As general manager of three major television stations in Honolulu, Rick Blangiardi oversaw the market’s most-watched newscasts for nearly two decades. But over the past year, Blangiardi began making headlines of his own.
Blangiardi took office earlier this month as the new mayor of Hawaii’s capital — winning in a landslide after a blistering 11-month campaign that included more twists than a TV drama (including a pandemic that upended his platform). It also posed a unique challenge to his former news department, which had to figure out how to cover its former boss.
Media leaders like Bob Iger and Jeff Zucker have flirted with the idea of entering politics over the years, but few have followed through with it. Blangiardi, who spent $500,000 of his own money to fund a run for mayor, is the rare TV exec to have actually pulled it off.
“I didn’t want to stay at the dance too long in broadcast, but I’ve been blessed with some really good energy and I knew I wanted to do something that mattered,” says Blangiardi, who turned 74 in September. “It’s a really high-impact job. It’s an operator’s job. In some ways it’s akin to what I probably did in broadcast.”
Blangiardi was already a familiar face in town when he made the pivot to politics, having appeared regularly on camera to deliver editorials and commentary on the stations he ran. Decades earlier, he was an on-air analyst for University of Hawaii football (where he coached before getting into TV). He permanently returned to Honolulu in 2002 after stints on the mainland running stations in Seattle and San Francisco, as well as the River City Broadcasting and Telemundo station groups.
“In broadcast, you’re holding a license with the FCC, so in some ways, it’s almost a quasi-governmental position in that you operate the public trust,” he says of how he thinks TV prepared him for the mayorship. “And I think broadcast is a great crisis management job. No two days are ever the same.”
As GM, Blangiardi adds he was proud of the news team’s investigative stories that made a difference, but felt he could make even more of an impact by shifting to an elected role: “If you really want to get involved in some of the more systemic issues, you need to have that kind of formal authority and that’s one of the things that you get in the mayor’s office,” he says.
Blangiardi said he had been approached in the past to consider politics, but it was the combination of an ownership change at his stations (which were purchased by Gray Television in 2019), a hand-picked successor ready to take over and an open mayoral race that convinced him to take the leap.
Nevertheless, his decision last year to retire from a 40-year broadcast career — the last decade at the helm of CBS affiliate KGMB and NBC affiliate KHNL (collectively known as “Hawaii News Now”) — and run for mayor still surprised his colleagues. “I was a little bit shocked,” says Hawaii News Now news director Scott Humber. “I will tell you the entire 11-month election cycle was not easy. We knew there would be a target on our back right at the beginning that regardless of what we did people would criticize us; people would just say that we’re shilling for him.”
Blangiardi says he thought Hawaii News Now overcompensated by being extra tough, and Humber says that could be true: “We were just as hard on him as we were on all the other candidates, maybe even a little bit harder. Just because we knew that we needed to be and I also knew he certainly could take it.”
Blangiardi’s involvement forced Humber to rethink how the stations handled things like the mayoral debates, and ultimately he says Blangiardi’s rivals complained no matter what the news department did. And now that Blangiardi has been elected, Humber says he’s instructing his team not to take advantage of the fact that they have a personal relationship with the mayor.
“I said to the staff, ‘I know you all have Rick’s cell phone, but I don’t want you to use it. You’ve got to go through the proper channels. We can’t go down this path where you’re just going to call him up and try and get an answer from him. We’ve got to set guidelines as to how we handle this, even for myself.”
Says Blangiardi: “That team has made it clear to me that while they’re very proud of me and I’m also very involved with them — I hired every single one of them and I remember when some of them got married and they had their babies — what the role of the mayor is in this context and what it represents for people this place. I put a big line in the sand when I cross over that. And I understand that, I respect it.”
Among the issues brought up late in the race was Blangiardi’s political identification. Honolulu mayor is a non-partisan position, and Blangiardi describes himself as a social liberal and a fiscal conservative. Blangiardi’s competitor in the final runoff, Keith Amemiya, hammered him for supporting Donald Trump in 2016 (a negative in this Democratic-leaning state).
“I’m an independent person. I’m a guy who voted for Barack [Obama] twice and Bill Clinton twice, but I couldn’t vote for Hillary [Clinton],” he says. “I predetermined because that if I got asked that question [about voting for Trump] that I would not evade it. As a broadcaster all these many years, I’ve had to be an independent person. I voted on both sides. Am I conservative? Yeah. But I’m liberal on a lot of social issues, I wouldn’t label myself Republican.”
Blangiardi also distances himself from Trump in one specific way: Coming from the news media, he doesn’t demonize it.
“I don’t perceive them to be the enemy,” he says. “My point is kind of the antithesis of the national rhetoric about fake news and whatever. I have a high regard for the trustworthiness and the responsibility and the importance of local news and what it means, as a conduit to the people who live here. I know what they represent, so for me it really operates with a respect to who they are and not believing that they’re going to play gotcha as much as they’re going to hold me accountable.”
Both Blangiardi and Amemiya campaigned as political outsiders, but Humber credits Blangiardi’s success on his communication skills, honed over the years as both a football coach and a broadcaster.
“The one thing that Rick does is communicate,” Humber says. “He may over communicate too much sometimes. Given his football background, he treated this place like a football team. He was the head coach, and we all knew it.”
Blangiardi also credits his market research, another tool he brought over from his broadcast TV experience. “If you really understood the value of that research you kind of embraced it use it as a blueprint for action, trying to understand that the stories in the shift and the populations and the levels of interest,” he says. “So, when I decided to run in January we went out and did a big study.”
He said the research, weighted differently across all demographics on Oahu, looked at name recognition, key issues for voters and top attributes of what people wanted in the next mayor. Blangiardi said the report came back with “leadership,” “trustworthiness” and “decisiveness.” “I knew then that my table was set for an outsider to make a run of this,” he says. “I didn’t know how far I could take it, I’ve never done this before, but I felt good about doing it.”
Blangiardi originally got into the race focused on issues including homelessness, rapid transit, affordable housing and infrastructure. But now that COVID-19 has impacted the state’s economy, which relies heavily on tourism, the new mayor says his priority is economic recovery.
“Forget how much money I was making but I gave up a job I loved,” Blangiardi says. “I was under contract, I could have stayed. I had to take a year of my life off to get this job which is a big risk at the time when you count the years pretty carefully.
“If we do this well, the team I’m going to put together, myself, this could be the most gratifying work of my life,” he adds.