Democratic Rep.-elect Kai Kahele, combat veteran, says Trump supporters are 'a force to be reckoned with'

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Democratic Rep.-elect Kai Kahele, combat veteran, says Trump supporters are 'a force to be reckoned with'

As a progressive Democrat who supports the Green New Deal and "Medicare-for-all," Rep.-elect Kai Kahele, D-Hawaii, has had to temper his aspiration

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As a progressive Democrat who supports the Green New Deal and “Medicare-for-all,” Rep.-elect Kai Kahele, D-Hawaii, has had to temper his aspirations for the new Congress. 

Instead of a blue wave, the 2020 election results indicated that America just wasn’t ready yet for the seismic shifts that he backs.

“We’re still a divided country,” Kahele, a combat veteran, told Fox News during a recent interview. “And clearly, from looking at the map, there’s a lot of work that still needs to be done.”

Kahele, a state senator and military pilot, said the Democratic losses in the House were tough and unexpected, signaling to him that Democrats need to focus more on educating the public about the good of their policies that Republicans have sought to demonize.

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“It’s going to take education. It’s going to take relationships,” Kahele, 46, said. “Obviously, if we have slimmer majorities in the House, [if] we don’t have the United States Senate, some of these big, bold ideas are probably not going to be able to happen.”

Kahele made history on Nov. 3 as just the second Native Hawaiian elected to Congress to represent the Aloha State since it became the 50th state in 1959. He succeeds Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, D-Hawaii, to represent the 2nd Congressional District. 

Kahele says the progressive vision for health care, a green economy and a $15 minimum wage can improve lives. It just may take some convincing. 

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Kahele arrived in Washington for congressional orientation as thousands of President Trump supporters were rallying in D.C. – refusing to accept the results of the 2020 presidential election.

Rep.-elect Kai Kahele of Hawaii's Second Congressional District arrives in Washington for congressional orientation in November 2020. Kahele made history as just the second Native Hawaiian elected to Congress to represent Hawaii since it became the 50th state in 1959. (Marisa Schultz/Fox News)

Rep.-elect Kai Kahele of Hawaii’s Second Congressional District arrives in Washington for congressional orientation in November 2020. Kahele made history as just the second Native Hawaiian elected to Congress to represent Hawaii since it became the 50th state in 1959. (Marisa Schultz/Fox News)

The show of force is indicative of Trump’s broad appeal to a wide swath of the country, Kahele acknowledged. He said the party needs to do a better job of talking to Trump-backers and he questioned how they lost these voters when Democrats fight for the concerns of working men and women. 

“I don’t understand it,” Kahele said of Trump’s loyal base. “But I’m going to listen to it, make no mistake about it, because it’s a force to be reckoned with.” 

“… As somebody who comes from a middle-class family who is a strong member of a union, I just don’t think President Trump’s policies help middle-class families in this country.”

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Like the vast majority of Democrats in Congress, Kahele never supported defunding the police. Still, he said the Republicans’ effort to ascribe the Black Lives Matter demand to all Democrats may have hurt them at the ballot box in swing districts. 

He believes in socialism only in the context of medicine. He touts his experience with Veterans Affairs (VA) hospitals as a shining example of how socialized medicine could work.

“I’ve benefited from a great example of socialized medicine in this country – the V.A.,” Kahele said. “And so has my family. My daughters were born in military hospitals. Of course, that’s a benefit for giving my service to my country and many other service veterans out there, but it is an example of socialized medicine.”

“You have a military hospital. You have military doctors. You have military nurses, you have… great care that they give. Why can’t we extend that to all Americans? We already have Medicare – 65 years of age or older. Why can’t we extend that to everyone?”

Rep.-elect Kai Kahele, D-Hawaii, is a pilot in the military as well as for Hawaiian Airlines. "I've always had the ability to bring people together," Kahele said. "In times of crisis, I function at my most optimum in a high-stress situation."

Rep.-elect Kai Kahele, D-Hawaii, is a pilot in the military as well as for Hawaiian Airlines. “I’ve always had the ability to bring people together,” Kahele said. “In times of crisis, I function at my most optimum in a high-stress situation.”
(Courtesy of Kai Kahele for Congress)

Building friendships with Republicans

In order to bridge the divide between red and blue, Kahele wants to start by building bonds.

During freshman orientation, Kahele was surrounded by a sea of Republicans due to Democrats’ numerous House election losses.

To break the ice, he handed out business cards to his fellow reps with a picture of him, his wife, Maria and their three daughters. The card says how to pronounce his last name, “Ka-heh-lay” and lists six Hawaiian values, such as “ahonui” or patience.

“I’ve always had the ability to bring people together,” Kahele said. 

