remove every barrier and try every innovation to help them. For houseless, I will build tiny homes throughout
Oahu to house people. I do not support sit-lie bans that do not help; they just move homeless out of sight.

HFC: Many locals believe Honolulu development has gone overboard at the expense of compromising the City’s natural beauty. What does “smart development” or “balanced development” look like to you going forward? Can you also address here your plans for environmental preservation and renewable projects?

: We need to lead the way in fighting climate change. We need to enact a Climate Action Plan within the first 100 days to reach our renewable energy goals. I also believe in developing vibrant mixed use communities along the rail line to solve our affordable housing shortage.

BLANGIARDI: I believe there are many steps we can take to make urban Honolulu beautiful. I would like to pay particular attention with the Department of Parks and Recreation to increasing our urban tree canopy, which has been shrinking. I will also work to preserve and expand our City’s green spaces.

HANABUSA: This question addresses climate change and how it changes our shorelines, Waikiki and other areas of development. “Smart/balanced development” recognizes that we must preserve Honolulu for the next generations. All projects should be measured by the future. We need a vision of Honolulu which the next generations accept.

HANNEMANN: The City’s policies balance preservation with community needs. We can impose impact fees for heavily used cultural and scenic attractions, as we did at Hanauma Bay, with the money going toward conservation and education. We will expand the use of renewables in the City fleet with federal support, and accelerate energy-saving technology use.

PINE: Preservation of the land is a priority. Green building and clean energy are the future. Clean energy, zero emissions vehicles, solar voltaic public buildings, through incentives for sustainable practices and smart planning. My bill Keep Hawaii Hawaii, calls for annual sustainability reports from the visitor industry and visitor education.

HFC: Why should our Filipino community elect you as our next Mayor of Honolulu?

AMEMIYA: I am a champion for our working class families and believe the Filipino community has made the entire island stronger and better because of their many contributions. As Mayor, I will always put the interests of the community first and work to make Oʻahu better for all of us.

BLANGIARDI: The Mayor is the CEO of Honolulu. As former President of Telemundo, and GM of Hawaii News Now, I have the experience to lead us through this crisis. We also need a leader who can deliver on their promises. I will rebuild Honolulu’s economy and help improve our Filipino community.

HANABUSA: I respect what the Filipino community has done. I have fought for Filipino rights and will never forget the sacrifices made for our country and state. I will listen, not only at election time, and I have the record and experience of proudly standing with you.

HANNEMANN: We’re in an unprecedented health and economic crisis. I have the proven, tested leadership and record of achievement as mayor; experience with City operations and finances; solid relationships with elected officials; and know-how to direct a multi-billion-dollar budget and 10,000-employee workforce, while crafting solutions to these crises.

PINE: As the only Filipino candidate in the Mayor’s race, and as the First Filipino Mayor, I would work to get us out of this crisis, make Oahu affordable, clean, safe, efficient, ethical and resilient with a diversified economy that doesn’t rely on the outside world to feed employ us ever again.

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