In A Divided America Kai Kahele Wants To Find A Place To ‘Fit In’

The Democratic state senator is only the second Native Hawaiian elected to Congress since statehood.

WASHINTON — The morning after Kai Kahele won a decisive victory in the race for Hawaii’s 2nd Congressional District he ordered a stack of flapjacks and a double loco moco at Ken’s Pancake House in Hilo.

Kahele had reason to celebrate.

He entered politics in 2016 after he was appointed to the Hawaii State Senate by Gov. David Ige to finish out the term of his father, Gil Kahele, who died unexpectedly after a heart attack.

A former University of Hawaii volleyball player, Kahele never expected a life in politics much less one that would send him, a 46-year-old Native Hawaiian, to the nation’s capital after one of the most divisive and historic elections in modern U.S. history.

When Kahele spoke with Civil Beat Wednesday the nation was still awaiting the results of the presidential election between Donald Trump and Joe Biden, the fate of the U.S. Senate was still in limbo and it appeared Democrats in the House would lose seats rather than expand their majority.

“There was no blue tsunami,” Kahele said. “I’m not sure if we really know what the future of the country should look like around certain issues. It’s clear by looking at the map that there’s a lot of red in the middle and a lot of blue on the outsides. We’re pretty much split down the middle.”

Kahele, a Hawaiian Airlines pilot and member of the Hawaii Air National Guard, describes himself as someone with strong progressive values.

He supports Medicare for all and the Green New Deal. But as he looks around the country he questions whether all Americans are ready for the seismic changes some in his party, including him, have been calling for.

No matter who wins the presidency it will likely be by the slimmest of margins. Even in Hawaii — a Democratic stronghold — Trump expanded his margins between 2016 and 2020 from 29.4% to 33.9%. That means nearly 200,000 people in the islands voted for Trump over Biden.

Congressman Ed Case, who won reelection Tuesday, said it’s important Democrats don’t forget that large swaths of the country voted for Trump, especially if America has any hope of healing its divides.

“The people who voted for President Trump are my fellow Americans also, and they’re mostly good decent people,” Case said. “They have to be a part of this too.”

Kahele said he has yet to craft his legislative agenda. The fact that he faced little opposition in both the primary and general elections, however, has allowed him to get a jump on making inroads in Washington.

When he announced he would be running for U.S. Rep. Tulsi Gabbard’s seat one week after she launched her bid for the White House, Kahele received the endorsements of major political players in Hawaii who were worried the congresswoman was putting her own political ambitions ahead of her responsibilities to her district.

Not long after Gabbard announced she would not be running for reelection, Kahele started picking up support from those in the D.C. Democratic establishment, including members of Congress and other national political organizations, such as the League of Conservation Voters, Planned Parenthood and the Brady PAC against gun violence.

Kahele also started spreading around his campaign funds in an effort to help Democrats strengthen their grip on the House. He donated thousands of dollars to candidates across the U.S. and gave $100,000 to the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.

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