Editor’s note: For Hawaii’s Nov. 3 General Election, Civil Beat asked candidates to answer some questions about where they stand on various issues and what their priorities will be if elected.

The following came from Kai Kahele, Democratic candidate for Congressional District 2, which includes rural Oahu and the neighbor islands. The other candidates are Republican Joe Akana, Libertarian Michelle Tippens, Jonathan Hoomanawanui of the Aloha Aina Party, John Giuffre of the American Shopping Party and nonpartisan Ron Burrus.

Go to Civil Beat’s Elections Guide for general information, and check out other candidates on the General Election Ballot.

Candidate for U.S. House District 2

Kai Kahele
Party Democratic
Age 46
Occupation State senator
Residence Hilo


Community organizations/prior offices held

Executive director, Paʻa Pono Miloliʻi (2011-2016); Hawaii state senator, District 1 (2016-present). 

1. The entire country, including Hawaii, has been deeply affected by the coronavirus pandemic. What should national leaders be prioritizing to help keep the outbreak under control and repair economic damage done by measures taken to respond to the outbreak? What role can you play as just one of 435 members of the U.S. House to help Hawaii? 

I strongly believe that every member of Congress has the power to champion legislation — even if in the minority. As a state senator, I stood up against powerful interests to protect public trust resources used by small farmers, ranchers and traditional Native Hawaiian cultural practitioners. I have never been afraid of incurring political costs for standing up for what I believe in.

My wife is a flight attendant and I am a pilot for Hawaiian Airlines. We personally relate to the economic hardship many Americans are facing due to the COVID-19-related voluntary furloughs and layoffs. In Hawaii, more than half of the job losses were the direct result of the rapid decline in tourism. As a candidate for Hawaii’s 2nd Congressional District, I am aware that the economic toll of the crisis is larger on the neighbor islands.

We must invest in a comprehensive strategy to safeguard the community, quickly develop a national diagnostic and surveillance testing and contact tracing strategy to suppress the pandemic. Additionally, we need to increase public sector spending to help stabilize the economy and local businesses. For example, we should invest in our nation’s infrastructure — including affordable housing, rural broadband and school infrastructure.

2. What would be your first priority if elected? How would that change if your party is in the majority? The minority?  

If elected, my first priority is to improve the economic conditions in Hawaii. Economic stability is a daily, primary concern for every family in Hawaii made worse by the current COVID-19 crisis. In terms of immediate recovery, I will work closely with our federal delegation and state leaders to obtain the necessary relief for Hawaii’s working-class families and small businesses while ensuring that we properly address public health concerns. In the long term, I plan to create more economic opportunities in all sectors — from agriculture to health care. For example, as a state senator, I introduced a bill directing the State of Hawaii’s Department of Agriculture to develop a strategic plan that would double local food production and increase food exports.

Regardless of whichever party holds the majority in the House of Representatives, all members of Congress have a shared sense of urgency in helping the American people survive and recover from this terrible economic and health crisis. I will make an effort to find compromises and work in a bipartisan manner to develop economic initiatives. We must come together as a country to get through these difficult times and create a better future for all of us.

3. Recent deaths of citizens at the hands of police are igniting protests and calls for reform across the country, primarily aimed at preventing discrimination against people of color. What should Congress do, if anything, to improve policing and police accountability? 

There is no doubt that we must reform our nation’s criminal justice system and end institutional racism. We need strong leadership and historic, systemic change to happen now. I am committed to protecting our civil liberties, and if elected to Congress, I will work across the aisle to bring more accountability to policing.

I will work to introduce and support legislation that makes the significant and necessary advancements needed in civil rights policies. I support the Justice in Policing Act (H.R. 7120), a bill that would create a national registry to compile data on complaints and records of police misconduct; establish a framework to prohibit racial profiling at the federal, state and local levels; establish new requirements for law enforcement officers and agencies, including to report data on use-of-force incidents; to obtain training on implicit bias and racial profiling; and to wear body cameras, among other things. Congress must also pass the Emmett Till Antilynching Act(H.R. 35) and finally make lynching a federal hate crime.

4. Whatever happens in the general election, Congress and the country will likely remain deeply divided. What specifically would you do to help bridge the partisan divide in Washington?

Despite the deep partisan divisions in the current political climate, the United States has always been a geographically, socially and economically diverse nation. I am running because I want to see Hawaii’s values in Washington D.C.: honor, equality, religious and racial tolerance, cooperation, integrity, hard work and most importantly, aloha. These values have made our Hawaii an extraordinary place to live, and these are the values that I will bring to Washington, D.C., as Hawaii’s CD-2 representative. Hawaii’s past statesmen, like Daniel K. Inouye, Daniel K. Akaka and my own father Gil Kahele, left a legacy of political leaders who knew how to lead with grace and cooperation. I hope to honor this legacy by building bridges, not walls, in Washington.

