WASHINGTON — Hawaii Congressman Kai Kahele’s loss in the governor’s race is a major blow — possibly fatal — to a once promising political career that began only six years ago with the death of his father, Gilbert.

Kahele was considered a rising star almost from the moment he was appointed to fill his father’s seat in the state Senate.

He is young, brash and charismatic. He also has a winning resume. He’s a former University of Hawaii volleyball player who flies planes for Hawaiian Airlines and a combat veteran who serves as a lieutenant colonel in the Hawaii Air National Guard.

2022 HNN Debate Gubernatorial candidate Kai Kahele debates Vicky Cayetano and Josh Green at the Sheraton Hotel.
Hawaii Congressman Kai Kahele surprised many of his supporters when he announced he was running for governor instead of seeking reelection in the U.S. House of Representatives. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2022

In Congress, Kahele is the first Native Hawaiian to represent the islands since the late Sen. Dan Akaka and just the second since statehood.

Even before being sworn in he talked openly about his desire to spend his career in Washington and, at 48 years old, was considered a leading candidate to be the state’s next U.S. senator.

Then, even before completing his first two-year term, he gave it all up to run for governor in a Democratic primary race that pitted him against Lt. Gov. Josh Green and former Hawaii first lady and businesswoman Vicky Cayetano. Green won the contest handily, nearly doubling the total vote count for both Cayetano and Kahele.

Since then Kahele has yet to appear at a public event or provide comment on the election results. Kahele did not respond to a Civil Beat request for an interview about his post-election plans, including what he intends to do with his remaining few months in Congress.

“He threw himself off a political cliff, much to the great regret and consternation of the people who believed in him,” said Neil Abercrombie, who was Hawaii’s governor from 2010 to 2014. “Everybody wanted him to succeed, but you succeed in the water you’re swimming in.”

Abercrombie was a co-chair of Kahele’s 2020 congressional campaign along with former Hawaii governors John Waihee and Ben Cayetano.

He said Kahele was an attractive candidate for Hawaii’s 2nd Congressional District, which at the time was represented by Tulsi Gabbard, who had her own political ambitions.

Gabbard was elected to represent rural Oahu and the neighbor islands in the U.S. House in 2012, and, like Kahele, was seen as a rising star. But Gabbard’s shine started to fade after a series of missteps, including a secret trip to Syria in 2017 to meet with that country’s president, Bashar Assad.

In 2018, Gabbard began laying the groundwork for a presidential campaign, which led to criticism that she was giving up on her district. Shortly after she announced on CNN that she was running for the 2020 Democratic nomination, Kahele, who was then a state senator, said he planned to run against her in CD2.

He built his campaign on the promise that he would be there for the district for the long haul. The message seemed to resonate, both with Hawaii’s political establishment and Democrats in Washington, who backed his candidacy with money and endorsements, including from the state’s federal delegation.

“He threw himself off a political cliff, much to the great regret and consternation of the people who believed in him.” — Former Hawaii Gov. Neil Abercrombie

Ultimately, Gabbard, who lost badly in her presidential campaign, decided against running for reelection and no other major candidates entered the race.

Long before ballots were counted, Kahele’s campaign had all but turned into a coronation.

Abercrombie said he was particularly fond of Kahele in part because of his own relationship with his father.

Gil Kahele was one of Abercrombie’s campaign managers on the Big Island when he ran for governor. Shortly after being elected, Abercrombie appointed the elder Kahele to the state Senate to fill the seat of Russell Kokubun, whom he had tapped to head the state’s Department of Agriculture.

Abercrombie spent nearly two decades representing Hawaii in the U.S. House of Representatives and said he wanted to do all that he could to help his friend’s son succeed.

“People were drawn to him because of his father,” Abercrombie said. “I don’t know anybody in political life who didn’t want to have Gilbert Kahele as a friend. He was beloved by everyone, especially me.”

Neil Abercrombie endorses Ikaika Anderson for the office of Lt. Governor at Kailua Beach Park.
Former Hawaii Gov. Neil Abercrombie backed Kai Kahele in his run for Congress, but when he decided to run for governor his views on him changed. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2021

When Kai Kahele won the election for CD2, Abercrombie said he reached out to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi directly to vouch for him so that he could get plum committee assignments. Kahele ultimately won seats on two committees critical to the islands — Armed Services and Transportation.

Pelosi bestowed yet another honor on Kahele, Abercrombie said. She asked him to say the opening prayer at the Democrats’ freshman dinner, an invocation he gave in olelo Hawaii.

“The sky was the limit and he had our support,” Abercrombie said.

That’s why he felt blindsided when he learned in January that Kahele was considering a run for governor. From Abercrombie’s perspective, it just didn’t make sense.

