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This is state Sen. Kai Kahele’s first race for elected office, having been appointed to the post by Gov. David Ige in January and yet it all feels so familiar to him.
Five years ago he was helping his father, the late Sen. Gil Kahele, run his first campaign for office. Gov. Neil Abercrombie had appointed the elder Kahele in 2011 to fill the empty seat representing 10,000 Hilo families and after nearly two years in office he decided to seek election to finish off the four-year term.
Gil Kahele was up against Donald Ikeda in the 2012 Democratic primary. After eight years on the Hawaii County Council, Ikeda was term-limited and had decided to seek higher office in the Legislature.
Kahele defeated Ikeda with 56 percent of the vote and ran unopposed in the general. He easily won re-election to his first full four-year term in 2014, but died in office last January.
Kai Kahele wants to pick up where his father left off and he’ll have to win a similar battle to do so.
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He faces Dennis “Fresh” Onishi in the Democratic primary Aug. 13. Onishi, like Ikeda, has served four two-year terms on the County Council so he can’t run again for the county seat.
The difference this time around is it’s a three-way race, with Kaloa Robinson also vying for office. The winner faces Libertarian Kimberly Arianoff in the Nov. 8 general election.
Robinson served for several years as former U.S. Sen. Daniel Akaka’s legislative assistant in the 1990s before moving home to Hawaii to work a variety of jobs on the Big Island, ranging from health care and geothermal to his current role overseeing county housing programs.
He described the primary as “David versus Goliath,” pointing at Kahele’s incredible campaign fundraising advantage.
By June 30, Kahele had spent $94,309 on the Senate race after raising $109,362 — more than any other candidate seeking state office in Hawaii. Kahele had $12,404 on hand.
Robinson may lack the name recognition of Onishi and Kahele, but he had the next-most campaign cash, albeit a very distant second. Robinson spent $6,261 after raising $8,380 and had $2,118 on hand. Onishi was down to $955 after raising $5,676 and spending $4,355 as of June 30.
Kahele raked in money not just from Hilo residents but also the state’s biggest lobbyists, including $2,000 from John Radcliffe, $1,000 from George Morris and $500 from Blake Oshiro — all of whom work for Capitol Consultants.
He also got help from his fellow lawmakers, including Sens. Lorraine Inouye, Michelle Kidani, Roz Baker, Donna Mercado Kim and Maile Shimabukuro, who each gave at least $200.
Unions, political action committees and consultants have also kicked in thousands of dollars. Ironworkers for Better Government contributed $2,000. But his biggest contributions — $4,000 apiece — came from Tobi Solidum, a consultant; the Hawaii Laborers PAC; the Hawaii Regional Council of Carpenters; the Hawaii Operating Engineers Industry Stabilization Fund; Operating Engineers Local No 3 Statewide PAC; and WHR LLC, which leases the Hilo Naniloa Hotel.
“It can be looked at several ways: that guy’s bought; he’s in bed with lobbyists, with unions,” Kahele said. “I look at it as people believe in me. People believe in our campaign. People believe in what I can bring not just to Senate District 1 in Hilo but Hawaii Island and the state.”
Campaign money isn’t everything, as Ige would attest to after beating Abercrombie in 2014 despite a 10-1 fundraising disadvantage.
But it certainly helps, especially when the candidate is able to use that cash to do things like pass out $2,000 worth of personalized sake glasses, buy a $750 bouncy house for events or drop $2,000 on beverages from Kadota Liquor as Kahele has over the past few months.
“I might have name recognition because of my dad, but people know me as ‘that’s the son’ or ‘he’s the pilot.’ I want people to know me as Hilo’s senator,” Kahele said.
His campaigning has been hard and fast, even resulting in a $25 fine from the Campaign Spending Commission for an ad missing a disclaimer about who paid for it.
“I’d been planning all along to run against a formidable challenger and our campaign was prepared for that,” Kahele said.
