Recuperating Kim backs out of spotlight

  • Mayor Harry Kim in his Hilo office Friday. (Nancy Cook Lauer/West Hawaii Today)

HILO — Three weeks after Mayor Harry Kim suffered his fifth heart attack, he’s moved behind the scenes but remains unapologetic about a comment he made during his last public appearance Monday.

Kim, 78, was slammed by two Honolulu columnists this week for, at a Pahoa community meeting Monday evening, introducing Willie Nunn, the Hawaii point-man for the Federal Emergency Management Agency, as “that colored guy in back there.”


Honolulu Star-Advertiser columnist Lee Cataluna likened Kim to a “racist grandpa.”

“Communication hit a low at that point,” Cataluna said.

Civil Beat’s Chad Blair said Kim “managed to overshadow Kilauea this week,” adding having a top public official call a black man a “colored guy” in 2018 “is not so funny. It’s unfortunate.”

Nunn, contacted Friday, said he didn’t take offense.

“In the context of it, no ma’am, I did not,” Nunn said. “I knew the context of the history.”

The context, Nunn said, was that he had just arrived in Hilo on Sunday, and met with Kim on Monday. Kim, Nunn said, described his upbringing in a multicultural society.

“I was introduced to Mayor Kim and he has been a partner since day 1. It became a mutual respect,” Nunn said. “We’re both here for the right reasons.”

In an interview in his office Friday, Kim stood by his comment and said being open about race is the multicultural local style he grew up with. As schoolchildren, it was typical to cast aspersions on the contents of other kids’ lunchboxes, while sharing each culture’s offerings around the table, he said.

Kim recalled how, during the 2008 Democratic primary rally at Mooheau bandstand, he received rousing applause for his quip that the nation would soon be asking then-presidential candidate Barrack Obama, “what the hell a hapa-haole is.”

“If I offended anyone, and apparently I did, then I was wrong,” Kim said. “I really feel I never have to defend who I am. I know why I do things and why I say things.”

If he had a do-over, would he have said it differently?

“I would have done nothing different,” Kim said.

Kim said his recent departure from the spotlight during media briefings on the status of the Kilauea volcanic activity is unrelated to what some see as a public gaffe earlier this week. Nor is it about his health, he said.

After a 26-year career at the Civil Defense Agency, Kim as mayor has been very hands-on at that agency, staff says. Kim is in his element during natural disasters, but he’s finally ready to back off a bit.

“They have a press conference, I stay out of the way. I want to transition this,” Kim said. “I’m so proud of how they work, even after I tell them they’ve got to get better.”

Managing Director Wil Okabe, who becomes acting mayor when Kim takes a rare sick day, said Civil Defense has a strong team that continues to stay on top of the current crisis.

“When you have a team, it’s not based on one individual,” Okabe said. “Harry is a very special individual. He is driven by his passion to ensure the county is running smoothly. … He’s like a parent that wants to pass on that expertise and knowledge with the people that are working in Civil Defense.”

Okabe said Kim seems to have a “sixth sense” about the volcano.

For example, Kim, who has kept erratic hours since his heart attack, was at the Emergency Operations Center at 3:30 a.m. Thursday, on the job at 4:17 a.m. when an explosive eruption at the Kilauea summit sent a plume almost 5 miles into the air and threw ash downwind.

He said he snapped wide-awake at 2 a.m. feeling an urge to get to work. It’s by no means the first time he’s had premonitions about natural disasters, he said, so off to work he went.

“I know it’s a gift,” Kim said.

Kim appeared rested and energetic Friday, but he said last week wasn’t as easy. The physicians at The Queen’s Medical Center had put him on a heavy regime of medications, he said. They were making him tired and lackluster, so on Monday, he abruptly quit taking half of them.

He batted away any speculation that the sudden drop in medications could have contributed to his off-the-cuff comment Monday. That’s just how he’s always been, he said.


Kim remains under a doctor’s care in Hilo, and he’s still undergoing tests to evaluate damage to his heart and the proper dosage of medication.

“I don’t necessarily want to live until I’m 100,” Kim said. “I just want to live as long as I’m alive.”