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Big Man on the Big Island

Like Barack Obama, Billy Kenoi ’93 is a native Hawaiian who ran against an older, more experienced candidate for office last November. And, like Obama, Kenoi triumphed. “Seeing the newspaper with the headlines ‘Obama Wins; Kenoi Wins’, gave me goose bumps,” he says.

Kenoi, elected at 39, is the youngest-ever mayor of the ‘Big Island’ of Hawaii, which has 150,000 inhabitants spread over 4,000 square miles. He’s made a commitment to take the government to the people. He visits both sides of the island weekly and periodically brings his cabinet out to Hawaii’s rural towns. “Hawaii is a big place, but a close community,” he says. “I believe that by speaking honestly with people, we can get the job done. You have to keep things simple. Some people think politics is chess, but it’s checkers.”

The economic downturn hit Hawaii hard, and Kenoi’s proudest accomplishment in office so far has been balancing the island’s $386 million budget without furloughs, layoffs, or cuts to social services. One of his main goals as mayor is to expand the island’s public transportation. “We want to get cars off the roads,” he says. “We’re bringing in Hawaii’s first double-decker bus. Our free bus service was actually inspired by the UMass Amherst transit system.”

Kenoi calls coming to UMass Amherst in 1990 “one of the best decisions I ever made.” On campus he met his wife, Takako Culhane, a student volleyball player from Japan, and his mentor, political science professor John Brigham. Brigham recommended Kenoi for an internship with U.S. Senator Daniel K. Inouye, which put him on the path to law school, work as a trial attorney, and then politics.

“I keep Professor Brigham’s letter to this day,” Kenoi says. “When I have a challenge as mayor, I’ll reread it and tell myself, ‘I can do this.’”

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  • Alumni News