In a short time, Kahele had become a key member of the state’s four-person delegation and by all outward appearances was enjoying himself in Washington, building relationships, taking selfies with like-minded lawmakers and participating in annual festivities such as the Congressional Baseball Game.

“At first I was disappointed,” Abercrombie said, “and then I felt betrayed.”

‘Gasp, Panic, Disappointment’

Abercrombie is not alone. Many others were baffled that Kahele was giving up on Congress when it appeared he had a clear path to reelection.

Waihee, who is Native Hawaiian, said he envisioned a long career for Kahele during which he could build up seniority in Washington to help deliver for the islands and his people.

Eventually, he said, he would have liked to see him become a U.S. senator in the same vein as Akaka.

“This was a chance for him to continue in that tradition, but in his own way,” Waihee said. “I personally would have preferred for him to stay in Congress. It was a good direction for him and there was a lot of effort invested in that. That’s not to say I don’t someday hope to have a Native Hawaiian governor again, but he was already there.”

As a freshman congressman, Rep. Kai Kahele won seats on two committees critical to the islands — Armed Services and Transportation. Nick Grube/Civil Beat/2022

By most accounts, Kahele was beginning to find success in Washington even as a first-term congressman.

He focused his energies on Hawaii’s crumbling infrastructure and wanted to make cleaning up the state’s 88,000 cesspools, which can pollute the state’s ocean, streams and groundwater with untreated sewage, a core part of his work.

He targeted his earmarks to Native Hawaiian communities, including sending $1 million to a cultural preservation project in Milolii, a tiny Hawaiian fishing village on the Big Island where his father grew up.

When thousands of people were sickened after the Navy’s bulk fuel storage facility at Red Hill spilled thousands of gallons of jet fuel into the aquifer, Kahele personally collected a water sample, flew it back to Washington and demanded answers from top military brass during a public hearing.

Robin Puanani Danner, the Washington, D.C.-based chair of the Sovereign Council of Hawaiian Homestead Associations, was inundated with emails and phone calls when Kahele announced he was considering a run for governor.

“The three words I would use to describe their reaction were gasp, panic and disappointment,” she said.

Red dirt roads near the Molokai Airport leading to large parcels of DHHL Hawaiian Homestead lands.
A red dirt road leading to Hawaiian homestead land on Molokai. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2021

For nearly a decade, her organization had been working to amend the blood quantum requirements in the Hawaiian Homes Commission Act to make it easier for homesteaders to pass their leases on to family members.

Under the law, which was enacted in 1921, about 200,000 acres of land was set aside for individuals who could prove they were at least 50% Hawaiian.

The law states that beneficiaries are only allowed to transfer their leaseholds to spouses, children and grandchildren who have at least one-quarter Hawaiian blood, but no less.

But in 2017, Danner’s group was successful in persuading the state Legislature to amend the Hawaiian Homes Commission Act to allow people with as little as 1/32 Hawaiian blood to inherit their family leaseholds. All they needed was Congress to agree.

Last year, Kahele introduced legislation that would become that vehicle, but now Danner says there are some who are nervous about its future.

Now she said the onus will be on others, including U.S. Sen. Brian Schatz, chairman of the Indian Affairs Committee, to help champion the cause in Kahele’s stead.

“We expect the other members of our delegation to step up,” Danner said.

An Inexperienced Campaigner

For his part, Kahele has avoided talking to the media, including on election night when he came in third behind Green and Cayetano in the Democratic primary.

Kahele has mostly gone dark on social media. He switched his Instagram account to private and the last tweet he sent from his personal Twitter feed was on Aug. 14, the day after the primary when most Democrats gathered for their biannual “unity breakfast” to mend hurt feelings and coalesce around their shared desire to defeat Republicans in the general election. Kahele was a prominent no-show at the event.

“Mahalo Hawai’i. I Love You,” he tweeted with a shaka and photo of his family.

Kahele’s decision to run for governor is not emblazoned with hallmarks of a rational politician, said Colin Moore, who’s the director of the Public Policy Center at the University of Hawaii.

“I don’t think you can look at this as some sort of political calculation,” Moore said. “So you have to look for a psychological explanation and whether there were personal reasons why he wanted to come back to Hawaii.”

After he was elected, Kahele said he planned to move his family to Washington in part so he could forge better relationships with his colleagues on both sides of the political aisle.

But in a February interview with the Honolulu Star-Advertiser — the same one in which he said he was “giving serious thought” to running for governor — he said the Jan. 6, 2021 insurrection at the capitol changed his mind.

“We were blocks from the Capitol on that day,” he said. “As a family, we’ve decided that that’s not some place right now that we would like to raise our family in and that the best place that my family can be is here in Hawaii, in Hilo.”

