December 2, 2023

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Has US Rep. Kai Kahele Given Up On Washington?

WASHINGTON — When Kai Kahele announced he was running for Hawaii’s 2nd Congressional District in 2019, he vowed one thing to his future constituents — that he’d show up and do the job.

It was a stark contrast to the person who was sitting in the seat at the time.

U.S. Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, a Democrat, had just announced she was running for president, and there were concerns that she had already given up on the district she had represented since 2013. Kahele attacked Gabbard’s naked political ambition and promised he was different.

Now, he seems to have backed away from that commitment.

Representative Kai Kahele speaks during a Red Hill Fuel tank rally held at the Capitol.
U.S. Rep. Kai Kahele, seen here at a rally at the state capitol in February, has avoided Washington for much of the past four months. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2022

A Civil Beat analysis of Kahele’s voting record found that over the past four months Kahele has rarely spent any time in Washington.

He skipped President Joe Biden’s State of the Union address, was the only member of the state’s federal delegation to miss out on meetings with city officials who were in D.C. to talk to the Federal Transit Administration about the future of Honolulu’s $10 billion rail project and was a no-show for a House Armed Services Committee hearing last week to discuss the Department of Defense’s $773 billion budget request for fiscal year 2023.

So far in 2022, Kahele has only cast five votes in person, all of them over the course of three days in January.

His remaining 120 votes — including one on April 2 to decriminalize marijuana that he boasted about in a press release including photos of him at a Big Island dispensary — were cast via proxy, meaning he had asked a fellow member to vote on his behalf on the House floor while he stayed home in the islands.

Since the beginning of the year, House voting records show Kahele voted by proxy more than all but three of his 429 colleagues.

By comparison, U.S. Rep. Ed Case, who represents Hawaii’s 1st Congressional District, has yet to ask someone to vote for him in 2022 and has only done so 30 times since 2020.

Prior to December, Kahele only voted by proxy 49 times, with most of those coming in March 2021 when Hawaii suffered historic flooding.

In early December, Kahele was still regularly coming to Washington for business, and even made headlines when he grilled top Navy officials about a fuel leak at the Red Hill fuel storage facility on Oahu that poisoned the drinking water for thousands of families.

But soon after, he began spending almost all of his time back in Hawaii.

Kahele has refused to talk about his absence in Washington.

When Civil Beat contacted his office to request an interview, his communications director, Michael Ahn, responded with an email saying that the first-term congressman was “not available.”

The office also refused to provide Civil Beat with a copy of Kahele’s schedule over the past four months to show how he has been spending his time representing his district. What is known is that Kahele has said he is seriously considering a run for governor in 2022, although that pronouncement came nearly two months after he stopped showing up for in-person votes.

“It’s unusual to have someone gone this long with no explanation,” said John Hart, a professor of communication at Hawaii Pacific University. “I presume Democratic leadership would prefer for him to be there so I think it’s legitimate for the public to question why he’s not. For most of us if we don’t show up for work people ask why. If we don’t have a good reason then there are consequences.”

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s office did not respond to a request for comment about Kahele’s extended absence.

Using Covid As An Excuse To Say Home

In letters filed with the House Clerk’s Office, including one dated April 4, Kahele wrote that he is voting by proxy “due to the ongoing public health emergency.”

His social media accounts, however, have shown him traveling around Hawaii, including between islands, to meet with local officials and constituents and hold press events while courting a run for the governor’s office.

An image of U.S. Rep. Kai Kahele touring a marijuana dispensary on the Big Island. U.S. Rep. Kai Kahele

Kahele, too, continues to work as a Hawaiian Airlines pilot, a job that paid him nearly $120,000 in 2020, according to his most recent House financial disclosure report. As a member of Congress he earns an annual salary of $174,000.

Kahele’s absence has not gone unnoticed, according to two Washington-based lobbyists who spoke to Civil Beat on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to do so by their firms.

Congress is now in the middle of appropriations season and members are crafting their requests for federal dollars.

The lobbyists said Kahele’s office has been slow to seek these requests for the upcoming year when compared to other members, including Case, who sits on the Appropriations Committee.

There are also concerns that Kahele is not fully engaged with his committees, which oversee transportation and the military, two critical topics for Hawaii, and that his office has done little to pick up the slack for him while he’s been gone.

Both lobbyists used the same word to describe the response coming out of Kahele’s office when it comes to scheduling meetings or discussing major policy initiatives, such as the National Defense Authorization Act that sets the policy agenda for the U.S. military — “Crickets.”

“This is a significant departure from how they operated in the past,” one of the lobbyists said. “The office always had a work ethic, but it’s obvious that they decided not to show up anymore.”

Proxy voting is only allowed in the House and was approved in May 2020 in response to the Covid-19 pandemic. At the time, there were no vaccines for the coronavirus, and House leaders wanted to limit exposure for members and their staff.

