Mayor, Count of Hawaii
“Harry, please,” grunts Harry Kim, an immediate response to anyone who calls him “Mayor.” It’s characteristic of the Big Islander, who easily won his first-ever bid for public office in 2000, with his down-home charm.
“Harry’s just a plain-folk guy – he wears jeans and construction boots to work,” says Barry Taniguchi, president and chief executive officer of Puna Plantation Hawaii Ltd. “He’s just really down to earth.”
Kim endeared himself to Big Island residents long before his mayoral campaign. For 24 years prior, he served as the county’s civil defense director. Many residents consider him a local hero, who guided local families to safety when Kilauea lava flows destroyed dozens of Kalapana homes in 1990.
During the 2000 campaign season, Kim disarmed voters when he refused contributions over $10. Political pundits had to wonder: Was this guy for real?
“What you see is what you get,” asserts Chris Yuen, planning director for Hawaii County. “He’s not presenting one face in public and another in private. Harry is extremely honest, and that gives him a lot of credibility.”
But there’s more to Kim than his homespun demeanor, Yuen says. “People call him a modern-day populist, but he’s also very astute. He knows the political system very well.”
Although Kim is a Republican, he is considered an independent, largely indifferent to local politics and party lines. During his term, Kim worked with the state Legislature, the governor and U.S. Sen. Daniel Inouye to build Hawaii’s first veterans’ home in Hilo. Governor Linda Lingle approved $10 million for the facility, and Inouye promised about $18 million in matching federal funds.
“For the most part, his effort to get things done has been admirable – even when people don’t always agree with everything he does,” Taniguchi says. “When the budget came up, he wasn’t afraid to raise property taxes to make ends meet. Harry has an idea of how things should be, but he’s realistic about the limitations.”
Kim became mayor at a critical time for the Big Island. The county continues to face a number of complicated issues, including overdevelopment, an aging infrastructure, a stagnant post-sugar economy and crystal methamphetamine use.
“The mayor and all the cabinet people did a two-year assessment of how far we’ve come, and we were impressed,” Yuen says. “We know there are a lot of problems we’ve barely scratched, but you always want to get more done than you’re able to.”
As of this writing, Kim hadn’t decided whether he would run for a second mayoral term. He’s sure about one thing, though: If he does wage another campaign, he won’t try to raise any money for his run.
“After four years of work, if I have to convince people I’m doing a good job or that they want me back, I shouldn’t be mayor,” he says. “A lot of people ask me about political ambitions. I only have one: When I leave here, I want to add one more stone in making Hawaii County a nice place to live.”