Local Dems to pick Kahele replacement candidates

  • Tyler Dos Santos-Tam

Three familiar names and four not quite as familiar will vie for an open state Senate seat this evening in virtual interviews with precinct officials who will select three Democrats to send to Gov. David Ige as candidates to fill the District 1 seat vacated by Kai Kahele, who was elected to Congress.

For only the second time in state history, the interviews will be live-streamed to the public. The stream is scheduled to begin at 6 p.m. this evening on @HICountyDems on Facebook. While the voting of the 44 precinct officials in the Democrat-only election will be offline, the results will be announced after the vote, with a letter immediately sent to Ige.


Ige has 60 days from Kahele’s Dec. 16 resignation to select from the three candidates. State and local party officials are hoping the nomination comes as soon as possible, with the Jan. 20 legislative session looming.

“I think it is really important that people of Senate District 1 feel like the process has been open. Even though there was a short timeline to get them in, we tried to get this done as soon as possible before Christmas,” said state Democratic Party Chairman Tyler Dos Santos-Tam. “I think it’s a great thing they have qualified applicants to choose from.”

Hilo Councilman Aaron Chung, who said he’d had a number of people ask him to throw his hat in the ring, said he chose not to because the process is “just super-political. I didn’t want to be a part of it.”

“There has to be a process — I understand that — but I am not a big fan of that process. It flies in the face of representative government,” Chung said. “Within the Democratic Party, there are different pockets of influence, and I cannot really say that each of those pockets of influence represent the interests of the district or the island as a whole.”

While the District 1 seat represents the greater Hilo area, the selection of a state senator is important to the entire island, said Patti Cook, District 7 secretary for the Hawaii County Democratic Party. With just four senators representing the Big Island, they usually present a united front to ensure programs and resources flow to the island, she said.

“Even though I don’t live in that district, every senator is important,” said Cook, who lives in Waimea. “We need strong-focused people who really are there to serve the community, the whole island.”

Among the familiar names on the list from government circles:

State Rep. Chris Todd, D-Keaukaha, parts of Hilo, Panaewa, Waiakea, who’s served in the House since his 2017 appointment by Ige to fill a vacant seat.

Wil Okabe, former managing director for former Mayor Harry Kim and former president of the Hawaii State Teachers Association.

Former County Councilman Dennis “Fresh” Onishi, currently Ige’s East Hawaii representative.

Others in the contest:

Laura Acacio – community organizer and member of the state central committee for the Democratic Party.

Jennifer Kagiwada – legislative assistant for Hamakua Councilwoman Heather Kimball


Amy Kalili – a founder and host of cable Hawaiian station ‘Oiwi Television.

Maureen Namaka Rawlins – past chairwoman of the Native Hawaiian Education Council.

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