Replacing Kahele: Local Democrats prepare to fill Hilo Senate seat

  • U.S. House of Representatives candidate Kai Kahele monitors election results at his Hilo, Hawaii, headquarters on Tuesday, Nov. 3, 2020. Kahele and his team have been following more than 50 state races and has connected with 33 potential future colleagues. (Kelsey Walling/Hawaii Tribune-Herald via AP)

The Big Island could be short a state senator when the regular legislative session begins Jan. 20, as the process of filling Sen. Kai Kahele’s greater Hilo District 1 seat can’t begin until he resigns.

Kahele, who won Hawaii’s 2nd Congressional District seat by an overwhelming margin, doesn’t have to resign his state seat until he takes office in Washington D.C. on Jan. 3. But because the process of getting a gubernatorial appointee into the state seat can take as long as two months, local party leaders hope it happens sooner.


Hawaii County Democratic Party Chairwoman Gerri Kahili, in a Nov. 16 letter to Kahele, congratulated him on his win and asked him to consider formally resigning “as soon as possible.”

“We do not mean to rush you but believe your constituents need certainty and clarity about who will be their new Senator and that this is more urgent than ever, given the extreme challenges we are facing due to Covid and the severe economic implosion it has precipitated,” Kahili said in the letter. “The 2021 Legislative Session is going to be extraordinarily challenging and a new State Senator needs as much time as possible to secure a staff, be oriented to Legislative activities and schedules, and consult with constituents to be able to effectively advocate for their wide-ranging needs and concerns.”

Kahale, reached by phone Thursday, said he and his staff have been cleaning out his Honolulu office and aren’t quite finished yet.

“I’ll be resigning from the Senate probably sometime next week,” he said.

Once he does, a game of musical chairs is likely to ensue, with a state representative in the district almost certain to vie for the Senate seat, which has two years on it before the appointee faces an election. If a sitting House member is selected, the process of filling that seat begins, which could involve County Council members looking to move up in the legislative process. And so on.

Applicants for the Senate seat must live in the district and be an active member of the Democratic Party.

Former Hawaii County Democratic Party President Heather Kimball, who gave up the office once she became a member of the County Council, said the party has been preparing for the election in the precincts covered by the Senate district.

“We were making sure everyone involved knew the rules, we had the state parliamentarian involved, we wanted to make the process as transparent and adhering to the bylaws and constitution as much as possible,” Kimball said. “Those conversations have been happening.”

The party has 30 days, upon receiving notice of Kahele’s resignation, to nominate three names from qualified applicants, and then submit those names to Gov. David Ige. Some 45 local officials in nine precincts will vote on the three nominees that will be sent to the governor.

Ige then has another 30 days to conduct interviews and choose which of those three individuals to appoint to the seat.


Kahili could not be reached by press-time Thursday.

Email Nancy Cook Lauer at

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