So the campaign ads finally got on my last nerve, and I am compelled to write out some of the reasons I am voting for Kai Kahele for Governor. I sent an email with my reasons (typos and all) to my family and friends. After much pestering they got me to refine that email into a series of posts for a more general audience, as a way to allow for more conversation as people grapple with who to vote for this year. That said I reserve the right to be junk at engaging on social media. This is really not a substitute for real conversation. I hope we get a chance to actually talk more about politics soon.
As always, if you share my sentiments justifying a vote for Kahele as Governor, then please tell your friends and family. You can donate to the campaign of course, but more than money what he needs are the really valuable votes that each of us will cast… in the privacy of our own homes or the voting booth.
And regardless who wins the seat for Governor, it is crucial that each of us engages regularly with the new Governor to ensure their administration does everything possible to protect the best interests of the people of Hawaiʻi. It is on each of us to hold the next Governor accountable, no matter who it is.
Why I am voting for Kai Kahele for Governor, reason #1: Kai is not owned by the corporate elite
Because of the warped political system we live under, the best indicator of what kind of elected official a candidate will be is who their donors are. These are the entities that the candidate will be accountable to once elected. These are the people they will not disappoint when things get tough.
Kai Kaheleʻs supporters are just regular people. I have been to his campaign events. There are no political operatives there. The only lobbyists are the public interest ones, like I used to be. Everyone is a volunteer. It is truly grassroots. People like us are the ones Kai would be accountable to once he is elected.
This is a stark comparison to LG Greenʻs campaign. It is not that LG Green is evil. It is that he is surrounded and supported by some of the most wealthy and powerful people in our islands. Please take a moment to look at the campaign donations the Green campaign has received.
It is wealthy out-of-state real estate moguls, big pharma, defense contractors, and people who are under investigation for political bribery. This is a huge red flag. This is who will have the greatest influence on who is appointed to key positions in a Green Administration. This is who he will have a hard time disappointing when things get tough. And that is scary to me. If LG Green is elected, I hope he proves me wrong on this.
By contrast, Kai Kahele already disappointed the Big Five, when he chose the community in East Maui over A&B. Kai already disappointed the defense contractors when he introduced the Leandra Wai bill to Congress seeking the return of Makua Valley from the Army, and when he somehow managed to get the whole congressional delegation to publicly support shutdown of Red Hill – something they were adamantly against 2014-2020 (after the previous major leak).
Remember: Kai Kahele signed the Our Hawaiʻi Pledge against the outsized influence of the wealthy and the powerful in our elections. LG Green has not (but he still can – it would begin to demonstrate his independence from these very questionable corporate influences). People should really check out https://our-hawaii.org to find out how they can support candidates trying to run truly independent campaigns. If you hate the way we do politics here with all the retribution and bullying, then this might be the place for you. And if you are so moved to support them, as I was, please sign the pledge yourself and make a donation. Organized people are more powerful than organized money, every time.
Why I am voting for Kai Kahele, reason #2: Red Hill
I spent the better part of the last 7 years trying to get the Red Hill fuel tanks drained to save our water. We were not successful and our water is now contaminated, probably permanently. After such a catastrophe, of course every politician comes out in support of draining the Red Hill fuel tanks. To understand where elected leaders really are, I think it is important to look at what lawmakers were doing 2014-2021, the time between the two recent major leaks of fuel from Red Hill.
In 2018, as chair of the Water and Land Committee in the Senate, Sen. Kahele took a huge risk advancing a state bill that would have greatly increased oversight and protection for our water from the Red Hill fuel tanks. This was the farthest any substantive bill on Red Hill got in the legislative process, prior to the 2022 session. Sen. Kahele again employed his superior political acumen to convince the Senate to pass out the bill. Which was huge considering he had to convince people like the now-retired senator from Waipahu and chair of the military affairs committee at the time, who had the nerve to tell me that he would not stick his neck out on Red Hill because it did not affect his district. 🤯 Of course the safety of abundant freshwater on Oʻahu affects his district!
For then-Sen. Kahele, it did not matter that Red Hill truly did not affect his district. It did not matter that this was not his committee. It didnʻt matter that this bill challenged the military in Hawaiʻi (and the many wealthy defense contractors and Chamber of Commerce types that like to use their money to leverage politicians). Protecting Oʻahuʻs water supply was a no-brainer for Kai.
Unfortunately, this bill did not become law thanks to Speaker Scott Saiki in the House (thatʻs a post for another time). But I think this story demonstrates the kind of elected official Kai Kahele is.
Now I have seen the political ads for LG Green on Red Hill. It is misleading in at least two ways. First, LG Green was not a leader on Red Hill prior to 2021 water crisis. LG Green was a senator and then Lt. Governor from 2014 to 2021, and he did not meet with community advocates on Red Hill during that time, that I know of, though I asked more than once. I think he probably signed one letter regarding Red Hill, one that nearly all Senators signed against the Administrative Order on Consent when it was being signed in 2015.