It’s been tough for his opponents to keep up, but they aren’t deterred.
“I’ve been doing the best I can with what I’ve got,” Robinson said. “I know people, but a lot of people don’t know me. When I have had opportunity to speak to groups, it’s been really nice to be so warmly received.”
Onishi has been working the district, logging miles in door-to-door campaigning. He said he wants voters to focus more on the candidates’ records instead of their endorsements in deciding who to choose.
Onishi is an eight-year veteran of the Council. He also has served six years as a member of the Hawaii State Association of Counties and two years as a member of the National Association of Counties.
He’s been in government 21 years in all and said during that time he’s built relationships with the other counties and state departments that have helped him tackle problems in the district like the spread of fire ants.
There are three primary goals Onishi wants to achieve if elected: increasing the counties’ share of the state hotel tax, improving resources for victims of family violence and combating invasive species.
The four counties used to receive a certain percent of the overall amount of transient accommodations tax revenue the state collected, which ebbed and flowed with the strength of the tourism industry.
The Legislature has capped the counties’ share in recent years though, dumping the excess millions of dollars into the state general fund for other programs and services.
For fiscal 2017, which started July 1, the counties are splitting $103 million. Honolulu gets 44.1 percent, Kauai 14.5 percent, Hawaii 18.6 percent and Maui 22.8 percent.
It’s a perennial fight at the Capitol, with mayors and county council members lobbying hard for a bigger slice.
The cap has allowed the amount the state collected from TAT revenue to increase by $196.6 million from 2007 to 2015, while counties only received an additional $2.2 million, council members have said. The TAT is currently 9.25 percent.
When it comes to invasive species, Onishi said the state needs to get serious about stopping the spread of rapid ohia death.
“People don’t realize how detrimental this fungus can be to our forests,” he said. “In 10 years, we might not have ohia trees.”
Onishi said he’s been working with the College of Tropical Agriculture and Human Resources to secure additional funding. The $300,000 the Legislature appropriated this past session, which ended in May, is a fraction of what’s needed, he said.
“The longer we wait, the more it’s going to spread,” he added.
Onishi has other objectives if elected, too, ranging from restructuring the Department of Land and Natural Resources and University of Hawaii Hilo to establishing term limits of 16 total years for state lawmakers.
He said he’s helped bring $75 million to his district to fund things like a new fire station, lights for a sports field, paved roads, recreational facilities and playgrounds.
Onishi also pointed to how he worked in his first year in office to extend the hours of the Summer Fun Program for youth to go from 7:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. instead of 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. It was about helping working families, he said, noting how the two facilities that run the program with the extended hours often fill up in the first day of advance registration.
Like Onishi, Robinson said he’s cultivated relationships at multiple levels of government that would help him get things done in office.
“Everyone is competing for resources,” Robinson said. “You really have to tune in and make a sell. I’ve done that.”
Robinson lobbied state lawmakers to help secure funding to start a medical residency program at UH Hilo.
“We have a shortage of physicians and specialists on the Big Island, to the point where some aren’t taking new patients,” he said. “So the idea was how do you get more doctors to the neighbor islands.”
He said three years ago Hilo Medical Center hired him to go to the Legislature and lobby for first-year funding for a rural residency program in Hilo, which was successful.
“It was a full-court press,” Robinson said, noting how he had to coordinate the testimony and make the office visits to key lawmakers.
“Being back in the building, it had the same smell as when I worked for Ben Cayetano in the Legislature,” he said, referring to his time working with the former representative who went on to become governor.
“It reminded me that I enjoyed doing that, being an advocate for community efforts,” Robinson said. “It’s my first time that I’m running, but I know how it works and want to apply that.”
He said he has friends from decades ago that he used to play softball with or sing karaoke with who are now in office that he can call to help get things done.
“In Hawaii, the social network is important,” Robinson said. “That’s what really helps to move things forward.”