I am proud to have taken the With Honor Pledge, which asks candidates to commit to meeting with a member of Congress from the opposite party one-on-one at least once a month if elected. Regardless of anyone’s political views, I will treat all members of Congress with civility. As a former NCAA Division-1 student athlete and member of the University of Hawaii Rainbow Warriors men’s volleyball team, I know how to work together on a team.

5. What is your view of the role of the U.S. military in the islands, and would you like to see that role increased or decreased?  

Our state plays a critical role in supporting our national defense strategy in the Indo-Asia Pacific region. Furthermore, U.S. military spending is vital to Hawaii’s economy. According to the Hawaii Chamber of Commerce, direct and indirect military expenditures generate approximately $14.7 billion into our local economy and over 102,000 jobs for residents.

As a lieutenant colonel with the Hawaii Air National Guard, U.S. Air Force and the state Legislature’s only active duty military member, I have first-hand appreciation of the many benefits Hawaii gains from the local military presence, including the statewide deployment of National Guard troops to assist with the state’s COVID-19 relief efforts. Our Hawaii guardsmen also responded to emergency disaster relief missions during events such as the Kilauea eruption,  devastating floods on Kauai and Hurricane Iselle.

I hope that my background as both a Native Hawaiian and military officer will give me the opportunity to increase productive discussions between the U.S. military and local communities. If elected, I will work to ensure that the military’s impacts on Hawaii’s natural and cultural resources are minimized, and that federal funding to protect these resources are increased throughout the islands.

6. Congress has struggled in recent years to reach agreement on budget deficits, the national debt and spending in general. What would be your approach to fiscal matters? 

President Trump’s Tax Cut and Jobs Actdid not deliver on its promised GDP growth rates, capital investment, and wage growth. Instead, it further damaged the United States’ fiscal health. According to the Congressional Budget Office, Trump’s tax law is projected to increase the total projected deficit over the 2018–2028 period by about $1.9 trillion and further divide the nation’s wealth gap.

The new debt is projected to lead to massive cuts to Social Security and Medicare. While hardworking Americans are bearing the consequences of the irresponsible tax cuts, the top 1% of wealthy Americans and corporations are enjoying tax breaks. If elected into office, I support increasing the corporate tax rate, closing corporate tax loopholes, and increasing the high-income individual tax rate to raise much-needed revenue.

7. Under what circumstances should America go to war? 

I believe that the use of military force should always be taken as a last resort, and we must prioritize diplomacy and exhaust all non-military options before putting our military men and women in harm’s way. As a military aviator, I have flown over 100 combat sorties in Iraq and Afghanistan during Operations Iraqi and Enduring Freedom. I personally understand the cost of war and am fully committed to providing our service members with the resources they need for their safety, health and well-being. When the United States does use military force, there must be clear justification for that use of force and resources; there must also be clear objectives.

This is why I support repealing the 2001 and 2002 war authorizations and debating a new Authorization for Use of Military Force that more appropriately reflects today’s threats. These authorizations were drafted more than a decade ago and were never intended to give the president broad powers to conduct an endless war in an ever-growing number of countries.

8. What should the United States do to control carbon emissions and slow climate change? 

I am a strong supporter of clean energy and carbon reduction policies. As a state senator, I supported legislation such as Senate Bill 2366, a bill that would prohibit the issuance of covered source air permits for coal-burning electricity generation facilities after 2022; and the approval of new power purchase agreements for electricity generated from coal. If elected to Congress, I will support legislation such as the Keep it in the Ground Act — a bill that would permanently protect the Arctic and Atlantic from offshore oil and gas drilling. I will also continue to advocate for the United States to rejoin the Paris Climate Agreement and to reinstitute the EPA’s Clean Power Plan.

My family is from Milolii on Hawaii Island, a Native Hawaiian fishing village with a rich and proud history of balanced living between humans, the land and the sea. I personally understand the need for climate action and climate justice. For years, Native Hawaiian communities in places like Nanakuli, Keaukaha and Panaewa have been disproportionately exposed to environmental hazards. I will work tirelessly to promote healthy and sustainable environments for all our communities.

9. Is it time to reform Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid? How? 

Social Security is a critical source of income for tens of thousands of Hawaii residents. I will fight against efforts to cut away at Social Security, and I will support reform that will lead to the extended solvency and stability of the Social Security Trust Fund. I am also against raising the minimum age for Social Security benefits.

