Native Hawaiian heads to Congress

By Taroi Black

 A historic win for the US Democratic Party came with the second Native Hawaiian lawmaker to represent the state in Congress since Hawaii became a state in 1959.

Newcomer Kaiali’i Kahele secured his seat with 171,398 of 99% votes counted. His rival, Joe Akana, a Republican, got 83,928.  Kahele's total is more than any other previous candidate for the House of Representatives from Hawaii second congressional district has received.

Kaiali'i Kahele and whānau singing - Video / Te Ao Mārama

His win will bring diversity and the Olelo Hawaii language and its culture to Washington DC. He is a proud language supporter and his two daughters are both in the Hawaiian equivalent of a kura kaupapa in Hilo.

“That’s the beauty of going to Washington DC, putting a Native Hawaiian in Congress,” he says.

Running the campaign to regain the mana of Kanaka Maoli in Congress started in January 2019. This came after the 2018 Primary Elections, which saw Tulsi Gabbard (Samoan-American) hold her seat as the representative for the second congressional district of Hawaii since 2012. She stepped down this year after seeking and failing to get the Democratic Party nomination for president.

According to results on the New York Times website, the former vice-president, Joe Biden, is only 17 electoral college votes away from winning the presidential race in the US election and the future is looking bright for the Democratic Party. That's despite reports that President Donald Trump is suing over results in both Georgia and Michigan.  

Kahele said it was looking pretty good for Biden: "If he can pull off Arizona and Nevada, then I think it’s over."

Zoom interview with Kaiali'i Kahele and wife Maria, Iolana (left) and Namaka (right). 

Kahele’s proud wife, Maria, puts this victory down to their shared effort, campaigning during the coronavirus pandemic. Both work for Hawaiian Airlines, Kahele as a pilot and his wife as an air host.

But Maria only found out the news the morning after election night.

“I was asleep when the results came through,” she explains.

Record elected Native Americans 

The 2020 general election also saw a record-breaking number of candidates of Native American heritage win their races for seats in Congress. 

The first two Native American women to be elected to Congress in 2018, Debra Haaland (Democrat, New Mexico) and Sharice Davids (Democrat Kansas), defended their seats. 

Other Native American incumbents Tom Cole and Markwayne Mullin, both Republican congressmen in Oklahoma.

Native American newcomers to the House include New Mexico Republican Yvette Herrell. 

Campaigning during the 2016 U.S Elections / Facebook 

In 2016 Kahele was appointed to the 1st district of the Hawaii Senate defeating Dennis "Fresh" Onishi in the Democratic Primary 57% to 35% and then defeated Libertarian Kimberly Arianoff in the general election that same year. Kahele also won the 2018 general election by a wide margin.

However, the last Native Hawaiian to be elected into Congress was Daniel Akaka in 1976 who served his district for 12 years. Former president Barack Obama remembered Akaka as "a tireless advocate for working people, veterans, native Hawaiian rights, and the people of Hawaii ... He embodied the aloha spirit with compassion and care."

Kahele sees this win as a huge responsibility to empower indigenous rights particularly on the issue which have forced Native Hawaiians to protest a thirty-meter telescope being built on their cultural sacred mountain, Mauna Kea. This led to many arrests by federal officers for blocking access to construction workers on the telescope.

“Mauna Kea is the most divisive issue here in Hawaii and Mauna Kea is not only special to Hawaii people, it’s also special for our Maori brothers and sisters of Aotearoa.”

“They are looking up to me to be their voice in Congress.”

Kaiali'i Kahele and daughter Iolana / Facebook

He also continues to serve as a lieutenant colonel for the Hawaii Air National Guard and in 2005 he was deployed to both Iraq and Afghanistan, receiving numerous service awards. He flew 108 combat sorties, logged 3,075 hours of military flight time, and commanded C-17 combat missions.

While Kahele supports the Second Amendment (to the US constitution, which gives the people the right to bear arms), he supports a ban on the commercial sale of military-style assault weapons and says he was inspired by New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern who announced the ban on the sale of all types of semi-automatic weapons and assault rifles in 2019 after the attack on two Christchurch mosques.

“I wish we did it here in America.”