Homelessness and housing would be top issues to champion, he said.
Growing up in Honolulu, Robinson said he saw first-hand how homelessness can become a crisis. He said towns on the Big Island could “easily become another Kakaako” if left unchecked, referring to the streets of an Oahu neighborhood that dozens of homeless people have lined with tents.
As a planner in the county housing office, he said he’s been overseeing construction of micro-units being built on the Kona side.
“Some say, ‘I see those guys. Why don’t they just get a job?’” Robinson said. “They can’t. They don’t have the capacity for it.”
He supports Housing First solutions, noting the problems of getting some homeless into temporary shelters that have sobriety rules and other conditions that keep them out.
Kahele, a 42-year-old pilot, said he brings a younger outlook and unique capabilities to the office.
After spending time in the military, including time in the Middle East, he now works for a commercial airline and has flown all over the world.
“I’ve seen and experienced things that many people will never see in their lifetimes,” Kahele said. “I bring a different perspective.”
Kahele is continuing to fly for Hawaiian Airlines, where his wife works as a flight attendant, while raising his three kids and campaigning.
“I’m like a juggler,” he said.
Kahele had nothing negative to say about his challengers, noting that his father was close to Onishi, who came to visit him in the hospital before his death.
“My opponents are qualified individuals as well, and are all there for the right reasons,” he said.
Kahele pointed at the $89 million he brought back to the district after last session for various projects but said some of his ideas don’t require a lot of capital.
Modernizing Honolulu International Airport is a big priority, he said.
“I’d love to build a billion-dollar beautiful airport, but let’s start with baby steps,” he said, like infant-changing stations in the baggage claim terminal and free wifi that could be funded by advertisements.
“I hate to say we’re Third World, man, but it really is,” Kahele said, adding that places like Sydney simply have higher standards.
“A lot of it is state government and bureaucracy and how things take so long to happen,” he said. “That’s what I want to fix.”
Kahele wants to bring an aviation program to UH Hilo, which he said would create an opportunity not just to train pilots but also “meteorologists, air-traffic controllers and the next Mark Dunkerley,” Hawaiian Airlines’ chief executive officer.
He envisions UH Hilo on the forefront of astronomy, aviation and science, technology, engineering and math offerings.
Onishi has some concerns about building up an aviation school in Hilo.
“You’ve got to talk to the community first,” he said, noting how a lot of people who live close to the airport are worried about the noise. “We really have to look at how it’s going to affect our community and how it’s going to be funded.”
Onishi is focused more on astronomy and agriculture at UH Hilo, saying the Big Island has so much land that it could be doing more start-up projects and expanding other programs that are already established.
Kahele said it’s critical to bring down the cost of food for residents.
“Hawaii Island is an untapped resource for agriculture,” he said.
The problem is people who want to pursue farming careers can’t afford to buy some land to get started, Kahele said, which is why he wants to offer low-interest loans with payments deferred for a few years.
“I would love to have Hawaii Island lead the state and feed the state and I really think we can,” he said. “Farming is a tough life but we have to give people a reason to think they can farm.”
Kahele said there’s sufficient funding to do a number of programs, not to mention increase pay for teachers so they can afford to live in Hawaii and help Maui hospital workers, who may be displaced due to the privatization of state-run facilities.
“Don’t tell me we don’t have money in the state of Hawaii,” he said. “We have money, but we don’t have accountability. There’s waste, fraud and abuse.”
Like Onishi, he said he wants the counties to have a bigger slice of the hotel tax revenue. He said that’s money that can go to lifeguards, firemen, public restrooms, hiking trails, roads and parks that visitors use and rely on.
Kahele said he learned a lot from his father, not just in how to campaign effectively, but about life.
“There’s still that fire inside that my dad taught me to win,” he said. “But if I’m not successful on Aug. 13, I can walk away. He taught me that if you give it 100 percent, it’s OK. You can hold your head high. You did your best.”