Saying he needs to focus on recovery instead of re-election, U.S. Rep. Mark Takai announced Thursday he will not seek a second term in Congress. Takai was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer seven months ago, and his decision to step down touched off much speculation about who will run to succeed him.
Takai, 48, issued a statement explaining he recently learned his cancer had spread, but said he plans to serve out his current term. “There is still much work that I am determined to see through for Hawaii and our nation over the next few months,” he said.
“In life, we often make plans for ourselves,” Takai said in his statement. “I had envisioned a long career in the U.S. House of Representatives, building up the seniority and influence that were key to Sen. (Daniel) Inouye’s ability to deliver for Hawaii. But as often happens, we find ourselves on a different journey than what we had planned.”
Takai announced Feb. 17 he would run for re-election, and he said in his statement Thursday he had hoped to campaign and “aggressively fight this cancer” at the same time.
That changed in the months that followed. In his statement Thursday, Takai said that “putting Hawaii and its people first means that I must regretfully withdraw from my 2016 re-election race for Congress and suspend my campaign. Right now, for the sake of my family, I need to focus on getting better rather than getting re-elected.”
Takai and his wife, Sami, have two children, Matthew, 14, and Kaila, 12.
Takai was elected to his first term in Congress in 2014 to represent urban Oahu. He announced in October he had been diagnosed with a small tumor on his pancreas, and had surgery Nov. 10. He was back in the U.S. House to cast a vote by early December, and said in February he was undergoing outpatient treatment at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore.
Takai served in the state Legislature for two decades before winning election last year to the U.S. House seat that was vacated by former U.S. Rep. Colleen Hanabusa. Takai is an Iraq War veteran and a lieutenant colonel in the Hawaii Army National Guard.
U.S. House Democratic Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi praised Takai in a statement released Thursday, saying, “Mark’s courageous decision to keep fighting for Hawaii’s hard-working families throughout the remainder of his term, even as he fights cancer, exemplifies his bravery. He inspires us to strive with even greater urgency toward a moonshot to cure cancer. We are grateful for his service to our country.”
Pelosi added in her statement, “Friends on both sides of the aisle are offering prayers and hopes for Mark’s recovery.”
Hawaii U.S. Sen. Mazie Hirono said she affectionately called Takai “my younger brother” for many years, and said she will miss him. U.S. Sen. Brian Schatz said it was his “honor and true pleasure” to work with Takai.
“He is a great teammate and has served the people of Hawaii with integrity and aloha,” Schatz said in a statement. “I know this was a difficult decision, and my thoughts and prayers are with him and his family.”
U.S. Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (D-Rural Oahu, Neighbor Islands) said she and Takai served together in the state House of Representatives, the Congress and the Hawaii Army National Guard, and described him as “a dear friend.”
“Now we can show our thanks to him and his family for their service by supporting them and their decision in every way possible,” she said in a written statement. “I look forward to continuing to work with Mark in Congress for the remainder of his term, ensuring that our constituents in Hawaii are served and heard.”
Gov. David Ige praised Takai’s military service and his efforts on behalf of the communities he represents. “He has been a valued colleague and generous friend to me, and I wish him well as he focuses on his health and family,” Ige said in a prepared statement.
It is unusual for any of Hawaii’s four congressional seats to become available with no incumbent, and the timing of Takai’s announcement less than three weeks before the regular candidate filing deadline works to the advantage of his fellow Democrats.
If Takai had won re-election this year and was later forced to resign from office because of illness, a crowded special-election ballot would likely result in a more competitive race for a strong Republican candidate.
Absentee voting in the primary election begins in about eight weeks, which leaves little time for candidates to raise money and mobilize for a large-scale congressional campaign.
State Sen. Will Espero, who ran for the District 1 Urban Honolulu congressional seat in 2014, said that “obviously, somebody with a degree of name recognition is going to step up, so we’ll see what happens in the next week.”
Espero (D, Ewa Beach-Iroquois Point) has already filed to run for re-election for his state Senate seat, but he could withdraw from the race if he chooses to join in the U.S. House race instead.
“I’ll be noncommittal at this time, but I’m going to see what’s going to shake out in the next week,” Espero said.
Other candidates who ran unsuccessfully for the seat in 2014 were state Sen. Donna Mercado Kim (D, Kalihi Valley-Halawa-Moanalua), Honolulu City Councilman Ikaika Anderson, Honolulu City Councilman Joey Manahan and former Honolulu City Councilman Stanley Chang. Also running in 2014 was former Republican U.S. Rep. Charles Djou.
Kim, Djou and Manahan were unavailable for comment. Chang has already filed to run for the East Honolulu state Senate seat held by Republican Sam Slom, and Chang declined to say Thursday whether his plans will change because of Takai’s announcement.
Chang would say only that “we’re just focused on working hard for the people of East Honolulu, and at this time my thoughts are with Rep. Takai and his family, and all the best for his speedy recovery, and for him to continue to get better.”
Anderson also declined to discuss his plans, saying he and his wife were praying for Takai and his family Thursday and that it was “not the day to discuss the 1st congressional seat.”