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WASHINTON — The morning after Kai Kahele won a decisive victory in the race for Hawaii’s 2nd Congressional District he ordered a stack of flapjacks and a double loco moco at Ken’s Pancake House in Hilo.
Kahele had reason to celebrate.
He entered politics in 2016 after he was appointed to the Hawaii State Senate by Gov. David Ige to finish out the term of his father, Gil Kahele, who died unexpectedly after a heart attack.
A former University of Hawaii volleyball player, Kahele never expected a life in politics much less one that would send him, a 46-year-old Native Hawaiian, to the nation’s capital after one of the most divisive and historic elections in modern U.S. history.
When Kahele spoke with Civil Beat Wednesday the nation was still awaiting the results of the presidential election between Donald Trump and Joe Biden, the fate of the U.S. Senate was still in limbo and it appeared Democrats in the House would lose seats rather than expand their majority.
“There was no blue tsunami,” Kahele said. “I’m not sure if we really know what the future of the country should look like around certain issues. It’s clear by looking at the map that there’s a lot of red in the middle and a lot of blue on the outsides. We’re pretty much split down the middle.”
Kahele, a Hawaiian Airlines pilot and member of the Hawaii Air National Guard, describes himself as someone with strong progressive values.
He supports Medicare for all and the Green New Deal. But as he looks around the country he questions whether all Americans are ready for the seismic changes some in his party, including him, have been calling for.
No matter who wins the presidency it will likely be by the slimmest of margins. Even in Hawaii — a Democratic stronghold — Trump expanded his margins between 2016 and 2020 from 29.4% to 33.9%. That means nearly 200,000 people in the islands voted for Trump over Biden.
Congressman Ed Case, who won reelection Tuesday, said it’s important Democrats don’t forget that large swaths of the country voted for Trump, especially if America has any hope of healing its divides.
“The people who voted for President Trump are my fellow Americans also, and they’re mostly good decent people,” Case said. “They have to be a part of this too.”
Kahele said he has yet to craft his legislative agenda. The fact that he faced little opposition in both the primary and general elections, however, has allowed him to get a jump on making inroads in Washington.
When he announced he would be running for U.S. Rep. Tulsi Gabbard’s seat one week after she launched her bid for the White House, Kahele received the endorsements of major political players in Hawaii who were worried the congresswoman was putting her own political ambitions ahead of her responsibilities to her district.
Not long after Gabbard announced she would not be running for reelection, Kahele started picking up support from those in the D.C. Democratic establishment, including members of Congress and other national political organizations, such as the League of Conservation Voters, Planned Parenthood and the Brady PAC against gun violence.
Kahele also started spreading around his campaign funds in an effort to help Democrats strengthen their grip on the House. He donated thousands of dollars to candidates across the U.S. and gave $100,000 to the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.
“I’m a piece of the puzzle now that has to fit in.” — Kai Kahele
Kahele is already taking applications for staff positions in Hawaii and Washington and jockeying for committee assignments. He said his top choices are transportation and infrastructure, armed services and agriculture, all three of which are important to the islands.
He sees federal investment in infrastructure as a key element in helping the nation’s economy rebound from the deadly coronavirus pandemic that has forced many businesses in Hawaii and elsewhere to shutter.
“There’s no doubt in my mind that in order for us to start emerging from the economic recession we need a stimulus package to put people back to work and to start to rebuild our roads, our bridges, our highways, our 21st century schools and our airports,” Kahele said.
Kahele will be only the second Native Hawaiian to serve in Congress since Hawaii became a state in 1959. The first was U.S. Sen. Daniel Akaka, who retired in 2013 and died in 2018.
Kahele said he anticipates being a voice for Hawaiians and other indigenous people in Congress, and that he expects to take on issues related to Hawaiian homelands and federal recognition.
The federal government touches on many aspects of Hawaiians’ lives, whether it’s providing money for housing, health care or education. But Kahele said that relationship is also fraught with trauma dating back to the overthrow of the Hawaiian Kingdom in 1893.
“I really feel like there are a lot of people who are counting on me,” Kahele said. “We’re going to have to have some tough conversations about what a future for Native Hawaiians looks like in terms of their role working with the federal government.”
He said he’s not sure yet what the path forward looks like for Native Hawaiians. All he knows is that he wants them to be a part of the conversation, whether it’s as part of a task force, town hall or simply talking story on the Hawaiian homesteads.
He’s looking forward to the transition from state legislator to member of Congress, and he’s already begun forging relationships with the other three members of Hawaii’s federal delegation, all of whom endorsed him.
During his campaign, Kahele often talked about how he would stay focused on Hawaii and its priorities, a way for him to draw a distinction between himself and Gabbard.
On Wednesday, he again emphasized the need for teamwork within the federal delegation, something Case has said was lacking, at least in the House, while Gabbard was running for president.
“I’m a piece of the puzzle now that has to fit in,” Kahele said. “I want to make sure that I can do that.”
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