Voters poised to send 2nd Native Hawaiian to Congress

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)

Dalton Walker

Democrat Kaialiʻi “Kai” Kahele is expected to prevail in both Saturday’s primary and the November general election. #NativeVote20

Dalton Walker
Indian Country Today

Even with November a few months away, Saturday’s primary in Hawaii will more than likely decide the state’s newest member of Congress, and it’ll be a familiar name for Native Hawaiians.

Kaialiʻi “Kai” Kahele, a Democrat and state senator since 2016, is seeking his party’s nomination for Hawaii’s mostly rural 2nd Congressional District. Kahele, 46, has raised substantially more money than his opponents, according to the Federal Elections Committee, and is considered the ticket’s frontrunner.

“Kai is the only major candidate, so we are feeling really good about our chances Saturday," said Trisha Kehaulani Watson, Kahele’s campaign manager.

Kahele would be only the second Native Hawaiian in Congress since Hawaii became a state. 

On the Republican side, the state lists nine candidates seeking to advance to the general election, with Joe Akana, who is also Native Hawaiian, leading the field in campaign funds. Akana has raised nearly $27,000, while Kahele has amassed more than $940,700, according to the FEC.

Another Native Hawaiian District 2 candidate, Jonathan Hoomanawanui, is a member of the newly formed Aloha ‘Aina Party. He is running unopposed Saturday.

Kahele is an 18-year combat veteran. He has been on active duty with the Hawaii National Guard in its response to the COVID-19 pandemic and wasn’t available for comment.

It’s been more than three decades since Hawaii elected a Republican to Congress, meaning Kahele, if he captures the Democratic nomination, has history on his side. The seat was left open by U.S. Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, who decided not to seek reelection.

The late-Sen. Daniel Akaka was the only other Native Hawaiian elected to Congress since statehood. Five Native Hawaiians served in Congress as nonvoting delegates when Hawaii was a territory.

Kahele has a list of policy priorities on his campaign website that includes climate action, gender equality, healthcare and education.

He comes from the state’s last remaining fishing village, Miloli’i, and a family that practiced subsistence and traditional values, Watson said. Kahele’s campaign team is made up of Indigenous people, she said.

He’s somebody who “really does have a deep understanding of the issues that face Indigenous people, and they will not only have an ally but a champion in Congress who is willing to listen and fight for them,” Watson said.

Hawaii's 2nd Congressional District encompasses most of Hawaii outside Honolulu.

Saturday’s primary is being conducted by mail, and ballots must be received by 7 p.m. to be counted. Indian Country Today is following Native candidates seeking various offices in Hawaii.

A Democratic state House primary features two Native Hawaiians. Longtime activist Walter Ritte is challenging incumbent Lynn Decoite in District 13.

Four of the nine seats on the Office of Hawaiian Affairs trustee board are up for grabs, with three incumbents seeking reelection. The public agency sets policy and oversees a multimillion-dollar trust dedicated to improving Native Hawaiians’ well-being.

Three of the four seats are residential trustee seats, and the other is an at-large. The four nonpartisan races have attracted 24 candidates. Every eligible voter statewide can vote on the trustee seats.

One of the trustee candidates, Pua Ishibashi, on March 13 helped create the Aloha ‘Aina Party, which is based on Native Hawaiian values

The party is backing 18 candidates this election season, but only three are in the primary as trustee board candidates.

Fourteen of the remaining Aloha ‘Aina Party candidates are seeking state legislator seats in November. The other is Hoomanawanui.

For a detailed report card on issues that affect Native Hawaiians related to the 2020 election season, visit political watchdog organization Ka Lāhui Hawaiʻi Political Action Committee here.

Here are primary races in the state that include Native candidates:

  • Kaialiʻi “Kai” Kahele, U.S. House, District 2
  • Joe Akana, U.S. House, District 2
  • Lynn Decoite, State House, District 13
  • Walter Ritt, State House, District 13
  • Ty Cullen, State House, District 39
  • Kalani Kalima, Honolulu Council, District 3
  • Kauilani Almeida, Office of Hawaiian Affairs, Board of Trustees, Hawaii
  • Noelani Cashman-Aiu, Office of Hawaiian Affairs, Board of Trustees, Hawaii
  • Laura Desoto-McCollough, Office of Hawaiian Affairs, Board of Trustees, Hawaii
  • Louis Hao, Office of Hawaiian Affairs, Board of Trustees, Hawaii
  • Cyd Hoffeld, Office of Hawaiian Affairs, Board of Trustees, Hawaii
  • Pua Ishibashi, Office of Hawaiian Affairs, Board of Trustees, Hawaii
  • Lei Kihoi, Office of Hawaiian Affairs, Board of Trustees, Hawaiii
  • Keola Lindsey, Office of Hawaiian Affairs, Board of Trustees, Hawaii
  • Lanakila Mangauil, Office of Hawaiian Affairs, Board of Trustees, Hawaii
  • Louis Pau, Office of Hawaiian Affairs, Board of Trustees, Hawaii
  • Luana Alapa, Office of Hawaiian Affairs, Board of Trustees, Molokai
  • U’i Kahue-Cabanting, Office of Hawaiian Affairs, Board of Trustees, Molokai
  • Colette Machado, Office of Hawaiian Affairs, Board of Trustees, Molokai
  • Dan Ahuna, Office of Hawaiian Affairs, Board of Trustees, Kauai
  • Brittny Perez, Office of Hawaiian Affairs, Board of Trustees, Kauai
  • Kamealoha Smith, Office of Hawaiian Affairs, Board of Trustees, Kauai
  • Keli’i Akina, Office of Hawaiian Affairs, Board of Trustees, at-large
  • Jackie Burke, Office of Hawaiian Affairs, Board of Trustees, at-large
  • Kaipo Hanakahi, Office of Hawaiian Affairs, Board of Trustees, at-large
  • Larry Kawaauhau, Office of Hawaiian Affairs, Board of Trustees, at-large
  • Shane Palacat-Nelsen, Office of Hawaiian Affairs, Board of Trustees, at-large
  • Lenson Sonoda, Office of Hawaiian Affairs, Board of Trustees, at-large
  • Keoni Souza, Office of Hawaiian Affairs, Board of Trustees, at-large
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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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The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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