But I did not see him take any leadership role on this issue in either position during this time period. And you know what: this fact is true of most of our elected officials. I can count on one hand the number of elected officials at the state and federal levels (aka: those in a position to do something at the time) who were strong advocates for the shutdown of Red Hill prior to the contamination of our drinking water.
Second, the ad is also very misleading because it makes people think the water crisis is solved. The Red Hill tanks are NOT shut down. The tanks are not empty. The water is still contaminated and residents are still finding oil sheens on their tap water. There is still a 30% chance of another leak every year, and we are shockingly unprepared for it. This problem is not remotely solved! I feel like LG Green’s ad on Red Hill plays directly into the Navy’s “nothing to see her, maʻam” narrative that seeks to quell community outrage over the harm we have suffered.
I donʻt know why LG Green feels compelled to stretch the truth when he has such a comfortable lead in the polls. But this really raises red flags for the fate of truth in a Green Administration. I am glad that Dr. Green visited with some of the families that were directly affected by the water crisis in 2021. That was a good and important thing to do. And he did join every other elected official who has since cleaned up their position on Red Hill after all those people were severely injured by the Navyʻs negligence. I am working hard to accept the support of the late-comers to this issue – despite the resentment some of us may feel, it is genuinely a good thing that lawmakers now feel their own strength to hold the Navy accountable for their abuse of us and our environment.
Why I am voting for Kai Kahele, reason #3: Kai is not easily intimidated by powerful corporate interests.
In the course of lobbying lawmakers over the last so many years on so many different issues, I had an opportunity to understand how some lawmakers operate, what motivates their decisions. As a Senator and a Congressman, I can say without hesitation that I could always count on Kai Kahele to be on the right side of issues. Didnʻt matter if it was Red Hill or taro-feeding streams or clean energy… whatever the issue was, whatever district it affected, whatever high mukamukas it challenged – it didnʻt matter– Kai advocated for the best interests of the public. I did not have to convince him once of the right thing to do; he just knew, and he went above and beyond every time.
Because Kai Kahele is always willing to defend Hawaiʻi and take on the powers-that-be, the Alexander & Baldwins, the Chamber of Commerce types, the big banks, the outside developers, anyone who tries to exploit Hawaiʻi’s natural and cultural resources, I am always willing to stand up for him. He had our back in some pretty epic battles at the Capitol, so I am speaking up now to show that I have his back. And I hope that everyone who cheered on those recent, historic victories, everyone who benefits from more water in the streams, and less corporate influence over our politics will do the same.
Why I am voting for Kai Kahele, reason #4: Kai has superior diplomacy and persuasion skills.
Kai Kahele has a special skill for negotiating complicated, entrenched issues and brokering a fair path forward. He wasnʻt always successful, but he always tried and was successful more times than not. I saw this on the East Maui streams issue. In 2015, the Senate voted to allow Alexander & Baldwin to continue taking water as it shut down its plantation and laid off its workers, and despite powerful testimony from farming families desperate to see their streams flow again. This is when the now-retired Senator from Maui told me that the ultimate waste of water was when it flowed in a stream and out into the ocean (as nature intended). 🤯
By 2018, then-Senator Kahele was able to persuade his colleagues to vote for the protection of the streams against A&Bʻs sideways attempt to continue diverting millions of gallons of water every day that it did not use (and pocket $62 million from its deal with Mahi Pono). Preventing this very bad bill from passing allowed the Water Commission to complete its evaluation on how much water was needed for what, and they ultimately decided to restore the majority of streams in the taro-farming communities of East Maui. There is still much work to be done to fully implement that decision, but we are already seeing taro farming, native stream ecosystems, and healthy communities rebounding in East Maui, as a result. This was a very big deal.
Kai has had a relatively short political career. But in that time he has redefined what is possible in local politics.
Why I am voting for Kai Kahele, reason #5: Military leases
Because of the Red Hill water crisis, Hawaiʻi is entering a new phase in our relationship with the military. We have to think about who we want to represent our interests as that new relationship is brokered. Is it better to have a candidate with experience in the military, proven political acumen, and an unwavering commitment to our natural resources? Or a candidate with zero military experience, a complicated relationship with the truth, and a stated commitment to always value national security (there are two that fit this description). I canʻt believe I still have to say this, but: there is no amount of national security that is worth our islandʻs water supply.
Things are very precarious with Red Hill right now. The Navy is engaging in the same tactics of delay, distraction, and confusion that they employed after the 2014 fuel leak from Red Hill, and frankly every other place they have destroyed in the name of national security – Kahoʻolawe, Kwajalein, Vieques, Albuquerque, Camp Lejune, the list is inhumanely long. Make no mistake that the next administration will have a significant role in deciding what happens with Red Hill. That, plus climate change, is why this year’s election is so important.
