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Dalton Walker
Indian Country Today

Nearly two years ago, Hawaii state Sen. Kaiali’i “Kai” Kahele officially started his path to a potential seat in Congress and a chance at being only the second Native Hawaiian to represent Hawaii since statehood.

Much has changed since January 2019, when the 18-year Hawaii Air National Guard veteran and Democrat announced he was running for Hawaii’s 2nd Congressional District. The presumed Democratic frontrunner, incumbent Tulsi Gabbard, decided not to seek a fifth-straight term and COVID-19 arrived in the U.S. When the pandemic hit Hawaii, Kahele volunteered in April for active duty and served four months as part of the state’s coronavirus response.

But what hasn’t changed is Kahele’s campaign message: Quality, affordable healthcare, a cleaner environment and Indigenous rights remain priorities.

“The first thing is, I want people to know that I am grounded in my ‘Kupuna.’ That's an Hawaiian word for ancestors, that I am proud to represent all of Hawaii,” Kahele told Indian Country Today. “But as a Native Hawaiian, I'm extremely proud to represent the Native Hawaiian community and Indigenous peoples in this country.”

Kahele’s campaign message resonated in August’s primary when he captured the Democratic ticket with nearly 77 percent of the 128,984 votes cast.

Combating climate change is another priority that needs to be taken seriously by lawmakers, he said. Rising sea level and increased sea level temperatures in the Pacific Ocean are affecting Hawaii.

“How do we prepare Hawaii and our heavily urbanized areas like Waikiki and Honolulu for the next 50 to 100 years?” he said. “How do we look at our infrastructure, and how do we prepare Hawaii for what most scientists are already predicting — sea level rise throughout the Pacific?”

The primary results are telling for a state that leans Democratic and a district that has voted blue since it was created in 1971. The district covers suburban Honolulu and the state’s more rural islands, including Kahele’s home island of Hawaii, where he lives with his wife, Maria, and three young daughters in Hilo. Kahele is from Miloli’s, Hawaii’s last remaining fishing village.

Kahele’s political career didn’t begin with an election. It started in early 2016 when was appointed by the governor to the state Senate to fill the seat of his late father, Gil Kahele. Later that year, he took the primary election with 57 percent of the vote and the general election with nearly 89 percent of the vote. In 2018, he was reelected by a wide margin and was selected to serve as the Senate majority floor leader, Senate Committee on Water and Land chairman and vice chairman of Hawaiian Affairs.

His campaign message is also supported on the country’s mainland by two key Democrats. Kahele picked up endorsements from former President Barack Obama and presidential candidate Joe Biden.

Kaialiʻi “Kai” Kahele, a Democrat and Hawaii state senator, is a candidate for Hawaii’s 2nd Congressional District. (Photo courtesy of Kai Kahele campaign website)

With a win, Kahele would join the late Sen. Daniel Akaka, who left office in 2013, as Native Hawaiians in Congress since Hawaii became a state in 1959. Five Native Hawaiians served in Congress as nonvoting delegates when Hawaii was a territory. Kahele said Akaka was a mentor and someone he’s looked up to his entire life.

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Even if Kahele is defeated, a Native Hawaiian could be elected to the House. Two other Native Hawaiian candidates are on the general election ballot: Republican Joseph Akana and Aloha Aina Party nominee Jonathan Hoomanawanui. American Shopping Party candidate John Giuffre, Libertarian Michelle Rose Tippens and Ron Burrus, nonpartisan, round out the ballot.

Kahele has raised $1.1 million since January 2019, while his closest opponent, Akana, is in a distant second place with nearly $50,000, according to Federal Election Commission data. Hoomanawanui listed nearly $2,000 in contributions. Contributions to Giuffre, Tippens and Burrus weren’t listed.

One topic that has come of Hawaii in recent years is the stalled controversial Thirty Meter Telescope project. The project involves Mauna Kea, the state’s tallest mountain and a sacred place to Native Hawaiians, who have been fighting to protect the mountain from being desecrated. Kahele said he can see the mountain from his bedroom window and understands the telescope controversy.

“Mauna Kea is one of the most sacred places in the entire Pacific,” he said. “It is one of the most sacred places to Native Hawaiian peoples. It is also one of the best places in the world, if not the best, for ground based astronomy in the Northern Hemisphere, and so trying to find balance but also not repeat the missteps and the wrongs that have been done over the last 40 years.”

On Friday, a day before Halloween, Kahele was out campaigning in Hilo, dressed as Marvel’s Captain America. A social media post showed Kahele waving a U.S. flag and encouraging people to vote. A day earlier, Hawaii reported a record number of voter turnout that has already passed 2008’s record. About 55 percent of eligible voters have already voted, according to Honolulu Civil Beat.

Hawaii is one of five states that conduct an election entirely by mail as ballots are automatically mailed to registered voters. The state enacted the vote-by-mail law in 2019. Voters also have the option to cast ballots in person at service centers open 10 days through Election Day.

Kahele said if elected, he’s looking forward to working with the Native American Caucus and with Reps. Sharice Davids, Ho-Chunk, and Deb Haaland, Laguna and Jemez Pueblo,

“I think adding to our Native, Indigenous members of Congress, especially in the House, is very important because we have unique issues and have a unique history with the United States of America that requires a strong voice in the United States Congress. I'm looking forward to being a contributing member of the team and to represent the Indigenous voices of this nation.”

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Dalton Walker, Red Lake Anishinaabe, is a national correspondent at Indian Country Today. Follow him on Twitter: @daltonwalker Walker is based in Phoenix and enjoys Arizona winters.

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