Only one Native Hawaiian has represented the state in Congress since it first became a state in 1959. That's changing with Sen. Kaiali'i Kahele.
Kahele won the Hawaii House seat being vacated by U.S. Rep. Tulsi Gabbard on Tuesday, as Joe Biden easily won the deep blue state’s four presidential electoral college votes.
Now the second ever Native Hawaiian to be elected to Congress, Kahele defeated Republican businessman and former U.S. Air Force intelligence analyst Joe Akana, who is also Native Hawaiian.
His win comes at a time when the Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander communities have been hit hard by the COVID-19 pandemic.
The 46-year-old said at the top of his agenda would be making sure Hawaii’s four-member congressional delegation is unified so it can navigate the islands through the coronavirus pandemic and getting the state out of the economic recession.
Hawaii and its counties don’t have the financial resources they need to “weather the storm,” he said in a phone interview after winning.
“It is going to need federal support, sustained federal financial resources. And that is where our delegation is going to have to work extremely hard to make sure that we get the federal funding that we need,” Kahele said.
A 2017 report by the American Community Survey showed the poverty rate for all Hawaii residents was 9.5 percent, while the rate for Native Hawaiians was 13.5 percent.
In addition to the pandemic, Kahele made Native Hawaiian and indigenous rights a key issue in his campaign, saying that he will advocate for the Hawaiian Homes Commission Act in Congress. The act, passed in 1921, allows Native Hawaiians to return to their lands, but the department in charge of administering transfers has been criticized for its slow progress.
Valerie Scanlan, a registered nurse who lives in Puna on the Big Island, said she voted for Kahele in part because he has a good understanding what Hawaii calls the “Neighbor Islands.” These are the mostly rural islands that are often overshadowed by Oahu Island, where Honolulu is located.
“I mean, we’re really unique. So we kind of need somebody who’s pretty equipped to do that at the congressional level, especially now,” she said.
Kahele is from Hilo on the Big Island’s east side. The second congressional district has long been represented by politicians from Oahu.
Kahele is a pilot for Hawaiian Airlines and the Hawaii Air National Guard. He has served in the state Senate since 2016. Once sworn in, Kahele will be the second Native Hawaiian to serve in Congress since statehood.
Kahele is an advocate of Medicare for All and supports the idea of a Green New Deal to address climate change and help Hawaii meet its clean energy goals. He has served in the state Senate since 2016, when he was first appointed to fill the remainder of his father’s term after he died. He was elected for the first time later that year.