Candidates running in Saturday’s primary to succeed Democratic limited-term governor David Ige include a former first lady, a retired mixed martial arts champion and a congressman who moonlights as a Hawaiian Airlines pilot.
Democratic U.S. Rep. Kaiali’i Kahele’s decision to run for governor opened up his seat in Congress representing the Oahu campaign and neighboring islands. In the US Senate, incumbent Democratic Senator Brian Schatz is also up for re-election and faces a primary challenge from a little-known candidate.
Hawaii is a mail-in voting state, so voters have been mailing in their ballots and placing them in drop boxes across the islands since late last month. Election clerks in each county have made available a few voter service centers for people registering to vote at the last minute or voting in person.
In the race for governor, the leading Democratic candidates are Kahele, former first lady of Hawaii Vicki Cayetano and Lieutenant Governor Josh Green. On the Republican side, former Lieutenant Governor James R. “Duke” Aiona, retired MMA fighter BJ Penn and Honolulu City Councilwoman Heidi Tsuneyoshi are in the running.
Ige has served two four-year terms and is not eligible to run again. The winner of the Democratic primary would be the favorite to win the general election in the liberal state.
Many voters say Hawaii’s high housing costs are a major issue for them. The median price of a single-family home is over $1 million in Honolulu, Maui, and Kauai counties.
Cayetano said it would build rent-to-own housing and work with counties to streamline requirements impeding the construction of affordable housing. Green said he would issue an executive order to eliminate red tape, streamline approvals and enforce existing laws to shut down illegal vacation rentals. Kahele said he would build targeted housing for the workforce and impose a tax on vacant housing.
Aiona said he would eliminate the state Land Use Commission, which he accused of slowing housing development.
Herbert Rowland, a construction worker from Oahu, said he likes Green’s plans to tackle Hawaii’s housing and homelessness problem.
“I come from this island, I have spent my whole life there. I don’t want my kids to leave this island because it’s too expensive and they can’t find a home,” Rowland said, holding up a green campaign sign and waving at passing cars in Honolulu.
Another major problem is the large number of travelers and “overtourism” overwhelming popular sites. Annual visitors to Hawaii hit a record 10 million in 2019. The numbers dipped at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, but have since come back strong.
Green proposed charging all travelers over the age of 12 a $50 fee. He said it would raise $350 million to $400 million that the state could use to restore parks, shorelines and build housing. Cayetano endorsed the charges and said eliminating illegal vacation rentals was a good first step.
Kahele said Hawaii needs to reinvent tourism by emphasizing indigenous knowledge, spirit and aloha culture.
Aiona said the fees would be good if used to maintain parks and trails, but he urged caution because the higher costs could deter visitors who fuel Hawaii’s economy.
Kahele and Cayetano questioned the income Green received while he was lieutenant governor of a limited liability company called Green Health International LLC. Green, who continued in his role as an emergency room physician while serving as lieutenant governor, said the money was for work he did as a doctor.
Kahele has drawn attention this year for her own side job as a Hawaiian Airlines pilot and her extensive use of proxy voting in Congress. Like everyone else who voted by proxy, he submitted a required letter certifying that he was “physically unable to vote” on Capitol Hill. He cited “the ongoing public health emergency”.
Mona Chang Vierra, teacher, principal and educator, said she loves Cayetano’s business experience and commitment to the community. In 34 years, Cayetano has built the largest laundry service provider in Hawaii, serving hotels and hospitals on three islands. She resigned as president in February.
“She is very successful. She built her business from scratch,” Chang Vierra said.
Cayetano became first lady in 1997 when she married the then governor. Ben Cayetano during his first term.
In the U.S. House races, State Representative Patrick Pihana Branco and former State Senator Jill Tokuda are among six candidates vying for the Democratic nomination for Hawaii’s 2nd congressional district. Kahele, the incumbent, decided to run for governor instead of seeking re-election, leaving the post up for grabs.
Among Republicans, former US Air Force intelligence analyst and businessman Joe Akana and business owner Joseph Webster are seeking the job.
In the 1st Congressional District, lawyer and political newcomer Sergio Alcubilla challenges incumbent U.S. Representative Ed Case in the Democratic primary. Conrad Kress, Patrick Largey and Arturo Reyes are vying for the Republican endorsement.
In the race for the United States Senate, Schatz is challenged in the Democratic primary by Steve Tataii, a conflict resolution consultant. Tataii made an unsuccessful bid for Congress in 2016.
In the Republican primary for the U.S. Senate, State Rep. Bob McDermott is among five Republicans seeking his party’s nomination.