Instead of making the grueling 13-hour commute every week from his hometown of Hilo, Kahele’s family is moving to Washington. Kahele is already talking about hosting barbecues, going to church and playing baseball with fellow lawmakers in the hope that friendships can give way to bipartisanship. 

Rep.-elect Kai Kahele, D-Hawaii, with his wife Maria and their three daughters.

Rep.-elect Kai Kahele, D-Hawaii, with his wife Maria and their three daughters.
(Courtesy of Kai Kahele for Congress)

He made an early connection with Texas GOP Rep.-elect August Pfluger, a fellow veteran and father to three daughters. He wants their families to meet.

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Pfluger, too, wants to work with Kahele on issues like strengthening the military, national security and agriculture.

“I’ve enjoyed getting to know Kai,” Pfluger said. “We have a lot in common from both being Air Force pilots, coming from agricultural districts and being girl dads.”

Hawaiian roots, sky-high dreams

Born the son of a U.S. Marine and flight attendant, Kahele grew up in Hawaii with a respect for military service and a love for flying.

Standing 6 feet, 3 inches, Kahele became a collegiate volleyball player at the University of Hawaii.

He later followed his passion for flight and became both a military pilot and a commercial airline pilot for Hawaiian Airlines.

Kahele joined the Hawaii Air National Guard in 1999 and achieved the rank of lieutenant colonel. He’s been deployed many times in the Middle East, flying C-17 jets during combat missions into Afghanistan and Iraq. 

Rep.-elect Kai Kahele has served in the Hawaii Air National Guard since 1999. The pilot has flown combat missions in Iraq and in Afghanistan.

Rep.-elect Kai Kahele has served in the Hawaii Air National Guard since 1999. The pilot has flown combat missions in Iraq and in Afghanistan.
(Courtesy of Kai Kahele for Congress)

Filling his father’s seat

Kahele’s start in politics was born out of tragedy. 

His dad, Gilbert Kahele, was always active in Democratic politics. But it wasn’t until he retired from civil service that Gilbert became a state senator in 2011 at the age of 68.

Gilbert’s Senate career, however, was cut short by a massive heart attack in January 2016. As he was hanging on to life at the hospital, he asked Kahele to consider completing his work in the Senate.

Kahele, who had no political experience, agreed to his father’s final request to put him at ease. A few weeks later, the governor appointed Kahele to fill out the remainder of his late father’s term.

Rep. elect Kai Kahele, D-Hawaii, announces his primary challenge against Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, R-Hawaii, in January 2019. (Photo Courtesy of Kai Kahele for Congress).

Rep. elect Kai Kahele, D-Hawaii, announces his primary challenge against Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, R-Hawaii, in January 2019. (Photo Courtesy of Kai Kahele for Congress).
(Courtesy Kai Kahele)

Kahele quickly took to politics and earned leadership roles in the Senate. Three years later, Kahele made a bold decision to primary challenge the popular Gabbard just after she announced her 2020 presidential run. Kahele said the people of Hawaii needed full-time representation. 

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The early campaign launch paid off when nine months later Gabbard announced she would not seek reelection for her House seat to focus on her White House bid. Kahele had boxed out more Democrats who might have sought to compete for a vacant seat.  

He won the Democratic primary easily, despite taking four months off from the campaign for active duty with Hawaii National Guard in response to the coronavirus pandemic. 

Making history as second Native Hawaiian elected to House

As he arrived in Washington last month for orientation, Kahele marveled that it’s been four decades since Sen. Daniel Akaka, D-Hawaii, made history in 1976 as the first Native Hawaiian to be elected to the House. Akaka went on to serve in the U.S. Senate from 1990-2013.

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A 10-year-old Kai Kahele is pictured here on a family trip to Washington D.C. with then-Rep. Daniel Akaka, D-Hawaii. Kahele is pictured with his mother Linda, father Gilbert and sister Noelani. Kahele will be just the second native Hawaiian elected to represent Hawaii in Congress after Akaka. (Photo courtesy of Kai Kahele.)

A 10-year-old Kai Kahele is pictured here on a family trip to Washington D.C. with then-Rep. Daniel Akaka, D-Hawaii. Kahele is pictured with his mother Linda, father Gilbert and sister Noelani. Kahele will be just the second native Hawaiian elected to represent Hawaii in Congress after Akaka. (Photo courtesy of Kai Kahele.)

Kahele reflected on a vacation he took with his family to the nation’s Capitol in 1984 when they met with Akaka, a friend of his father’s. The family posed for a photo with the lawmaker on the steps of Capitol, and a young Kahele had no inkling whatsoever he would be the next Native Hawaiian to make history in Washington. 

“Who would have ever thought that standing on the steps in United States Capitol in 1984 would be a little 10-year-old boy who would be the second congressional representative for Hawaii of Native Hawaiian ancestry standing next to the first?” Kahele said. 

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