Kai Kahele, a Native Hawaiian who grew up in the fishing village of Milolii and serves as a lieutenant colonel in the Hawaii Air National Guard, will bring a duality of views to the U.S. House of Representatives as Hawaii’s newest member of Congress.
The 46-year-old state senator and Democrat from Hilo topped Republican Joe Akana for the 2nd Congressional District seat held by Tulsi Gabbard with 64% of the vote as of late Tuesday night.
The total included all ballots counted as of Monday and votes from all service centers except Kapolei Hale.
“I was raised in Milolii, the last fishing village in Hawaii — you cannot get any more grounded as a Native Hawaiian culturally, spiritually, in my opinion, than that,” Kahele said in an interview.
Kahele lives on Hawaii island, “where many of the very important Native Hawaiian issues exist, like the Thirty Meter Telescope,” he said.
But he also notes he is a “proud American” whose father, the late state Sen. Gil Kahele, was in the Marines.
“We are as strong Native Hawaiians as we are strong Americans,” Kai Kahele said.
Kahele will join another Hilo boy — Ed Case — in serving Hawaii in Congress.
Case, 68, was in competition with Republican Ron Curtis for the 1st District seat Case has held since 2018 and includes Honolulu to Makapuu to Mililani and Ko Olina.
Case had 72% of the vote as of late Tuesday.
Also a Democrat, Case was born and raised in Hilo and went through the public schools there.
“If we’re both elected, Hawaii’s two members of Congress are going to be from Hilo. It makes me proud,” Case said.
The fiscal conservative also represented Hawaii in the U.S. House from November 2002 to January 2007.
“Our next Congress (2021-2023) will be among the most critical in our history” including the need to address ongoing COVID-19 devastation and “deep continuing political division,” Case said.
Regardless of who wins the presidency, COVID-19 “is going to be with us for a long time,” the Kaneohe resident said. The pandemic “has to continue to dominate our focus.”
Division in the nation “is going to be completely with us still. It’s going to take a while to heal,” Case said. The very unfortunate reality of the presidential election is “there are going to be a lot of people that look upon it as winners and losers, and that is not how you unite a country.”
Case said he attempts to “reach across the aisle for broad inclusion” to incorporate the best ideas — regardless of origin.
As for other critical issues, Case said “our foreign relations, our relationships with other countries in the world have been sorely tested” while China’s path to military expansion has increased.
Unresolved issues have to include “repairing our relationships with the rest of the world,” he said.
Case said he’s had a “good, solid relationship” with Gabbard, who is leaving the seat Kahele is assuming after her failed presidential bid.
“I’ve appreciated that partnership, but of course she was focused for much of the time that I was back in Congress on her presidential election,” Case said. “So, in particular, I’m going to be very, very grateful to have a full-time partner in the U.S. House. That is very important.”
Hawaii only has a small delegation — two members in the U.S. Senate and two in the House, and it’s “hard to go down effectively to one member,” he said.
He has been meeting with Kahele to bring him up to speed as fast as possible. “I’m looking forward to it, and I’m frankly looking for great things from him,” Case said.
Kahele is an Airbus A330 pilot with Hawaiian Airlines who flies international and domestic routes. He said he’ll be on a long-term leave of absence. He plans to move his family to the Washington D.C. area.
Kahele used to fly C-17 cargo carriers for the Hawaii Air Guard, but he said he no longer does after he switched several years ago to a senior-level position in the air operations center.
He has 20 years of commissioned service in the Air Guard and has at least another eight before he would have to look at a mandatory separation date, he said.
Kahele, who is married and has three daughters 16, 6 and 4, said he had landed his “dream job” with Hawaiian and “was doing exactly what I wanted to do.”
“I moved back to Hilo and was raising my young family here in Hilo. I was living on the same property where my mom and dad lived,” he said.
Then his father died of a heart attack in 2016. Kai Kahele was appointed to his state Senate seat.
“I found myself growing dramatically in the role that I was in,” he said. “By the second year I was the majority whip. By the third year I was the majority floor leader.”
The experience showed he had “something to offer Hawaii on the national stage, and that is why I decided to run” for Congress, he said.
Kahele thanked Gabbard for her eight years of service, but said he sees himself following in the footsteps of U.S. Sens. Daniel Akaka, Daniel Inouye and Spark Matsunaga or U.S. Rep. Patsy Mink and Prince Jonah Kuhio Kalanianaole, who served as a non-voting delegate from Hawaii to the U.S. House from 1902 until his death in 1922.
Kahele said he will bring “a unique perspective” as only the second Native Hawaiian elected to Congress since statehood. Akaka was the first.
“Where we are at right now within the Hawaiian community is we are at a crossroads,” including debate over the Thirty Meter Telescope on Mauna Kea, protests over windmills on Oahu, and ongoing issues with the former Navy target isle of Kahoolawe and military exercises at Pohakuloa Training Area on the Big Island.
“I’ve been clear from the beginning that it is very difficult for me to support the Thirty Meter Telescope as it is currently proposed,” he said.
The Army wants to renegotiate a lease with the state for key training land at Pohakuloa, meanwhile.
Kahele notes that his father worked at Pohakuloa for decades and was director of public works there.
Pohakuloa, along with the rest of the military bases and personnel throughout the islands are “very important not just for defense and national security of our country but also for our local jobs,” he said.
“Does that mean we can’t find a balance? Does that not mean the military needs to be proper stewards of the land that they are training on, that they are still able to train but doing it in a capacity where they are cognizant and mindful of the host culture and the land and the aina that they’re training on.”
He added that “these are conversations that we still need to have.”
“How we have treated both of those areas (Mauna Kea and Pohakuloa Training Area), how we structured those leases over the last 50 years, is not a blueprint for the future,” Kahele said.