WASHINGTON — Hawaii congressman-elect Kai Kahele has yet to be sworn in, but already he’s bucking a longstanding trend in Washington politics.
Kahele, who was elected to represent Hawaii’s 2nd Congressional District being vacated by Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, will move his wife and three young daughters from Hawaii to the mainland while he serves in the 117th Congress.
His goal in doing so is to forge relationships with colleagues on both sides of the aisle in one of the most consequential times in American history.
“It’s old school,” Kahele said. “I think we need to get back to old school because the new school is not working.”
The 46-year-old Hilo resident will enter Congress as a member of the Democratic majority, something he’s grown accustomed to in deep blue Hawaii. But the margin is thin as Republicans made unexpected gains in competitive House districts across the country despite Joe Biden’s win over President Donald Trump.
Trump and his Republican backers have refused to accept the loss, impeding Biden’s transition to the White House. The country is also in the throes of a global pandemic that has killed more than 250,000 Americans.
Kahele said the coronavirus tops his agenda as an incoming congressman, but connecting with his colleagues is another priority.
One of the first things Congress needs to do is pass a new relief bill that includes more money for individuals, businesses and local governments, he said. In particular, he would like to see direct allocations made to Hawaii’s smaller counties on Maui, Kauai and the Big Island, all of which are in his district.
Last week, Kahele was in Washington for his freshman orientation. He said he was impressed with the diversity of the Democratic class.
Kahele is the second Native Hawaiian ever elected to Congress since statehood in 1959. The first was Daniel Akaka, who retired from the U.S. Senate in 2013 and died in 2018.
Kahele met Akaka when he first visited Washington, D.C., in 1984 at age 10 with his family, including his father, the late state Sen. Gil Kahele. They ate breakfast with Akaka and took a photo near the Capitol steps, which Kahele plans to carry in his backpack from Hawaii to hang in his new office.
Kahele said he’s already begun reaching out across the aisle.
He connected with Austin Pfluger, a Texas Republican with whom he shares a military background. Kahele was a lieutenant colonel in the Hawaii Air National Guard, and Pfluger was a member of the Air Force Reserves.
They also each have three young daughters. Kahele says his kids, ages 4, 6 and 16, are already dreaming up future playdates.
“It’s these relationships that are really important and it’s one of the reasons we’re moving our family to D.C.,” Kahele said.
Kahele didn’t originally want to uproot his family, but COVID-19 changed his mind.
Kahele said he realized he didn’t want to be far from his wife and kids after spending nearly four months at home with them because of the pandemic.
“The coronavirus made us realize how precious life is, how short life can be and how important family was,” Kahele told Civil Beat in an interview at a hotel near the Capitol. “We just made the decision that this was something that we wanted to share as a family and that we’re going to do it together.”
He said he still plans to spend a lot of time in Hawaii’s 2nd Congressional District when Congress is not in session but believes that with his family in Washington, he’ll be more productive and focused on congressional duties and campaigning during those visits home.
Already, Kahele has made inroads with the Democratic Party establishment. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi asked him to give the opening prayer in Hawaiian at a dinner for incoming Democrats. She also asked him to be one of seven members to nominate her for the speakership.
In today’s Washington, most members of Congress fly in for votes on Tuesday and board planes back to their districts by Friday. In between, they’re racing between floor votes, committee hearings and calling potential donors.
That leaves little time to interact with one another, especially across party lines.
Plenty of politicians have bemoaned the lifestyle and the ways in which it limits the ability to build the relationships that many believe are necessary to make deals happen in a hyper-partisan environment.
However, many fear being labeled a creature of Washington and out of touch with their districts.
Kahele said he still plans to spend a lot of his time with his constituents back in the islands when he’s not required to be in Washington for votes and other business.
Over the summer, the Association of Former Members of Congress released a report that explored the political dysfunction in Washington and the growing partisan divides that effectively grind most dealmaking to a halt.
The report was based on interviews with 31 members from both parties who left Congress in 2018 and 2019.
Several said they longed for the “good old days” when members could live together in Washington with their families and build the relationships necessary to solve the nation’s most pressing problems without suffering the consequences of future attack ads.
“This was one of the ways that members of Congress from different parties were able to build bridges.” — Leonard Steinhorn, American University
Such an environment, they said, could even tamp down the political vitriol that has become all too common between the parties and their supporters.
Leonard Steinhorn, a professor of communications at American University who co-authored the report, said there were more opportunities for bipartisanship when members of Congress could raise their families together. Their kids would go to the same schools or play together on the soccer field.
“This was one of the ways that members of Congress from different parties were able to build bridges,” Steinhorn said. “They would get to know each other in a way that allowed them to humanize the other member and not just put them in a partisan or political category.”
“It’s not like a Democrat or Republican is automatically going to flip because of a conversation with somebody else,” he quickly added. “But the more you understand where another community is coming from the more opportunities you have to try and figure out solutions that may be the greatest good to the greatest number of people.”
Still, Kahele and other members who decide to live in Washington need to keep tabs on their own constituencies or face the political fallout in the next election, Steinhorn said.
While Steinhorn would like to see an end to the attack ads targeting members of Congress for living in Washington, he doesn’t see that happening any time soon.
Hawaii Congressman Ed Case noted that other Aloha State politicians have raised children in Washington and had successful political careers.
He pointed to the late Hawaii Sens. Daniel Inouye and Spark Matsunaga as examples.
Case also believes that relationships are important to governing effectively, and the fact that so many members of Congress parachute in and out is a problem that needs fixing.
“For folks like Kai, who have young families, that’s a tough choice, and there’s just no right way to do it,” Case said Friday during a virtual editorial board meeting with Civil Beat. “I admire him for making the choice that he’s making and I hope it works out.”
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