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Kahele: Neighbor Islands won’t get overlooked

New rep-elect heads to Congress for freshman term

U.S. Rep-Elect Kai Kahele, whose district includes rural Oahu and all Neighbor Island counties, said that he understands life on the Neighbor Islands and will be a voice for the delegation. He said one of his priorities is getting a long-awaited veterans center built on Maui. — Photo courtesy Kai Kahele campaign

After traveling thousands of miles from his native Hilo, Kai Kahele is immersed in the Washington, D.C., bustle, making preparations for his freshman term as U.S. representative.

Office selections. Loads of paperwork. Hours of training.

All the while at the nation’s capital, Kahele is seeking to maintain a pulse on Hawaii’s needs. He assured smaller Neighbor Island communities that once he’s in Congress in January, they won’t get lost in the fray.

“I understand the challenges of living on the Neighbor Island — every aspect of it — from education to health care to kupuna care to social services,” Kahele told the The Maui News in a phone interview on Wednesday. “And as a result, I can be that very important voice for the delegation and what the delegation needs.”

Kahele, who’s spent most of his life on the Big Island, discussed ways he’d like to get COVID-19 relief funds directly to county municipalities so they don’t have to ask Gov. David Ige for a “piece of the pie.” He touched on the balance of reopening tourism and public safety and also detailed goals for Maui County, such as building a long-awaited veterans center and funneling money toward agriculture.

U.S. Rep-Elect Kai Kahele and his family are moving to Washington, D.C., in preparation for his freshman term. — Photo courtesy Kai Kahele campaign

With the CARES Act expiring soon, state leaders have been mulling ways to secure additional COVID-19 relief money as Maui County buckles under some of the highest unemployment rates in the nation.

Kahele pointed out that the U.S. House passed a Heroes Act, a second stimulus funding piece for the country. The bill would provide nearly a half billion dollars for direct payment stimulus checks for those who qualify, additional money for the unemployed, more Paycheck Protection Program funding for small businesses and an infusion of rent relief funding.

“The money would go from the federal government direct to Mayor Victorino and the County of Maui to be dispersed rather than having to go to the state government, Governor Ige, who would then decide,” Kahele said.

However, the proposal is sitting in the U.S. Senate, without debate or a floor vote, he said, adding that he will be pushing for these funds.

When it comes to the tension between reopening and public safety, Kahele said it’s a “delicate balance” that involves “tough decisions.”

Neighbor Islands have been reeling over the lack of tourism dollars, more so than Oahu, which is also bolstered by government and military sectors.

Kahele said there is no perfect plan, and at some point a certain level of risk must be accepted when reopening the counties and the economy.

“Difficult decisions have to be made because tourism is such a big part of our economy,” he said. “I mean, we are not going to diversify our economy away from tourism overnight. It’s going to take a significant amount of time, a significant amount of resources. It’s going to take years to do that.”

To mitigate reopening risks, testing, adequate medical facilities, opportunities for people to quarantine and a thorough contract tracing program are needed, he said.

First and foremost, it’s the responsibility of leaders to protect their people and prioritize residents’ health, safety and welfare, Kahele added. Because the economy is so reliant on tourism, tough choices need to be made to reopen safely, he said.

Beyond COVID-19, Kahele outlined goals for Maui County. He said breaking ground on a veterans center for Maui is among his top priorities. The center has been in the works for over a decade, and a Central Maui site has been selected, but the project continues to stall.

“After years of talk and all these great headlines, we still don’t have a building and a facility,” he said.

With almost 10,000 veterans throughout the state, Maui County veterans, including those on Lanai and Molokai, need a place to get adequate health care, he said.

“That’s something our country owes our veterans who have given a very large part of their lives, and the lives of their families, their spouses and their children,” said Kahele, who’s also a service member. “That’s an obligation our country has to our veterans.”

Kahele said he’s currently getting briefed on the project and what’s needed to get it “shovel ready.” He hopes to get it done during his first term.

Also, Kahele said Maui and Hawaii islands produce 98 percent of the state’s agriculture and that he’s looking forward to serving on a committee on agriculture. He said Maui’s under-utilized lands can be cultivated for ag, and he aims to procure funds to support local farmers, subsidize startup operations and invest in water delivery systems.

The young leader has plenty of work ahead, especially during one of the most politically divided times in recent history. Kahele, a 46-year-old Democrat, said he will work to build bridges, something 21 years in the military has instilled in him.

“I’ve served side-by-side with active duty and Guard and reserve, military members who may have disagreed on many different things, philosophically and morally, but we knew how to get the job done, and we were able to put the mission first and to do that,” he said. “And that’s what I think we need here in Washington, D.C., is individuals that are servant leaders, are here for the right reasons and are here to get things done rather than fight and, you know, get separated into our different tribes.”

Kahele, a Hawaiian Airlines pilot and member of the Hawaii Air National Guard, entered politics in 2016. Ige appointed him to the Hawaii State Senate to finish the term of his father, Gil Kahele, who died unexpectedly after a heart attack.

In January 2019, Kahele announced his bid for Hawaii’s 2nd Congressional District, representing all rural and most suburban areas of Oahu/Honolulu County, along with Kauai, Maui, Kalawao and Hawaii counties.

He won handily to succeed U.S. Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, who ran unsuccessfully for president and said in October 2019 that she would not seek re-election.

Once he takes office, Kahele will be the second Native Hawaiian to serve in Congress since statehood. U.S. Sen. Daniel Akaka, who died in 2016, was the first.

“I’m also looking forward to being the second Native Hawaiian since statehood to represent Hawaii,” he said. “I feel like I can be a voice for Native Hawaiians in the United States Congress.”

* Kehaulani Cerizo can be reached at kcerizo@mauinews.com.

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