HILO — If there’s a lesson learned from Tuesday’s mayoral election, it may be that money goes a long way in politics, but it’s not everything.
Or at least, don’t count out Harry Kim.
Mayor Billy Kenoi barely won re-election, inching past Kim with 51 percent of the vote, despite outspending his opponent by a large margin, 28-1.
The well-funded incumbent raised a staggering $611,611 and earned 31,797 votes.
Kim, still well-respected after two terms as mayor and a 24-year career as Civil Defense administrator, received 30,360 votes while raising $18,666 and starting his campaign in June.
That funding divide becomes highlighted in a cost-per-vote breakdown that easily favored the challenger.
Kenoi spent $597,795 as of Oct. 22, the most recent data available, costing him $18.80 per vote.
For Kim, a little went a long way.
His grass-roots campaign spent $20,754 with a cost-per-vote ratio of 68 cents. He had a deficit of $4,099.
While close, the election shouldn’t suggest that money is overrated in elections, said Todd Belt, political science chairman at the University of Hawaii at Hilo.
“It’s a very … rare person who can pull off the Harry Kim model of campaigning,” he said. “And it’s only because he had been in Civil Defense so long. He was very well-known.
“His voice was well-known and he was very well trusted.”
Kim, as in his two successful mayoral bids, limited cash donations to $10.
Much of his advertising involved his characteristic ads in newspaper classifieds, referring to him as “applicant for mayor,” and a limited number of campaign signs, many made by volunteers.
Kenoi’s campaign, on the other hand, saturated broadcast and print media with advertisements.
“None of us have millions of dollars or thousands of dollars so we did what we could,” said Jan Anderson, a Kim supporter.
That included hunting for sign making material at the Keaau transfer station.
“We had to be very creative,” she said. “That’s how it went.”
Belt said Kenoi ran a “textbook perfect campaign” and made good use of endorsements, both from labor and business groups, as well as from Sen. Daniel Inouye.
“He publicized those very well,” he said. “I think that’s where the money gave him an edge.”
Belt said the two candidates didn’t differ too significantly on most issues, leaving name recognition to play a large role in the election.
Kimo Alameda, Kenoi’s campaign chair, said it’s difficult to determine the impact of the funding.
He said the campaign didn’t rely solely on donations or advertising.
“We phone banked, we canvassed, we waved signs, we did coffee hours, and he did a great job at debates,” Alameda said. “We did way more than just advertising.”
Kenoi’s biggest financial backer appeared to be unions, which donated directly to his campaign and spent some of their own money on his behalf. Rank-and-file members also came out in large numbers to support the mayor.
Alameda said the support doesn’t equal influence.
“Billy is always a man of integrity,” he said. “They know that he can’t be bought. … They contribute to the campaign because they believe in the vision” he has for the county.