Could Kenoi Win A State Office?

Dan Boylan
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Wednesday - June 29, 2011

I’m not good at predicting winners and losers. But at least once I did. During the early ‘90s, I was telling whomever would listen that Maui Mayor Linda Lingle was the Republican Party’s best hope to win the governorship.

Such proved to be the case. In 1998, she came within a handful of votes of robbing Ben Cayetano of a second term. Four years later, she defeated Lt. Gov. Mazie Hirono to became Hawaii’s first Republican governor in 40 years.

I think it’s time for Oahu residents to look offshore again, namely to Hawaii County and Mayor Billy Kenoi. At this point, twoand-a-half years into office, Kenoi looks to be the most promising face in Democratic politics. Indeed, in a political cycle that features battered Democrats such as Ed Case, Hirono, Mufi Hannemann and maybe Colleen Hanabusa vying for the state’s political golden rings, Kenoi offers a fresh face. Add that he’s smart, possesses a wicked sense of humor and exudes charisma, and Kenoi may be the Democrats’ future.

As mayor, the future is much on Kenoi’s mind.

“Politicians think in term of two and four years when they are up for re-election,” he says, “but the good decisions are made on the basis of 10 and 20 years. We have to do what must be done today, but prepare for tomorrow.”

On the what “must be done” side, Kenoi’s three budgets have cut 222 positions from the county payrolls.

“Those were tough decisions,” he says, “but we’ve never cut a senior program or a youth program. That’s just values.”

Kenoi did, however, threaten to cut the popular Hawaii County Band. During the controversy, Kenoi took part in a parade.

A heckler yelled from the sidewalk, “Hey, Mayor. Save the band.”

Kenoi yelled back: “When you dial 911, who do you want to come through the door? The policeman, the fireman, the emergency medical technician or the trumpet player?” With pressure from the County Council, the band got a reprieve.

Like every elected official in this economy, Kenoi’s taken his share of criticism from the Council, the press and constituents. “In this job, you have to be able to take bullets,” says Kenoi. “But I tell my people never to point fingers, never make excuses and never blame. It’s never about ‘no can.” It’s about ‘can’ and ‘how can?’”

Kenoi has struggled with the size of the very Big Island over which he governs. He’s sought to conquer the divide between East and West Hawaii by spending every Tuesday in Kona. He’s held 40 cabinet meetings around the county, taking the police chief, the fire chief, the planning director and more to communities who’d never seen them before.

Kenoi’s greatest policy concern is Hawaii County’s continued economic dependence on construction and the hospitality industry.

“It’s boom and bust,” he says. “We have to look at our assets and build on them. Hawaii Island is the astronomy leader of the world. The University of Hawaii-Hilo just opened the state’s first pharmacy school, and it already has 360 students. When they graduate, they’re looking at jobs that pay $106,000 per year. We have excess geothermal energy, ocean thermal energy, wind, solar.”

Kenoi talks enthusiastically about Hawaii Island’s long-term prospects, but he brushes off questions about his own political future beyond the mayoralty. He talks instead about the bright prospects of Kaua’i Mayor Bernard Carvalho.

“He has emotional intelligence that’s off the charts,” says Kenoi.

I’ll take a look at Mayor Carvalho- and his emotional intelligence - in a future column.

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