Sunday, January 28, 2001
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Posted on: Sunday, January 28, 2001

Kim asked for little but must deliver a lot

By Bob Dye

Unlike those politicians who typically spend big money to advertise they’ll be frugal managers of government, Harry Kim of Hilo spent little money and made no promises in his campaign for mayor. Voters gave him a mandate. But to do what?

The Big Island’s new mayor chats amiably with staff as he leans against the lanai railing outside his office. It is 7:20 a.m., and he is conducting the people’s business in this informal way out of necessity. He left the office key at home.

Minutes later a woman arrives to unlock the door. "Oh, Harry," she sighs, and in the voice of a kindly schoolteacher, admonishes him for again forgetting the key. He shrugs boyishly, suggesting it will happen again.

Why did you run for mayor? I ask Kim.

"I felt I had an obligation," he replies. "So I applied for the job and got it."

Now what?

The Hawaii County treasury is bare. There is no money for capital improvements, and probably not enough incoming cash to cover operating expenses.

"It’s a challenge," he admits.

But I got the feeling he’ll find a way to make the best of what he has, just as he did in his do-it-yourself political campaign. His supporters made their own bumper stickers and yard signs. When a group called Truth In Politics opposed his candidacy with a slick $20,000 campaign, Harry’s supporters spent more sweat. The official Kim for Mayor campaign cost just under $17,000, roughly 68 cents a vote.

The low-cost campaign brought back pleasant memories of the good old days of home-grown politics on the Big Island, and voters responded. Hawaii County had a 60.8 percent turnout, second only to Kauai at 64.1 percent. Honolulu, with its mayor’s race already decided in the primary, was third with 56.9 percent. Maui trailed with 54.1 percent.

Looking back, the Kim campaign was brilliantly conceived. He did not take taxpayer money by applying for public funding, a state program to assist lowly funded but legitimate candidates "to level the playing field." That polished his image as a guy who stands on his own two feet.

Nor did he accept financial help from the Republican Party, under whose banner he ran. That restraint reinforced his image as a political independent.

Most impressively, he limited cash contributions to $10 max. That made him beholden to no one - and to everyone.

Typically, the guy who spends the most money wins - unless the opponent is a hero, according to pollster Don Clegg. "A heroic figure for 22 years, Kim had nearly total name recognition. So he didn’t need to spend a lot of money. He was in the right place at the right time."

So despite, or because of, the self-imposed financial handicap in the three-way race, Kim got 25,289 votes, which was more than his opponents’ combined total of 24,993. His appeal was islandwide. He ran well in the traditionally Democratic Hilo area and in Republican West Hawaii.

But can he sustain the hero image now that he’s mayor?

Supporters in the civil service assert that he can. County bureaucrats appear optimistic, too.

By limiting contributions to the cost of a soup-and-sandwich lunch, Mayor Kim owes no one. And that means all petitioners for county permits or k¯kua stand in the same queue to wait their turn. No one is ushered in through the back door. Harry talks to everybody.

A civil servant wonders if Harry can maintain the hours he’s putting into the job.

"I’ve always worked long hours," he says. "I like to work."

His appointees do, too. When he went in to work on the recent Martin Luther King holiday, he found his team already there. "I didn’t ask them to come in," he said. "They just did."

And why not? Harry’s department heads know that there are no big-buck contributors to pay back with special treatment, no insider projects to rubber-stamp. Decisions are based on merit. There is great efficiency in that.

Harry is no newcomer to the county government, having served every Big Island mayor since Mayor Shun Kimura hired him in 1971. Although best known as the civil defense chief, tsunami and volcanic eruptions, he once also headed social programs. That early interest in people programs remains.

Mayor Harry Kim, the tough guy with a big heart, won’t give Big Islanders a free lunch. He will give them a fair shake.

But can he put them back to work?

That’s the real challenge.

Bob Dye is a Kailua historian and writer.

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