HONOLULU — The candidates running in Saturday’s primary election to succeed term-limited Democratic Gov. 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 has opened up his congressional seat representing rural Oahu and the Neighbor Islands. In the U.S. Senate, incumbent Democratic Sen. Brian Schatz is also up for reelection and is facing a primary challenge from a little-known candidate.
Hawaii is a vote-by-mail state so voters have been mailing their ballots and placing them in drop boxes across the islands since late last month. Election clerks in each county have made a few voter service centers available for people registering to vote at the last minute or voting in person.
In the governor’s race, the leading Democratic candidates are Kahele, former Hawaii first lady Vicki Cayetano and Lt. Gov. Josh Green. On the Republican side, former Lt. Gov. James R. “Duke” Aiona, retired MMA fighter BJ Penn and Honolulu City Councilperson Heidi Tsuneyoshi are in the running.
Ige has served two four-year terms and is ineligible 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 top issue for them. The median price of a single-family home is over $1 million in Honolulu, Maui and Kauai counties.
Cayetano said she would build rent-to-own housing and work with the counties to streamline requirements impeding affordable housing construction. Green said he would issue an executive order to eliminate red tape and streamline approvals and enforce existing laws to shut down illegal vacation rentals. Kahele said he would build targeted workforce housing and impose a vacancy tax.
Aiona said he would eliminate the state Land Use Commission, which he blamed for slowing housing development.
Herbert Rowland, an Oahu construction worker, said he likes Green’s plans for tacking Hawaii’s housing problem and homelessness.
“I’m from this island, been here all my life. I don’t want my children to move off this island because it’s too expensive and they can’t find a house,” Rowland said while holding a Green campaign sign and waving at passing cars in Honolulu.
Large numbers of travelers and “overtourism” overwhelming popular sites are another major issue. Annual visitors to Hawaii hit a record 10 million in 2019. Numbers plummeted early during the COVID-19 pandemic but have since come roaring back.
Green proposed charging all travelers over the age of 12 a $50 fee. He said this would raise $350 million to $400 million that the state could use to restore parks, shorelines and build housing. Cayetano endorsed such a fee and said eliminating illegal vacation rentals was a good first step.
Kahele said Hawaii needs to reimagine tourism with a focus on Indigenous knowledge, the aloha spirit and culture.
Aiona said fees would be good if they’re 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 income Green received while lieutenant governor from a limited liability company called Green Health International LLC. Green, who has continued in his emergency room doctor side job while lieutenant governor, said the money was for work he performed as a physician.
Kahele drew attention this year for his own side job as a Hawaiian Airlines pilot and his heavy use of proxy voting in Congress. Like everyone who’s voted by proxy, he submitted a required letter attesting he was “unable to physically” vote at the Capitol. He cited “the ongoing public health emergency.”
Mona Chang Vierra, a teacher, principal and educator, said she liked Cayetano’s business experience and her commitment to the community. Over 34 years, Cayetano built the biggest laundry services provider in Hawaii, serving hotels and hospitals on three islands. She resigned as president in February.
“She’s highly successful. Built her business from the ground up,” Chang Vierra said.
Cayetano became first lady in 1997 when she married then-Gov. Ben Cayetano during his first term in office.
In U.S. House races, state Rep. Patrick Pihana Branco and former state Sen. Jill Tokuda are among six candidates competing for the Democratic nomination for Hawaii’s 2nd Congressional District. Kahele, the incumbent, decided to run for governor instead of seeking reelection, leaving the position up for grabs.
Among Republicans, former U.S. Air Force intelligence analyst and businessman Joe Akana and business owner Joseph Webster are seeking the job.
In the 1st Congressional District, attorney and political newcomer Sergio Alcubilla is challenging incumbent U.S. Rep. Ed Case in the Democratic primary. Conrad Kress, Patrick Largey and Arturo Reyes are competing for the Republican endorsement.
In the U.S. Senate race, Schatz is being 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 U.S. Senate, state Rep. Bob McDermott is among five Republicans seeking his party’s nomination.
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