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David Shapiro: Kai Kahele traveling a gilded political fast lane to Washington

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  • CRAIG T. KOJIMA / 2016
                                Staet Sen. Kai Kahele

    CRAIG T. KOJIMA / 2016

    Staet Sen. Kai Kahele

Kai Kahele leads a charmed political life.

He inherited his Big Island state Senate seat in 2016 when Gov. David Ige appointed him to succeed his father, the late Sen. Gilbert Kahele. He won easy election in his own right a few months later and reelection in 2018 without opposition from either major party.

Now he seems poised to easily win the U.S. House seat in the 2nd Congressional District being vacated by Rep. Tulsi Gabbard after her run for president.

Kahele has 17 opponents — an assortment of little- known Democrats and Republicans, nonpartisans and minor-party candidates — but none have the campaign funds to improve their name recognition or spread their message.

Established politicians who usually flock to an open congressional seat stayed away, apparently scared off by Kahele’s $830,794 campaign fund and early endorsements from prominent Democrats and labor unions.

Only one of his opponents has reported any fundraising — a paltry $851.

Kahele is so confident of victory that he’s effectively sitting out the campaign by volunteering for a COVID- relief assignment as a lieutenant colonel in the Hawaii Air National Guard, which prohibits him from participating in his campaign while on active duty.

It raises concerns not because Kahele has done anything wrong, but because it points up how Hawaii’s dearth of real political competition results in an electorate of nonvoting cynics.

Kahele is a University of Hawaii graduate and men’s volleyball player from the team’s glory years. He went on to become a pilot who recorded 108 Air Force combat missions in Iraq and Afghanistan and flew commercially for Hawaiian Airlines.

At 46, he’s been a leading voice of a younger generation in the Legislature on land use issues, Native Hawaiian rights and higher education. He’s taken special interest in climate change and supports the proposed Green New Deal.

Kahele’s boldness in announcing for the congressional seat while Gabbard was still running for reelection put him in the commanding position he now enjoys after she decided not to run.

But whatever his political pedigree, nobody should be able to waltz into so high an office without a stern test at the ballot box.

For the past half-dozen open congressional seats, we’ve had from three to 10 well-known and experienced candidates in spirited competition for an office that’s been a springboard to the U.S. Senate or governor for Daniel Inouye, Spark Matsunaga, Daniel Akaka, Mazie Hirono and Neil Abercrombie.

After their first election, Hawaii congressional delegates are seldom challenged for reelection, so well-contested races for open seats are usually the only real chance voters get to size up those who will serve us in Washington.

When high office comes this easy, elected officials start to think it was those with the money and endorsements who put them there, not the voters.

Reach David Shapiro at

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