What had been talked about for months became official Saturday morning in Hilo, when U.S. Rep. Kai Kahele announced that he is indeed a candidate for Hawaii governor.

He will face Lt. Gov. Josh Green and Vicky Cayetano, a businesswoman and former first lady, in the Aug. 13 Democratic primary. Former Honolulu Mayor Kirk Caldwell quit the contest Wednesday, citing a lack of fundraising and momentum.

Kahele said his priorities include making Hawaii a place where all residents can live and prosper rather than leave for the mainland or continue to struggle with multiple jobs just to get by.

Kai Kahele announces running for Hawaii Governor at the Hilo Boys and Girls Club gymnasium.
Kai Kahele announced Saturday morning in Hilo that he is running for Hawaii governor. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2022

He also wants the state to honor the commitments to Native Hawaiians that were part of Hawaii’s entrance into statehood in 1959 but also the federal Hawaiian Homes Commission Act of 1921 — namely, to ensure that the public trust for the betterment of Hawaiians through education, housing, infrastructure and agriculture is fulfilled.

“I am running for governor to restore the trust in the public trust,” he said.

If elected, Kahele would be the second Native Hawaiian to serve as governor. John Waihee, who served from 1986 to 1994, was the first.

Kahele also made clear that the outsize influence of campaign donations from lobbyists, unions, special interests, corporations, wealthy donors and political action committees must no longer “control” the people of the islands.

“We need a different way, a better way,” he said, explaining that he would not accept any donation greater than $100 and would rely on public financing for his campaign.

Kahele also frequently cited his military service, beginning with three words that he often heard from his late father: duty, honor and country. The words are from General Douglas MacArthur.

Those words, Kahele said, encapsulate what he himself stands for and represent what he will bring to his service to the state should he be elected governor.

“When called to service, it is our duty to answer,” he said.

Update: In a text message late Saturday, Kahele said he would not resign from Congress.

Unexpected Path

Kahele’s political rise has been swift and unexpected. He is a combat veteran, Hawaiian Airlines pilot and commissioned officer in the Hawaii Air National Guard.

In February 2016 he was appointed by Gov. David Ige to fill the state Senate seat of his late father, Gil Kahele, representing South Hilo.

Kai Kahele easily won the seat outright that fall and was handily reelected in 2018. But just three month later, in January 2019, Kahele surprised many when he said he would challenge U.S. Rep. Tulsi Gabbard for the 2nd Congressional District seat.

Gabbard had just announced her intentions to run for U.S. president in the 2020 election. But she eventually dropped out of the race as former Vice President Joe Biden secured the nomination, and Gabbard decided not to run for a fifth term in the House.

Kahele took her place in Congress but chose not to run for a second two-year term this year, citing in part the Jan. 6 assault on the U.S. Capitol. He said that he and his family decided Washington, D.C., was not the place they wanted to call home.

Domino Effect

Kahele, 48, is a graduate of Hilo High School and lives on Hawaii island with his wife and daughters. He holds a degree in education from the University of Hawaii Manoa. He was also a member of the university’s NCAA Division 1 volleyball team.

About two dozen people have pulled papers to run for governor, including other Democrats, several Republicans, nonpartisan and third party candidates. The field will be finalized by the June 7 state Office of Elections deadline.

Meanwhile, former state Sen. Jill Tokuda, Honolulu City Councilman Tommy Waters and state Rep. Patrick Branco — all Democrats — have expressed strong interest in succeeding Kahele in D.C., as have lesser known Democrats and candidates from other parties.

Kahele’s elevated profile has drawn greater press scrutiny. Last month Civil Beat reported that Kahele had spent little time in Washington over the past six months and has been voting mostly by proxy. He also continued to fly for Hawaiian Airlines thanks to a special arrangement between him and the carrier.

Kahele has used social media extensively to get out his message, such as advocating for restoration of Oahu’s Makua Valley, which has been a live training site for the U.S. military.

He also emerged as a major critic of the U.S. Navy over petroleum contamination in the drinking water at Red Hill on Oahu. Hawaii’s delegation is often deferential to the military, given its heavy influence in the islands, and Kahele’s stance garnered attention.

On Saturday, in the Hilo Boys and Girls Club gymnasium surrounded by supporters wearing blue-and-white T-shirts reading “Kai’s my guy,” Kahele compared the influence of outside money in Hawaii politics to “jet fuel in our aquifer — we have to clean it up. … For those who think they can buy our government, Hawaii is not for sale.”

Now, Kahele is seeking the highest office in the islands in an election that is just three months away. Green has been raising money for months, securing major union endorsements and leading in the polls.

But Kahele says he has a 10-point plan to “return Hawaii to the people.”

The plan, posted on his new campaign website, is focused on campaign reform and calls for banning fundraisers during the legislative session, capping the size of campaign war chests, prohibiting union-to-candidate contributions, and enacting a single six-year term for governors and eight-year term limits for other statewide elected officials.

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