In His Father’s Footsteps
Hilo’s Kai Kahele didn’t foresee a career in government, but that changed in 2016 after the former combat pilot fulfilled a promise to his dying father. Now, with a taste for politics, the fast-rising state senator has his eyes set on an even bigger prize: taking the 2nd Congressional seat away from U.S. Rep. Tulsi Gabbard.
On Martin Luther King Jr. Day, state Sen. Kai Kahele (D-Hilo) announced he would be challenging U.S. Rep. Tulsi Gabbard for her U.S. congressional seat in 2020. As Kahele stood at the Mo‘oheau Bandstand podium in Hilo, memories of his late father, Sen. Gil Kahele, were foremost on his mind. It was three years ago to the day when Kahele found his father, 73, collapsed on the floor of the family’s Hilo home after suffering a heart attack.
“I drove Dad to the hospital, not realizing that he would never return home,” Kahele says. “Three days before he passed, he specifically asked me to seek the appointment to his senate seat if he didn’t make it. Not wanting him to worry, I said yes, never envisioning that we would lose him. It would be the last promise I made to him. Two weeks later, I was appointed by Gov. (David) Ige to fill his seat. I’m not a career politician; three years ago, I was a working dad just trying to raise my family in Hilo. I did it for my dad, my family, my community and for Hawai‘i.”
Kahele completed the term and won re-election in 2018. A combat pilot in the Hawai‘i Air National Guard, he is poised to be a formidable opponent to Gabbard, who is currently vying to become the Democratic nominee for president of the United States. Should Gabbard fail in her White House bid, she would likely return to campaign for her seat in the 2020 primaries. But she will have to face Kahele, who last November, won a four-year term to continue to represent Hilo in the state senate.
Kahele’s résumé is impressive. Last deployed in 2013, he has served in the military for 18 years as a major in the 201st Air Operations Squadron at Hickam Air Force Base, logging more than 3,000 hours of flight time, commanding dozens of combat missions and earning numerous awards, including the prestigious Air Force Commendation Medal. In 2012, he narrowly escaped a close call when his military base in Afghanistan came under attack in the middle of the night.
Kahele is also a commercial pilot for Hawaiian Airlines. He flies regularly from Hawai‘i to Sydney and Samoa, and makes quick trips to the West Coast.
Kahele’s legislative priorities in his district have focused on early childhood education, reform of the University of Hawai‘i system, health care for veterans, funding for rat lungworm disease research, establishing an aviation program at UH Hilo, and stimulating economic development in East Hawai‘i.
“At the end of the day, people are concerned about life-and-death issues that affect them locally,” he says. “Health care, aging, the high cost of living, mental health and safe communities are priorities. To address these tough issues, we need a congressional delegation that’s working together. We need all hands on deck and everybody pulling their fair share. It is time for the 2nd Congressional District to be represented by someone whose sole focus and priority will be the people of Hawai‘i Island, Maui, Kaua‘i, Moloka‘i, rural O‘ahu, Ni‘ihau and Lāna‘i. I want to bring the values of aloha that my dad taught me and to walk in the footsteps of Sen. Daniel Akaka and Prince Kūhiō.”
A native Hawaiian, Kahele would be the first elected official from a neighbor island to represent Congressional District 2, should he win Gabbard’s seat. He would also be one of only two native Hawaiians in history to serve in the U.S. Congress since statehood, the first being Akaka.
Kaiali‘i Kahele’s family dates back generations in South Kona, specifically to the village of Miloli‘i, where his father and grandfather were born. Kahele spent his childhood fishing, boating and camping along the shoreline, including at Kapua Bay just two miles south of Miloli‘i.
“My dad fought to protect that entire coastline from resort development. He became a young community organizer, and his nonprofit still exists today. I watched him go through contested case hearings when developers were trying to get those lands rezoned. It made a big impact on me as to how to care for these special places to keep them in perpetuity for the next generation. Because of my dad, the 15 miles of coastline between Miloli‘i and South Point remains the same.”
In 2011, Gil Kahele’s signature law was enacted to protect the South Kona Wilderness area totaling almost 6,000 acres. The exception is Kapua Bay, which is owned by one of Hawai‘i’s largest real estate developers, but today remains undeveloped.
“Maybe that’s why my dad made sure when I was a little boy, he took me there and spent so much time there, so when one generation passes, the next generation can step up and continue to fight to preserve this archeologically and culturally rich, historic area.”
Kahele takes pride in the work he’s done on behalf of Miloli‘i, including resurrecting the Miloli‘i Canoe Club after 80 years of non-existence. The first year back for the club, the novice-B men’s and women’s teams qualified for state championships. When the dengue outbreak impacted the village in 2015, Kahele helped raise $7,000 to fund mosquito nets and supplies, and also spearheaded a $125,000 catchment tank program that replaced all the liners and refilled every tank in the village.
His signature achievement is the Miloli‘i Community Center, set to open in 2020.
Admittedly, he was an underachiever in his youth. In fact, it wasn’t until Kahele met his mentor, Olympic volleyball player Pete Velasco, that his life turned around. The one-on-one coaching inspired Kahele to try out for the UH Mānoa Rainbow Warriors NCAA Division I volleyball team in 1994. He played for three years and made two final fours, earning a national championship in 1996.
“What happened in those five years is everything I am today,” he says. “It set the building blocks for the successes that followed, and how I lead my life as a professional airline pilot, elected official, military veteran, father and husband.”
Kahele enjoys meeting with fellow veterans throughout Hawai‘i’s Congressional District 2. He notes that Hilo boasts the only veterans’ care home in the state.
“We are so lucky to have it, but with that being said, one of my top priorities would be to advocate for a veterans’ home on O‘ahu, and to expand more opportunities for veterans to get the health-care they desperately need.”
For Kahele, inspiring the younger generation to achieve great things is also No. 1 on his list. He wants to make college more affordable and accessible, as well as help local schools get the resources they need.
“I’m not sold on free college, but I’m sold on debt-free college,” he says. “Also, how do we start to inspire kids when they are in elementary or high school so that they can be the next doctor in Ka‘u or fill other empty voids in our community? Those are some of the things that are really important to me. I want to set my sights on the future and share with my constituents everything I’ve learned about empathy, compassion, aloha and selfless sacrifice.”