WASHINGTON — When Hawaii state Sen. Kai Kahele introduced U.S. Rep. Brad Sherman to a small group of supporters gathered last week in the penthouse of an upscale Washington waterfront restaurant, he did so with a caveat.

“We literally just met,” Kahele said.

Sherman is a longtime Democratic congressman from California, a member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee who chairs the Subcommittee on Asia, the Pacific and Nonproliferation. He was one of about three dozen guests at Kahele’s first-ever congressional fundraiser held outside of the Aloha State.

Sherman was the biggest surprise, however, in part because Kahele said he wasn’t on the invite list. In fact, Kahele hardly knew who he was even as Sherman handed him a $2,000 check.

Hawaii state Sen. Kai Kahele poses for a photo during a fundraiser in Washington, D.C.

Nick Grube/Civil Beat

“I’m Brad Sherman from California’s best named city, Sherman Oaks, and I wanted to be one of the first mainland politicians to endorse you,” Sherman said with a big grin backed up by laughter and loud applause. “I believe I now qualify as a sponsor.”

Kahele is a Hawaiian Airlines pilot and a lieutenant colonel in the Hawaii Air National Guard who’s flown combat missions in Iraq and Afghanistan.

He’s running for Hawaii’s 2nd Congressional District seat currently held by U.S. Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, who says she’s not running for reelection. Kahele went from underdog to frontrunner.

Gabbard instead wants to focus on her presidential campaign, despite the fact she’s polling lower than many of her Democratic colleagues and is a long shot to win the nomination.

Kahele announced his bid for Gabbard’s seat in January almost immediately after she declared her candidacy for the White House. No other major candidates have entered the race — yet.

David Cornejo, a software engineer living in Kailua with no political experience, is the only other person who’s declared an intention to run with the Federal Election Commission. He has yet to report raising any money.

Now it’s Kahele who finds himself chasing off challengers. His tactics include growing his bank account and securing big name endorsements.

U.S. Rep. Brad Sherman of California delivered a $2,000 check to state Sen. Kai Kahele, who’s running for Hawaii’s 2nd Congressional District.

Nick Grube/Civil Beat

When he launched his campaign he had the support of three former Hawaii governors —  John Waihee, Ben Cayetano and Neil Abercrombie. After Gabbard said she would no longer run, he focused on getting endorsements from his potential rivals.

He earned the endorsement of Bernard Carvalho Jr., Kauai’s former mayor who has statewide name recognition, and who was considered a possible candidate to run for the open seat.

He also has the support of former state Rep. Kaniela Ing, a progressive lightning rod from Maui who in 2018 was endorsed for Congress by U.S. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio Cortez of New York.

There’s still the possibility that others could declare as candidates, including former state Sen. Jill Tokuda, who has said she’s keeping her options open.

In an interview with Civil Beat, Kahele said there’s no doubt the complexion of the race changed once Gabbard dropped out.

“Fundamentally, our basic strategy has not changed,” Kahele said. “We will mount a very structured, statewide campaign. We are not by any means resting on our laurels.”

Raising Money Early On Is A Key Strategy

At his fundraiser, Kahele stressed the importance of donating to his campaign over the next several weeks. Dec. 31 is the FEC fundraising deadline for the fourth quarter.

If anyone wants to enter the race out of “political convenience,” he said, they’ll have to consider his war chest and whether they can compete.

So far, Kahele’s campaign has reported raising $502,000 through the first three quarters of 2019.

Congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard announces her run for president at the Hilton Hawaiian Village.

Congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard’s decision not to run for re-election means Kai Kahele is now the only major candidate for  Hawaii’s 2nd Congressional District.

Cory Lum/Civil Beat

In October, the campaign says it received another $105,000 in online donations, which is more than it raised during the entire previous three months.

“This race is not over,” Kahele told the crowd. “If there’s any time to help our campaign financially, it’s this quarter.”

He wasn’t alone in imploring immediate action.

Neera Tanden, president of the Center for American Progress and former policy advisor to Hillary Clinton, co-hosted the fundraiser.

She, too, pushed the attendees to open up their wallets for Kahele.

Tanden said that just because the path seems clear now that Gabbard is no longer an obstacle doesn’t mean a challenger isn’t lurking around the bend.

“He is the person who has already been hard at work getting a lot of support from all around Hawaii and should be the next member of Congress,” Tanden said. “It’s people who show leadership in those moments, when it looks hard, that we should reward, but there’s still a lot of work to do.”

Kahele traveled to Washington last week to forge new relationships with political insiders and others who can help him learn the issues, raise campaign money and build a network to secure his place in Congress.

He met U.S. Rep. Cheri Bustos of Illinois, chairwoman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, and U.S. Rep. Judy Chu of California who leads the Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus.

He attended conferences on Native American contracting and economic development.

On Thursday, he participated in a meet and greet with labor organizations that was hosted by the political arm of the Air Line Pilots Association, a group that’s already donated thousands of dollars to his campaign.

Among the issues he discussed were the Jones Act and the recent vote by Hawaiian Airlines flight attendants that authorized a strike.

Becoming A Frequent Visitor To DC

This was Kahele’s fourth visit to Washington since announcing his intentions to run for Gabbard’s seat. On his prior visits, it was difficult for him to get meetings with certain groups that generally only backed incumbents.

With Gabbard focusing her attention elsewhere, he said, those barriers seem to have disappeared.

“Things have changed and doors that weren’t open before are now open,” Kahele said.

“I’m getting a much different reception now that it’s an open House seat. It’s allowed me to make connections on the national level and with national groups and interests that I think will serve the congressional district well.”

Now that the House seat is open, Kahele says he’s finding a more welcoming reception in Washington, D.C.

Nick Grube/Civil Beat

As Kahele tries to expand his reach and introduce himself to a broader coalition, including outside of Hawaii, Kahele finds himself telling his own story to those who are just beginning to know him.

During his fundraiser, he delivered a polished pitch that focused on his entry into politics, his identity as a Native Hawaiian and his service in the military.

He told the audience that he never had any intention of becoming a politician, it was only after his father, Gil Kahele, had a heart attack and died in 2016 that he even considered it.

The elder Kahele had asked his son if he would consider vying for his seat in the Senate if he passed away. Gov. David Ige picked him from a list of three names submitted by the Democratic Party of Hawaii.

“I don’t think in his wildest dreams he would ever imagine his son would be running for the United States Congress less than four years later, but that’s where we’re at today,” Kahele said. “Life is like that sometimes, where it comes at you when you’re at your most vulnerable and when you least expect it.”

He said it’s important for Hawaii to have someone of Native Hawaiian ancestry representing the state in the halls of Congress, noting that the last person to do so was the late U.S. Sen. Dan Akaka.

Kahele said having a strong voice in Washington is even more critical because Hawaii’s delegation is small.

“We’re four out of 535 members, who are 5,000 miles away from Washington, D.C.,” he said.

“We need a representative who’s committed to the district, who wants to be there, who shows up, who puts in the time and effort, and who comes home to one of the most complex districts in the country, one that spans eight Hawaiian islands.”

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