Kahele’s campaign was flawed from the start. Not only was he giving up a safe seat, he was doing so to run against a popular politician in Green who already had the edge in endorsements and money.

When Kahele entered the race in May, Moore said, it was already too late to carve into Green’s lead.

“When you start to believe the stories your supporters tell you about yourself then that can lead you astray.” — Colin Moore, UH Public Police Center

Kahele swore off large dollar donations but then made a key mistake by failing to file the proper paperwork to take advantage of the state’s public financing option for his campaign, which could have given him a $200,000 boost in the primary.

Kahele’s relative inexperience also seemed to catch up with him, Moore said.

“He rose very high, very quickly, but not having to run any tough campaigns means you can start to believe your own myth,” Moore said. “When you start to believe the stories your supporters tell you about yourself then that can lead you astray.”

Kahele struggled to respond to negative stories in the press about him, Moore said, particularly those related to his proxy voting record. As the campaign dragged on, he began lashing out at members of the media by name.

The chippiness carried over into debates with Green — whom he called a “liar” while pressing the frontrunner to release his personal financial records — and was even directed at political consultants who mostly work in the background on campaigns.

For instance, when the Honolulu Star-Advertiser reached out to Kahele to comment on the results of a poll that showed Kahele trailing Green by nearly 40 percentage points, he sent a curt reply via email.

“Why don’t you ask Andy Winer?” he wrote.

Winer, who works for the lobbying firm Strategies 360, was a political adviser on Green’s gubernatorial campaign. He is considered one of the state’s top political operatives and was the chief of staff for Schatz. He also worked on Kahele’s 2020 bid for CD2.

Winer declined to comment for this article.

Moore said Kahele’s actions during the campaign and immediately after could hurt him should he decide to run for office again in the future.

“He burned a lot of bridges,” Moore said. “The costs are going to be long term if he wants to get back into politics. But I don’t know if he will come back. Maybe he’s done and this is just a footnote in local politics.”

‘Representation Does Matter’

State Sen. Jarrett Keohokalole endorsed Kahele for governor. He also considered running for Congress once he knew Kahele was no longer interested in it. Keohokalole even pulled nomination papers from the Hawaii Office of Elections.

But after spending some time reflecting on what it would mean to win — traveling back and forth to Washington and working in what he calls a “toxic” environment — he said he thought better of it.

“I like Hawaii and my kids are small,” Keohokalole said. “There are trade-offs that come with the job. You still get people who will do it. But I think the turnover is informative of the difficulty of the position.”

Senator Jarrett Keohokalole, Chair of the Health and Human Services Committee speaks before bills SB2657 and SB2597 are signed by the Governor into law at the John A. Burns School of Medicine.
State Sen. Jarrett Keohokalole considered running for Kahele’s seat, but said he preferred to stay home in Hawaii. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2022

Kahele, who will only have served two years in Congress by the time his term expires in January, will be one of the shortest tenured members of Hawaii’s federal delegation since statehood.

Only two others have served shorter stints — Charles Djou, a Republican who won a special election in 2010 to replace Abercrombie when he resigned to run for governor, and Mark Takai, a Democrat who died of pancreatic cancer in 2016 while in his first term in office.

Keohokalole, who is Native Hawaiian, shares the concerns of others who worry about losing an advocate in Congress for the state’s Indigenous people.

He added that he doesn’t think that the end of Kahele’s career in Washington means that Native Hawaiians automatically are worse off.

“I agree that representation does matter so I hope that we don’t lose out because he’s not there,” Keohokalole said. “And I think that not having a Native Hawaiian in the delegation to champion Native Hawaiian issues is not lost on the delegation.”

As for Kahele’s political future, Keohokalole is not so quick to discount him.

Rather than focus on what Kahele lost, Keohokalole said, people should scrutinize why Green won as easily as he did. Green will face the GOP nominee Duke Aiona in the Nov. 8 general election.

Other politicians who ran against the status quo in Hawaii have come back and won successful campaigns, he said, including U.S. Rep. Ed Case, who was a political outcast for nearly 12 years after challenging Akaka in the 2006 Democratic primary.

Like Kahele, Case too skipped the Democrats’ unity breakfast after his loss.

“If there’s a future for Kai Kahele, I think Ed Case could be the lesson in how to make a comeback,” Keohokalole said. “Political fortune turned for Ed and in a pretty big way.”

Help power our public service journalism

As a local newsroom, Civil Beat has a unique public service role in times of crisis.

That’s why we’re committed to a paywall-free website and subscription-free content, so we can get vital information out to everyone, from all communities.

We are deploying a significant amount of our resources to covering the Maui fires, and your support ensures that we can pivot when these types of emergencies arise.

Make a gift to Civil Beat today and help power our nonprofit newsroom.

About the Author