Chad Blair: A Line Forms To Replace Kai Kahele In Congress - Honolulu Civil Beat


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Chad Blair

Chad Blair is the politics and opinion editor for Civil Beat. You can reach him by email at cblair@civilbeat.org or follow him on Twitter at @chadblairCB.


It used to be that a Hawaii seat in the U.S. Congress didn’t come open all that often. It’s prestigious, it pays handsomely, there are no term limits and it’s nearly impossible to lose reelection. Also, franking privileges!

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But over the last two decades Hawaii has elected nine House members including two who served, left office and then went back to D.C. again: Ed Case and Colleen Hanabusa.

The expectation that U.S. Rep. Kai Kahele is poised to leave Washington after just one term in an effort to move into the governor’s quarters at Washington Place has at least three state legislators thinking of taking his place. Others could emerge as well, even ones that are currently seeking another office but may find an open seat in Congress too tempting to pass up.

That means voters in the 2nd Congressional District could this year be selecting someone who might serve for generations in the nation’s capital and perhaps eventually move into the U.S. Senate, as many thought would be the case for Kahele.

It would also present a very tight election season for CD2 wannabes who will have to scramble for campaign cash — House races typically cost at least $1 million — and navigate what is a statewide race. The district encompasses all of Hawaii except for greater urban Honolulu. (Click here for a complete and detailed map.)

Kai Kahele, candidate for US congress, sign-waves with his wife Maria, daugthers Iolana (6) (standing) and Namaka (4) along Hilo’s Bayfront area. Photo: Tim Wright
Kai Kahele with his family as he campaigned for Congress in Hilo’s Bayfront area. A run for governor in 2022 would open his seat. Tim Wright/Civil Beat/2020

Kahele said in a text message Tuesday that he had “no announcement yet” to make on a gubernatorial run but would let reporters like myself know “if I do decide to run.”

Word on the street is that that announcement will come in early May shortly after the Legislature adjourns.

If that happens, state Sen. Jarrett Keohokalole and state Rep. Pat Branco — both Democrats — will almost certainly run for Kahele’s seat. Both told me they are very seriously considering a run, and Keohokalole has pulled filing papers with the state though he’s not yet actually filed them. It’s too soon.

Branco said via email that he’s been encouraged by local folks to run.

“I believe our state, nation, and world are at a crossroads,” he wrote. “The ever-rising cost of living is pricing families out, and the clearly present effects of the climate crisis are threatening our health and way of life. Meanwhile, our democratic institutions are under threat, while Russia and China threaten the delicate American-led global security order.”

Keohokalole told me Tuesday that he is exploring a race as well should Kahele choose to leave D.C., and that he has discussed it with his family.

“I’ve learned a lot in my eight years in office, including that it is really difficult to get things running right at the state level without federal support — that is clear.”

If he runs and wins, Keohokalole says it would be a “long-term commitment,” as does Branco, who says he wants to “deliver for Hawaii for the years to come.”

Both have some federal experience, and both hail from CD2 — in their case, Oahu’s Windward Side.

State Rep. Angus McKelvey has also pulled papers to run. The Democrat, who represents West Maui, Maalaea and North Kihei, declined to comment for now. He has also pulled papers for the Senate District 6 seat on Maui being vacated by Sen. Roz Baker.

More Candidates?

What’s tricky is that, because of reapportionment, all 76 state legislators are up for reelection, if they choose to run again. But a sitting senator or rep can’t run for the Legislature and Congress at the same time this year.

Senator Jarrett Keohokalole speaks to media during a brief press conference held at the Capitol on the recent news that the Pentagon was moving towards closing the Red Hill fuel facility.
Sen. Jarrett Keohokalole is considering a run for Congress. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2022

It’s different at the county councils, where some seats are up this year but others not until 2024. That means a councilman or councilwoman who is not on the ballot this year could run for Congress but not have to give up their day job.

If Kahele does jump ship, he must also decide whether to stay in office until his term expires in early January or to step aside, which could trigger a special election to fill the remainder of his term.

Given that House reps have been allowed to vote by proxy because of Covid-19, Kahele could remain in his current position even as he campaigns for a different office.

There is also the matter of money. State and county candidates cannot use the cash they have raised for their local offices to run for federal office. That could keep a lot of people out of the contest.

But I expect other candidates will follow suit. There is another Democrat — Joseph (Kepa) Griskonis — who had pulled papers for CD2 as of Friday, as is the case with Republican Joe Akana and Libertarian Michelle Rose Tippens. But Democrats have long dominated local politics, so the betting is on the party holding the seat — even as the GOP is forecast to retake the House this fall.

Rep. Patrick Branco may run for CD2 too. Submitted

The last Republican to represent Hawaii, in case you forgot, was Charles Djou. I’ve heard his name mentioned as a possible candidate in 2022, but he left the GOP over his distaste for Donald Trump.

In a text Tuesday Djou said he would not make any plans for CD2 “without an official announcement” from Kahele first. “If I do run, and that is no certainty, it would not be as a Republican given my continuing discomfort with the Trump-led GOP.”

One other item: Candidates for CD2 and the 1st Congressional District don’t have to actually reside in the district they are seeking to represent.

Of course, one may well wonder why anyone would want to be in Congress these days. Kahele himself has said the Jan. 6 assault on the U.S. Capitol greatly upset him and his young family. He has said that D.C. was not the place the family wanted to live, instead favoring their home in Hilo.

But serving in Congress remains an attractive proposition, even if it means serving with a couple of cuckoos from other states.


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About the Author

Chad Blair

Chad Blair is the politics and opinion editor for Civil Beat. You can reach him by email at cblair@civilbeat.org or follow him on Twitter at @chadblairCB.


Latest Comments (0)

I'd say he starts in third place at best if he enters. Must be a gambler.

moc · 2 months ago

Who is Branco? I asked a couple different folks and no one knew who he is. Another comment said he is new, makes sense. If Kai Kahele is out, someone with experience would be best, not some entitled newcomer. On another note, can we please stop Scott Saiki from being the puppet master this election cycle? Not a Kim Coco fan, but outseating Saiki would shake things up in Hawai'i politics. Enough of this power hungry government and the followers they install.

concerned_citizen · 2 months ago

Hawaii politics: whenever someone leaves, everyone else moves up one.

four · 2 months ago

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