When Mitch Roth, the county prosecutor of eight years, takes the oath of office as mayor of Hawaii County on Monday, it will likely close the book on the public life of Mayor Harry Kim, a man who has dedicated his entire adult life to public service.
The 81-year-old Kim is arguably the most significant political figure in Hawaii Island history, having served two terms as mayor from 2000-2008 and another from 2016 until Monday.
“I’m very proud of the hard work my team has done the past four years,” Kim told the Tribune-Herald on Thursday. “I think Mitch will be very happy with what he’s inheriting and how everyone works together.”
Andy Levin, a former County Council member and state legislator who served as Kim’s managing director between 2000-2008, described Kim as “a unique public servant who will be sorely missed.”
“He never had a hidden agenda,” Levin said. “He never played politics — always doing what he thought was right for the community, not what was popular, or good PR, or what was best for himself or his image.”
Kim never held elected office before his first term as the county’s chief executive. But he became a public figure during his 24 years as Hawaii County Civil Defense administrator, his calm voice on the radio a reassuring presence to a panicked public during numerous lava emergencies.
Long workdays and rolling up his sleeves have always been Kim’s style, even after suffering six heart attacks.
Two of those occurred in 2018, the year of the most recent eruption of Kilauea volcano, when 700 homes and other structures were inundated, as were much of Puna’s roadways. Although the eruption started in Leilani Estates, a residential subdivision, and lava flowed to the sea for months, not a single life was taken by the eruption.
Kim returned to work quickly after sustaining heart attacks on April 26 and June 16, 2018. On July 31, 2018, he had a heart defibrillator installed at Hilo Medical Center — and refused anesthetic during the procedure, something one of the cardiologists told him no previous patient had done.
“I’ve never told anyone this before,” Kim said Thursday. “Three times, my wife was told I was going to die. Three separate times. One time, I wasn’t even 40 years old, I think.”
What kept him going?
“Powers greater than you and me,” Kim replied.
Despite health challenges, many men half Kim’s age would have a hard time keeping up with his exercise regimen.
“I do one hour of exercise between 3 and 4 in the morning, every day, seven days a week,” Kim said.
In contrast with previous lava episodes, Kim and Civil Defense found themselves the target of public criticism, with some saying they could get more timely lava information on social media sites such as Hawaii Tracker and from community organizer Ikaika Marzo, who did Facebook live lava updates and ran a distribution center for emergency supplies in Pahoa called Pu‘uhonua O Puna, or “The Hub.”
Marzo ran for mayor, finishing second in the August primary before losing to Roth in the November general election. Kim finished third in the primary, ending his re-election bid.
“The grumblings came, and you accept it, but the criticisms are so unwarranted,” Kim said. “I think the way the governments — federal, state and county — responded to the eruption is a template for the world. That’s not an exaggeration. … Promotion of the spectacular and showing people lava was not our job. Our job was the protection of the people.”
Kim said he hasn’t taken a day off since Feb. 28, when he declared a countywide emergency because of the coronavirus pandemic, a move he made five days before Gov. David Ige declared a statewide emergency.
Using federal coronavirus relief funds and enlisting the help of billionaire tech magnate Marc Benioff, a part-time Big Island resident, Kim started a vigorous public COVID-19 testing program and also insisted upon the testing of arriving trans-Pacific passengers, once Ige started a pre-travel testing program to restart tourism in the state.
“I wish I had a little more time, because what we established here is the best testing system anywhere in the United States, and certainly in the state of Hawaii,” he said.
One tragic note during the pandemic was a COVID-19 outbreak at Yukio Okutsu State Veterans Home in Hilo, which claimed the lives of 27 residents.
“I will always regret that I did not get more aggressive in regards to the veterans home. I lost a lot of friends there,” Kim said. “… I had to call two press conferences before any changes were made.”
Ige also tasked Kim to deal with an occupation of Maunakea Access Road by protesters of the Thirty Meter Telescope project, which stymied the planned start of construction of the $2 billion next-generation telescope in March 2019.
Because of the pandemic and other circumstances, most of those who blocked the road, and who refer to themselves as kia‘i, or protectors of the mountain, are no longer up there, and construction still hasn’t begun.
“The Maunakea issue was a state issue and still is …,’” Kim said. “I thought Maunakea can be such a beautiful symbol of the wrongs past and the way forward, as well as a beautiful tribute to the Hawaiians of the past, present and future for the world to learn from, and for science — which I think is very, very important for the people of Hawaii and the world.”
Kim said he’s not sure what he’ll do now.
He and wife, Bobbie, had a second home in Kapoho that was his getaway to nature, but the residence was inundated in the 2018 eruption. He said it was the one thing he wanted to pass on to his sons, Garrett, a Hawaii County Fire Department battalion chief, and Mark, a public schoolteacher in Oregon, and their children.
“Maybe I’ll spend some time hoping and praying I’ll find another place,” he said. “But the reality is, I never will.
“I mean, that was bought in 1971, when it was just a plain and simple lot that nobody wanted. And I bought it because it was affordable. But today, after all of these years, nothing like that is even remotely affordable.
“But I’ll dream about it, anyway.”
Email John Burnett at firstname.lastname@example.org.