Regarding Medicare and Medicaid, Hawaii treasures all kupuna, many of whom rely on Medicare.  I strongly condemn efforts to reduce Medicare funding, and I oppose raising Medicare’s eligibility age to 70. Furthermore, I am against efforts to decrease the number of insurance options available to neighbor island Med-QUEST beneficiaries, which would be unequal treatment between the congressional districts.

Lastly, I support the Covering our FAS Allies Act, a bill that would permit Medicaid coverage for citizens of the Federated States of Micronesia, the Republic of the Marshall Islands, and the Republic of Palau, who are lawfully residing in the United States under the Compacts of Free Association (COFA). Hawaii spends approximately $200 million annually to care for COFA citizens. It is important that the federal government, and not state governments, fulfill COFA’s financial obligations and reaffirm America’s commitment to this geostrategic alliance.

10. What should be done to reform U. S. immigration policies, if anything? 

I strongly oppose the Trump administration’s anti-immigration agenda and efforts to intimidate immigrants in our country. This administration has weaponized deportation in ways that are designed to maximize physical and emotional pain. From the separation of families to the indefinite detention of families at the border, the Trump administration continues to put migrants through cruel conditions despite loud public outcries. We must restore America’s moral leadership and provide a safe haven to those fleeing from violence and persecution.

I support the DREAM and Promise Act, which would grant young undocumented immigrants (“Dreamers”) who came to the United States as children an opportunity to acquire permanent lawful status if they meet certain conditions. I celebrate the recent U.S. Supreme Court ruling that rejects the Trump administration’s attempt to terminate the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) initiative. I also believe that the number of annual refugees allowed into the country should be returned to the admission levels during the Obama administration. Since its founding, America has been viewed as a land of hope, freedom and opportunity. We must immediately stop the racist policies that have contributed to a climate of fear for those seeking refuge in the United States.

11. What specific reforms, if any, would you seek in gun control policies? 

Sensible gun reform is long overdue in the United States. It is shocking that children across the country, including here in Hawaii, must regularly undergo “active shooter” training in their own schools, which should be havens of safety and sanctuary. In the last 10 years, there have been over 170 school shootings, and the rate was increasing prior to the COVID-19 pandemic.

I support common-sense gun regulations that protect citizens from dangerous people obtaining guns, including universal background checks, a ban on the commercial sale of military-style assault-weapons, and a waiting period before the purchase of some firearms. Weapons of war have no place in a peaceful society.

I also recognize that countless local families rely on hunting for subsistence. Being from Hawaii Island, I know firsthand that local hunters must be able feed their families. I firmly believe that gun reform can be introduced and passed without impacting hunting rights or the ability of families to continue the sustainable hunting practices they have relied on for generations.

12. The coronavirus pandemic has exposed numerous flaws in Hawaii’s structure and systems, from outdated technology to economic disparity. If you could take this moment to reinvent Hawaii, to build on what we’ve learned and create a better state, a better way of doing things, what would you do? Please share One Big Idea you have for Hawaii. Be innovative, but be specific. 

If elected to Congress, improving our nation’s education system will be one of my top priorities. I am mindful of creating opportunities for Hawaii’s youth — particularly minorities and those who come from economically disadvantaged backgrounds. I personally benefited from joining the Hawaii Air National Guard in terms of receiving a quality education and a strong support network. I support expanding federal programs that invest in young Americans’ education in exchange for national or community service in any capacity — whether it is serving in the military or the conservation corps.

Higher education is tied to earnings in nearly all fields, and in order to have a competitive workforce, we must ensure that students continue to have opportunities and resources. At the same time, we need affordable education. I am passionate about removing financial barriers when applying for higher education, offering debt-forgiveness for graduates, and supporting vocational programs that allow high school graduates to attend community college for vocational and skills training. I support 100% free universal preschool for all children; an increase in teacher pay and benefits as well as teacher recruitment and incentives; increased funding for public school infrastructure improvements.

13. What other important issue would you like to discuss here?  

My top priority is working with the rest of Hawaii’s congressional delegation to get local families and local businesses the economic support they need to weather the short- and long-term impacts of the COVID-19 crisis. It is not enough to simply get funding for the state — that funding must get into the hands of business owners and residents.

If elected, I will be committed first and foremost to my constituents. I will work to build social, economic and environmental resilience throughout the islands. I will work to protect Medicare and increase access to quality health care in all areas, including remote and rural ones. The quality of our residents’ health care should not be impacted by geography, class or race.

I will continue to be a champion for the environment, continuing to fight for climate justice, protected areas, the preservation of natural and cultural resources, and battling environmental racism.

I would like to thank the countless constituents of Congressional District 2 who have spoken with me and members of my campaign. Your stories and your struggles continue to inspire this campaign, and I hope to earn the honor of serving you in Washington, D.C.