Mayor Billy Kenoi celebrates with supporters at his campaign headquarters in Keaukaha after narrowly winning the mayoral race Tuesday night.
Harry Kim holds his granddaughter, Kira Kim, at his election gathering Tuesday night.
By TOM CALLIS
Tribune-Herald staff writer
Billy Kenoi narrowly won another four years as mayor Tuesday in a nailbiter election against his challenger and former boss, Harry Kim.
Kenoi received 31,433 votes, or 51 percent.
Kim, who was mayor from 2000-2008, received 29,976 votes, or nearly 49 percent.
At Kenoi’s Hilo campaign headquarters, the mood was electric yet combined with a sense of relief.
“We are seeing this as an opportunity to continue to work hard … an opportunity to make our island the most beautiful place in the world,” he said to celebrating supporters.
Kenoi, 43, told the Tribune-Herald that the close race showed that voters had “two great choices” and acknowledged he was a bit anxious at the early results.
“It’s a humbling privilege,” he said.
“A lot of aloha goes out to former mayor Harry Kim.”
Kim, who once employed Kenoi as an executive assistant, giving the energetic and ambitious lawyer an entry into politics, said he “hurt” both for the loss and for his supporters.
Using a sport analogy, the former high school football coach said, “When you lose a game … your team hurts for the loss, but you also hurt for the players.”
Kenoi, who was once coached by Kim, borrowed some of his wisdom.
“As Coach Kim said, ‘The harder you work, the better you do,’” he said.
Kim, 73, said he was unsure if he would give politics another try.
He also said he doesn’t see the race affecting their relationship.
“We differed politically … but as far as a personal basis, I don’t think that really changed,” Kim said.
The humble and easy-going Kim joined the race over general dissatisfaction with government, arguing he could make it more responsive to people’s needs. He also attempted to harness frustration with the state Legislature, pledging to seek the repeal of Act 97, which removes some barriers for geothermal development.
Kenoi ran his re-election bid on a general theme of progress in the face of an extended economic downturn.
Fueled by plenty of enthusiasm and a war chest flush with cash, momentum appeared on his side.
As of Oct. 22, Kenoi’s campaign had spent $597,795 with the help of labor groups and individuals on and off the island.
Almost all of that was spent before the Aug. 11 primary, in which he faced five opponents, including two viable challengers, Kim and County Council Chairman Dominic Yagong.
Kim, despite joining the race in June, easily wrestled a second place finish in the primary from Yagong, Kenoi’s most outspoken critic, who launched his bid in January.
Yagong later endorsed Kim, who also received the backing of the Sierra Club.
Kenoi’s endorsements included several unions, Sen. Daniel Inouye and the Japanese Chamber of Commerce and Industry of Hawaii.
As he did in his last two mayoral bids, Kim limited cash donations to $10, and had spent $20,754 by Oct. 22.
Kenoi had $19,880 left just a few weeks before the election — almost as much as Kim had to budget the entire election.
Kim had avoided providing much commentary on the role of money in the election, saying it just isn’t his style to seek large contributions.
He said Tuesday night that he believes he took the right approach.
“I wouldn’t change anything in regard to that,” Kim said.
“I’m sure it was a factor,” he added, about the impact on money on the election. “I just don’t know how much.”
Kenoi has said it shows his support, which he called humbling.
The funding gap was clear across the island, where Kenoi’s signs far outnumbered the largely homemade ones deployed by Kim supporters, and in advertisements in broadcast and print media, which Kenoi dominated.
For Kim, name recognition and a favorable, clean image appeared to be the basis for his strategy, much as it was when he first ran for mayor after a 24-year year career as county Civil Defense administrator.
Kim, who had started the community development plan process, had accused Kenoi’s administration of not taking them seriously.
The two have also differed on deferall of $34 million in advanced payments for future retiree benefits, known as GASB, and unpaid furlough days.
Kenoi has used both to help balance the budget.
Kim said he would give the GASB payments a higher priority and would end furlough days.
Kenoi has claimed he has protected services while collecting fewer taxes and has touted an improving tourism sector.
The $365 million budget approved this year is about 9 percent lower than when he took office in 2008.
Property tax revenue has dropped by 15 percent in the last four years.
Email Tom Callis at email@example.com.