WASHINGTON — It’s often said that in politics timing is everything, and for Kenji Price, a new Democratic president meant his time was up as Hawaii’s U.S. attorney.
Price resigned his position on Feb. 21 after what many outside observers would consider a successful three years as Hawaii’s top federal prosecutor. On Feb. 9, the U.S. Justice Department asked U.S. attorneys across the country, including Price, who were appointed by former President Donald Trump to submit their resignations by the end of the month.
In his stint at the helm, Hawaii’s U.S. Attorney’s Office pursued major investigations that captured the public’s interest and bolstered Price’s popularity in a state wracked by scandal, the most notable stemming from the arrest and prosecution of then-Honolulu Police Chief Louis Kealoha and his prosecutor wife, Katherine.
While the Kealoha case was spearheaded by a team of federal prosecutors based out of San Diego, Price’s office took on its own series of high profile investigations involving organized crime, public corruption and police misconduct.
Among those charged were a Kauai city councilman, who’s accused of running a drug ring with a Samoan prison gang, an alleged mobster whose vast criminal enterprise included kidnapping and murder for hire plots, and a politically connected defense contractor who, prosecutors say, bilked the federal government out of millions of dollars in COVID-19 relief aid meant to help small businesses stay afloat during the pandemic.
The question now facing Price, a Republican appointee in deep blue Hawaii, is — what comes next?
Price isn’t saying too much about what he might do, beyond spending time with his family.
In terms of his next move, he told Civil Beat in an interview last week he’ll “plead the Fifth.”
“For now, I’ll say I’m looking forward to continuing finding places where I can grow as a lawyer and grow as a leader and hopefully be in a position, whether on the public or private side, to use that leadership to affect the community,” he said.
Key Hawaii Republicans are hoping he can help lead the local GOP to more solid political footing in Hawaii, where it is struggling.
“I feel like his future should still be here in Hawaii because we need people like him who will fight for and uphold law and order here,” said Hawaii House Minority Leader Val Okimoto. “Hawaii has always struggled with crime and corruption and Kenji was pointing us in the right direction.”
Price didn’t discount a future run for office. Nor did he say whether he would remain in the islands.
“I’ll be silent on that issue for now,” he said. “But thank you for asking.”
Price grew up in Hawaii and went to Mililani High School, where he was a star basketball player. He studied at Gonzaga University and attended law school at the University of Pennsylvania, where he was editor-in-chief of the law review.
He’s a former U.S. Army Ranger, who served on four combat tours to Iraq and Afghanistan and was awarded two Bronze stars. He clerked for two federal judges and worked as an assistant U.S. attorney in New York before moving back to Hawaii to take a job in private practice.
Michael Purpura helped recruit Price back to the islands and worked with him at the Carlsmith Ball law firm in Honolulu.
Purpura, who was a White House attorney during the Trump and George W. Bush administrations, said Price’s background gives him a lot of options.
He can work in private practice or hold out for another position in government, although he might have to wait for Republicans to be in power again before he seeks another appointed position.
Elected office is another option, Purpura said.
“What comes next for Kenji is entirely up to him because he is an incredibly talented guy,” Purpura said. “All of these options are open and available to him because he has that kind of unique talent in which he can transcend and succeed in any arena.”
Price’s biggest challenge, at least in Hawaii, is that he’s a Republican so if he’s looking for a political appointment, such as to attorney general or a state court judgeship, he’s mostly likely out of luck.
Hawaii Gov. David Ige is a Democrat as are the two candidates who have already started raising money to replace him, Lt. Gov. Josh Green and former Honolulu mayor Kirk Caldwell.
Ken Lawson, a long-time criminal defense attorney who now teaches at the University of Hawaii law school, says he’s disappointed that Price’s party affiliation means he won’t find a home in Hawaii’s public sector.
Price leaving office for a life in private practice, Lawson said, “would be a loss for our state.”
“He’s a good, honest prosecutor and a straight shooter,” Lawson said. “I voted for Biden, but I really do wish he would have at least taken a look at Kenji’s record and the way he seeks justice. When it comes down to it, justice should never be political.”
Should Price decide that Hawaii politics are in his future, Hawaii political analyst Neal Milner says he’ll need to consider whether he’s willing to be the face of a local party that’s defined by dysfunction.
The Hawaii GOP embraced Trump and the far-right factions that supported him, including the extremist Proud Boys and supporters of the QAnon conspiracy.
That journey into the extremes, Milner said, has only hurt the GOP’s ability to recruit credible candidates.
“The fact that you’re a Republican becomes a millstone around your neck,” Milner said. “If he’s interested in politics he has to ask himself, ‘Is it really worth it? Do I want to bust my chops to be with a political party that’s going to be a liability rather than an asset?’”
“Right now pretty much any sentient human being who can put together sentences and is reasonably popular has an inside track with the Hawaii GOP,” Milner said. “He’s clearly better than that.”
From Purpura’s perspective, Price deserves a little patience.
“Kenji has sacrificed a tremendous amount at a young age, both in terms of time and finances, to do the things that he’s done,” Purpura said. “Let him go to the private sector, let him make a little bit of money, let him provide for his family, let him catch his breath and then let’s see.
“Whatever he’s going to do he’s going to do really well. He may reappear in public life in two years or four years. These are things you can’t really predict.”
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