The Democratic primary for governor this year may soon have a fourth major candidate in the race.
U.S. Rep. Kai Kahele, who has represented Hawaii’s 2nd Congressional District for barely a year, indicated on the Honolulu Star-Advertiser “Spotlight” program Wednesday that he is seriously considering entering the contest.
Voters across the state, he said, are “not excited” about Lt. Gov. Josh Green, who has emerged as the leading contender so far although he hasn’t yet formally announced his candidacy.
He said the same goes for Vicky Cayetano, a businesswoman and former Hawaii first lady who is in the running, and Kirk Caldwell, the former Honolulu mayor who has been actively raising money for his own bid but who has yet to officially declare.
The entry of the freshman congressman would shake up the gubernatorial race. Green, an emergency room doctor who became the face of the state’s Covid-19 response, enjoys a 65% approval rating among voters who responded to a Honolulu Star-Advertiser poll published last week. He also has attracted an impressive amount of campaign donations.
Still, Kahele senses a hunger for a new contender, insisting that people are “starving” for leadership and “a new direction.”
“I keep hearing things over and over and over, and it’s that people are not happy with the direction the state is heading in, that it reaffirms my belief we are drifting right now as a state and need to put some wind into our sails,” he said. “We need to infuse new leadership into our government, we need to restore the public’s trust, and ultimately we need to have a leader that can inspire people, give people hope and provide a strategic vision and direction for the state of Hawaii. It is one of the reasons that I am so giving serious thought to this.”
Suggestions that Kahele might be weighing a run for governor emerged last week. If he does jump in, he said that it would be essential to chart a future for the state as it tries to move on from a Covid-19 crisis mode.
Kahele has been critical of the Ige administration’s response to the pandemic. He repeated a 10-point plan that he offered last month, saying it “will curb the ongoing Covid surge by encouraging more people to get boosted and by improving safety in the schools and workplace.”
On Wednesday, the congressman, who served in the state Senate from 2016-2020, said Hawaii needs a leader with a vision and with strong communication skills.
While he counts Caldwell, Green and Cayetano as “personal friends,” he said he did not think any of them could “bring people together around a common goal.”
Potential campaign issues would likely include the economy, education, affordable housing, agriculture and climate change, which he called “crisis issues.”
Green’s campaign declined to comment, while a spokeswoman for Cayetano said they would review the recording.
Caldwell issued this response: “Our democracy works best when voters have a diverse selection of candidates to choose from. The people of Hawaii are looking for a leader who can pivot and take our state in a new direction where every resident has the opportunity to find an affordable place to live and have an income sufficient to thrive. This requires a leader with the willingness to listen. The courage to act. And the experience to get it done.”
Kahele did not say when he would make a decision on whether to run.
“We’ll see what happens,” he said several times on “Spotlight,” asking voters to also “stay tuned.” And he invoked his late father, former state Sen. Gil Kahele, who he said always told him to help people and “you go where the people want you to go. And that’s what I’m going to do. So more to come. Mahalo.”
Should Kahele enter the governor’s race, it is sure to bring intense scrutiny to his campaign. It would also result in new elections to replace him in D.C.
When U.S. Rep. Neil Abercrombie resigned in early 2010 to run for governor, a special winner-take-all election resulted in Republican Charles Djou completing Abercrombie’s term. Democrat Colleen Hanabusa defeated Djou in the general election to serve a new two-year term.
The profile of Kahele, 47, has been elevated recently with his outspoken criticism of the Navy’s handling of the Red Hill water contamination crisis. The combat veteran, pilot and commissioned officer in the Hawaii Air National Guard continues to serve as a lieutenant colonel.
Kahele said he remains focused on his congressional duties.
But he also said that the Jan. 6 assault on the U.S. Capitol in 2021 had “a major impact” on his wife and their three kids, adding that they were “blocks from the Capitol.” They decided afterward that D.C. was not the place the family wanted to live, instead favoring staying in Hilo, which Kahele described as “a special place.”
“That is a factor, too,” he explained in considering leaving Washington.
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