State Sen. Gilbert “Gil” Kahele, a soft-spoken but relentless advocate for Hawaii island and a longtime community organizer who campaigned for a long list of prominent Hawaii Democrats over the years, died Tuesday morning. He was 73.
Senate President Ron Kouchi interrupted a hearing at the state Legislature on campaign spending bills Tuesday morning to inform fellow senators of his death.
Senators paused for a moment of silence in his honor, and at midday joined with members of Kahele’s family, Gov. David Ige and Lt. Gov. Shan Tsutsui at Kahele’s desk on the floor of the Senate chamber to remember him.
An emotional former Gov. Neil Abercrombie described Kahele on Tuesday as “honorable, forthright, loyal. When he was your friend, he was your friend forever.”
“He had a big smile and big heart. A big man, all the way,” said Abercrombie. “He loved the islands — a great Hawaiian and a great man.”
Kahele, who served as chairman of the Senate Committee on Tourism and International Affairs, had been hospitalized last week after suffering a heart attack and missed the opening day of the Legislature. He died Tuesday at the Queen’s Medical Center surrounded by family, according to a statement from Kouchi’s office.
Ige described Kahele as a “dedicated public servant who spent the last few years working for the good of his beloved community at the Hawaii state Legislature. He was a respected and influential leader both in the Legislature and in his hometown community of Hilo. My deepest condolences to his ohana, friends and supporters during this difficult time.”
State Supreme Court Chief Justice Mark Recktenwald also offered condolences to Kahele’s family, and described the senator as “a warm and caring person, and an outstanding legislator.”
“We thank Sen. Kahele for his distinguished service to the people of Hawaii,” Recktenwald said.
Kahele was born in a grass shack on May 15, 1942, at Kalihi, near the Hawaiian fishing village of Milolii in South Kona, in a place and time when Hawaiian was still the predominant language. Kahele’s family moved to Hilo when he was 5 years old, but he maintained close ties to the Milolii and Kau communities throughout his life.
When Kahele was still a boy, his father died, and the family moved to the Lanakila Homes public-housing complex in Hilo. Kahele was an outstanding athlete and graduated from Hilo High School before serving for four years in the Marine Corps.
He went on to graduate from Laney College in Oakland, Calif., before working for the state Department of Defense for 33 years, and eventually became director of public works at the Pohakuloa Training Area.
Kahele married Linda Haggberg in 1971 and had three children — Gilbert “Gibby,” Kai and Noelani. In 1987 Kahele’s younger sister, Mona, and her husband died in a car accident, and Kahele and his wife adopted their three children, Ihilani, Ilima and Imaika.
Kahale was a committed Democratic Party activist who recruited young people into the party and “always tried to do things to keep us together as a party and keep us on track,” said state Sen. Michelle Kidani (D, Mili- lani-Waikele-Kunia).
He was also a respected campaign strategist who worked to help elect many Democrats, including former Hawaii island Mayor Dante Carpenter and Gov. Abercrombie. He headed Abercrombie’s 2010 campaign for governor in East Hawaii.
After Abercrombie was elected governor in 2010, Sen. Russell Kokubun resigned his seat to take a position in Abercrombie’s Cabinet, and Abercrombie picked Kahele to replace Kokubun to represent Hilo, Puna and Kau. Kahele took office in 2011 and won election to Hawaii island’s District 2 seat representing Hilo in 2012.
“One of the great genuine pleasures of my political life was being able to appoint Gilbert to the Hawaii state Senate,” Abercrombie said. “I knew with him in the state Senate, there would be someone there whose heart and soul was Hawaii. Someone will replace Gilbert in the Senate, but nobody’s ever going to take his place in my heart or anybody else’s.”
Kidani said she got to know Kahale well when they served together in the Senate, and Kahele would lobby her with aloha for construction money for Hawaii island projects.
He helped arrange for the necessary funding to build the Daniel K. Inouye College of Pharmacy at the University of Hawaii at Hilo and was a strong supporter of a plan to create a school of aviation at Hilo Airport and the University of Hawaii at Hilo.
“Sen. Kahele was the epitome of aloha, so you could not help but feel the passion that he had for wanting to help his community and wanting to do good things for all of Hawaii, but in particular his home community, the Big Island,” Kidani said. “He just was a wonderful, wonderful man, and he will be terribly missed.”
Kouchi said in a written statement that “the Hilo community and the state of Hawaii today has lost a great Senator, a gentleman, and passionate advocate who cared deeply about public service and the people he represented. I am honored to have served with him and I know his fellow colleagues in the Senate feel the same.”
Democratic precinct and district officials in Kahele’s Hilo Senate district now have the task of compiling a list of three possible replacements for Kahele. Those names will be submitted to Ige, who will name a replacement.
“He just had so much aloha for everybody, so it will be very, very big shoes to fill,” Kidani said. “I think most of us feel that we have lost a very good friend and ally.”
Kahele’s son Kai said his father signed three final bills Monday night so they would be introduced over his name this session. The bills were introduced Tuesday, including one that would create a future college of aviation in East Hawaii.
Another bill Kahale signed would advance plans to have the state purchase a small beach area at Kapua Bay south of Milolii that is rich in petroglyphs and other archaeological features. Kahele’s family comes from the area, and his plan was to incorporate the beach property into the South Kona wilderness area he helped create in his first year in office.
“The last request or wish from him was the Kapua bill,” Kai Kahele said. “Kapua, the bill is not for my dad. It’s for future generations of Hawaiians, and keiki, and people who will go there and see it in the natural historic state that it’s in today. It wasn’t for him. It’s for the people of Hawaii.”
Services have not yet been set.