Kai Kahele handed state Senate seat

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Starting today, another state Sen. Kahele is taking office.


Starting today, another state Sen. Kahele is taking office.

Gov. David Ige on Tuesday appointed Hilo resident Kai Kahele to fill the District 1 Senate seat vacated by his father, the late Sen. Gil Kahele, who died unexpectedly last month at age 73.

Kahele’s original term was to expire Nov. 6, 2018. Kai Kahele will represent Hilo until the primary and general elections are held later this year to elect someone to fill the remainder of the term.

“I’m very, very ecstatic,” Kahele said Tuesday. “Words can’t describe how I feel. It’s been a roller coaster month, I’m so thankful for the governor for giving me this opportunity. I kind of feel like my dad can go to rest now, and we can carry on what he started.”

Kahele beat out two other nominees — former Lyman Museum executive director Dolly Strazar, whose experience includes, serving multiple positions for the Democratic Party of Hawaii, and county Office of Housing and Development division chief Kaloa Robinson, who worked for years in Washington, D.C., including as a special assistant to former Congressman Daniel K. Akaka.

Kahele lacks that on-paper political experience. He’s a pilot for Hawaiian Airlines, a decorated Iraq and Afghanistan military veteran and currently is a major in the Hawaii Air National Guard. He said he originally sought the Senate seat because his father asked him to.

But he said he’s excited about the new position — and comfortable. He said he’s grown up under the political mentorship of his father and has seen the political process in action. He said he’s attended the opening day of the Legislature since his youth.

“I may not have had direct legislative or (political) experience, but I definitely served my country (in the military) for the last 15 years, and in my view, that’s public service,” Kahele said. “… For someone who is 41 years old, I’ve been really fortunate to accomplish a lot of things in my life … (which have) really given me a worldview of many issues and many things.”

Kahele also is a University of Hawaii at Hilo adjunct faculty member and the executive director of the nonprofit Pa‘a Pono Milolii. He lives in Waiakea Uka and has two daughters, with a third due next month.

Kahele said his priorities this session include seeing his father’s bills through. The late Sen. Gil Kahele signed three bills hours before his Jan. 26 death. One would allot funding for an aviation program at UH-Hilo. Another would call for the state to purchase land at Kapua Bay and preserve it. A third would establish an airport authority under the state Department of Transportation.

Kai Kahele said his views align with the Democratic Party, and he’s “cut from the same cloth” as his father, who also started his career as a senator “late in the game after he’d already had a career as a civil servant” and “would get frustrated with bureaucracy and wanted to get things done as quickly as possible but in the right way.”

But unlike his father, who was much older when first appointed in 2011, Kahele hopes his youth brings something new to the session.

“I’ve got that young, millennial type mindset where we’ve got big, bold ideas and that sky’s-the-limit type of mentality,” he said. “I think I bring a lot of my dad’s ability, but also a fresh, enthusiastic wave of (energy). I’m a husband, and I have young children, and I often think about what their Hawaii will be like.”

Kahele is expected to be sworn in this morning before the session begins.

The other two nominees offered Kahele words of support.

“I think Sen. (Gil) Kahele was a gift to the community, and I think Kai will do well representing him in this session,” Robinson said Tuesday, adding he still plans to run for the seat in August. “… I appreciate the governor’s decision. I understand it, and I honor the memory of Gil Kahele.”

“I believe the process we went through as a Democratic Party was a very open one,” Strazar said. “… (Kahele) has good experience from working a lot with his dad, and in talking to him, I felt him very, very knowledgeable about the legislative process and all the things his dad was working on.”

Kahele plans to seek the seat again in the August primary election. He said he hopes his latest assignment marks the start of a long political career.


“(Gov. Ige) was appointed in 1985, and today he’s the governor,” Kahele said. “He shared that with me, and I believe he shared that with me because of the possibilities that could come out of something like this. The Senate is (just) the beginning, I’m here to make Hawaii better and to move Hawaii forward.”

Email Kirsten Johnson at kjohnson@hawaiitribune-herald.com.

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