Why I am voting for Kai Kahele, reason #6: He is Hawaiian.
As a settler (someone without a genealogical connection to Hawaiʻi) committed to confronting the horrible fall-out of the U.S.-backed overthrow of the Hawaiian Kingdom in 1893, I support Hawaiians every chance I get. And I hope other settlers can do the same. Here is my logic:
As a white settler brought to these islands by the U.S. military occupation, I feel an obligation to work really hard to reverse the harms of that occupation. This plays out in many ways for me. Relevant to making choices about who leads Hawaiʻi, this means when all things are otherwise equal, I support Hawaiians vying for a leadership role. This is not to say I am voting for Kai just because he is Hawaiian. I would not vote for a woman, just because she is female. To get my support, a candidate has to be high quality. But when the candidates line up in most ways, and Hawaiian ancestry is a distinguishing factor, then I vote for the Hawaiian.
I took this position in the confirmation of a new intermediate court judge recently and was criticized by my liberal friends. Those uncomfortable conversations revealed a lot of subterranean racism in Hawaiʻi’s environmental community. In that situation, the governor had appointed the only white male on a list of candidates that included several, very highly qualified, and progressive-minded Native Hawaiian women. It seemed wrong to me that settlers should be appointing leaders who are recent settlers when there are equally (and I would argue far more) qualified candidates who are from backgrounds typically iced out of positions of power in Hawaiʻi, and who have also dedicated their lives to serving the community that raised them. I saw that judicial appointment as a huge opportunity to make amends for the current consequences of Hawaiʻi’s long history with racism.
And, I see a similar opportunity in this choice for the Democratic Nominee for Governor. Comparing the 3 leading candidates side-by-side on the issues, it is clear that LG Green and Congressman Kahele basically agree on the big ideas. Candidate Cayetano is far too comfortable with handing off basic government services to private companies, and has herself never made a decision affecting the quality of my life, so I am not ready to put her in charge of the state. But, LG Green is “good enough” on the core issues I care about. Generally speaking he supports protecting public health, and the environment, and protecting our individual rights to privacy and agency over our own bodies. So does Congressman Kahele. And in some ways, Kai is a far more fervent and effective defender of these core issues, especially when it comes to the military’s presence here.
In addition, I also look around to see who else is in charge in Hawaiʻi. What other key leadership positions at the local, state, and federal levels are filled by Native Hawaiians? How many mayors, members of Congress, county councils, the House and the Senate are Native Hawaiian? Not the majority; not even half. There are plenty of settlers of every ilk in positions of power throughout Hawaiʻi, but not that many Hawaiians.
Native Hawaiians – the descendants of those who cultivated a highly functional, stable society in the middle of the Pacific Ocean for hundreds of years before contact with Caucasians – deserve many seats at all of the tables where our futures are mapped out. While we debate why it is that more Hawaiians are not in more positions of power, I am going to use my vote to counter that trend every time.
For me, this is about setting right a historic wrong, as much as it is about advancing Democratic ideals in Hawaiʻi.
What I consider to be dumb reasons to not vote for Kai Kahele:
Rumors. You heard he did this or that? And so what? What evidence is there? What effect does it have on your life? It is disgraceful that people base their votes in idle rumors about personal choices. Rumors are one of the tools of patriarchy to keep us locked in.
Hawaiian Airlines sweetheart deal. Really?! Kai has a side job flying local families where they need to go and back home again. No different than LG Green having a side job providing personalized medical services to those that can afford a home visit from a politically well-connected doctor – although we do not know who those clients are. And no different than the majority of lawmakers in Hawaiʻi — this is by design, and we can debate if this is a good design… but generally speaking, a standard paycheck given in exchange for honest work done is not controversial. It is certainly not worse than the millions amassed in political contributions in exchange for we donʻt know what promises.
He quit Congress. I actually think this is an asset, and demonstrates good judgment. As soon as he confirmed Congress is a hot bucket of snakes, he got himself the hell out of there. Good on him. And this happens all the time — politicians commonly quit and run when the opportunity arises. People voting on that basis are not being honest with themselves.
Fumbled public financing. Mistakes happen because politicians are human. What really matters is how the politician manages when things do not go smoothly, which happens so often. I feel like Kai Kahele has managed this mistake very well. He did not abandon his principles or his commitment to running a campaign independent of major donor influence. He did not abandon us, the regular voter with only a few dollars to share. Instead he doubled down on his commitment. He is still only accepting donations of $100 per person and is asking his supporters to help reach new supporters because each vote is more important than any dollar. I think it speaks well of him that he did not falter from his principles and commitments at such a difficult time.
Guest Post by
Environmental attorney in Honolulu. The former director of the Sierra Club of Hawaiʻi, now working at Earth Justice