Since then, proxy voting has evolved and has been used by members who otherwise cannot be in Washington, such as for parental leave or other medical emergencies.

Molly Reynolds is a senior fellow at the Brookings Institute who studies proxy voting. She said there were spikes in the practice after the November 2020 election by lame duck members who either lost their seats or were retiring.

On the same day President Joe Biden delivered his State of the Union address, U.S. Rep. Kai Kahele posted an image to his Instagram account of him posing with Big Island coffee farmers. Screenshot/2022

There was also an uptick, she said, after the Jan. 6, 2021 insurrection in which former President Donald Trump’s supporters stormed the U.S. Capitol in an attempt to overturn the election.

“There are reasons why we might want to give people the opportunity to vote without being present,” Reynolds said. “But we are also seeing situations where members are using it and choosing to do other things with their time. Proxy voting was not stood up to allow someone to go to a fundraiser and have someone else cast their vote for them on the House floor.”

The House doesn’t have a good way of policing its members for violating proxy protocol, Reynolds said, and even if someone is caught there are questions about whether they would be punished.

She said members who vote by proxy miss out on face-to-face interactions that are critical to shaping good federal policy. Their absence can also feed into the narrative that Washington is a bad place to be, which further degrades public trust in Congress and other federal institutions.

For Kahele and others, Reynolds said, proxy voting can provide cover for not showing up because they don’t have to respond to the potential fallout from their constituents for not voting at all.

“We have no way of knowing what he or any other member would do in a world without proxy voting,” Reynolds said. “Would he be making different choices about how to spend his time or would he be skipping these votes?”

The End Of A Promising Career In Congress

Broken campaign promises are hardly unique in politics, HPU’s Hart said.

But in Kahele’s case the suddenness of his decision to stop showing up for in-person work was almost as surprising as the revelation that he was considering a run for governor before completing his first term in Congress.

“If you elect someone to go to Washington you presume they go and you presume they stay,” Hart said. “He may have gone, but he’s apparently not stayed. I guess the question that needs to be asked is: Is his absence from D.C. a cause or a symptom of his possible run for governor?”

Should Kahele give up his seat, he would be among the shortest tenured politicians to ever represent Hawaii in the nation’s capital. Only Charles Djou, who won a special election as a Republican in 2010 to fill a vacant seat for seven months, and Democrat Mark Takai, who died in office will have spent less time in office.

An image from U.S. Rep. Kai Kahele’s Instagram account showing him with President Joe Biden during the congressional baseball game in September before he started voting remotely almost exclusively. Screenshot/2021

It’s no secret that Kahele is an ambitious politician. He was appointed to the Hawaii State Senate in 2016 after the passing of his father, Gil Kahele. Once there the younger Kahele’s brash style began to irk some of his colleagues, particularly when he was the chair of the Water and Land Committee.

When he announced he was running for Congress against Gabbard — who had once been considered among the state’s most popular politicians, lagging only behind Hawaii-born Barack Obama — Kahele gave an interview to Vice News in which he said the congresswoman was in trouble because he was “a fucking tiger on her tail.”

Kahele later apologized for the profanity and told the Honolulu Star-Advertiser that he thought his comments were “off the record.”

“What Hawaii needs is a full time representative in Congress who will show up and whose sole focus is fighting on behalf of the people of the 2nd Congressional District,” Kahele said. “That’s the message I will be bringing to the people of Hawaii.”

Once elected, Kahele became the second Native Hawaiian since statehood to serve in Congress. The first was Dan Akaka, who retired in 2013 after serving 35 years in the House and Senate. Akaka died in 2018.

Many believed Kahele, who is from Hilo, could remain in Congress for as long as he chose, presuming he put in the work and avoided serious scandal. He already earned the backing of Hawaii’s political establishment, and had secured the endorsements of three former governors as well as those of his colleagues in the federal delegation.

Kahele even planned to move his family to Washington to help build connections with other lawmakers so that he could better serve the islands.

He said he hoped to follow in the footsteps of Akaka and other giants in Hawaii politics, including the late U.S. Sen. Dan Inouye, who after decades in office became one of the most powerful figures in Washington as chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, where he was able to funnel billions of dollars back into the state’s economy.

Now it appears he’s giving it all up.

Former Hawaii Gov. John Waihee, who was an honorary co-chair of Kahele’s 2020 campaign, said Kahele faces an uphill battle in the race for governor.

Polling has shown Lt. Gov. Josh Green is far and away the front-runner in the race, and there’s no guarantee Kahele can make up the ground to be competitive. There’s too much risk, Waihee said, whereas Congress is the closest thing Kahele has to a sure thing.

“If Kai ran for Congress right now he would walk into office,” Waihee said. “But if he runs for governor and he loses he not only loses his congressional seat but also maybe a future as a U.S. senator.”

Data scientist Kyle Ogilvie contributed to this report as part of a partnership with the National Press Foundation and DataKind DC