Election profile: State Senate District 1

Editor’s note: This is one in a series of articles examining contested Big Island primary election races. This story appeared in the July 28 edition.


Tribune-Herald staff writer

The redrawn 1st Senate District includes Hilo and its related communities. Its boundary runs from Honolii Stream in the north to the boundary with Puna in the south, and has a suburban, small-town character. It comprises Keaukaha, Panaewa, Waiakea Uka, Kaumana, Piihonua and Wainaku.

The two Democrats competing for this seat take extra care to point out their connections to the district. Councilman Donald Ikeda, who is prevented by term limits from running again, comes from a family well-known in the Hilo business community who got his start delivering newspapers to Lanakila Homes residents. State Sen. Gil Kahele, who was appointed by Gov. Neil Abercrombie, waxes nostalgic about the days he spent hanging out by the Suisan fish market and delivering newspapers up and down Mohouli Street.

There is no Republican challenger, so whoever wins on Aug. 11 will serve a two-year term because of redistricting. The winner will face another election in 2014 for a four-year term.

Kahele, 70, was born in Milolii, but the family moved to Hilo so that he could get an education. After graduating from Hilo High in 1960, he joined the U.S. Marine Corps and was honorably discharged four years later. He studied refrigeration and air conditioning at Laney College in Oakland, Calif., and returned to Hawaii. He got a job with the Navy as an air conditioning mechanic for 10 years, working in Wahiawa, Oahu, but the Big Island was never far from his mind. After landing a job at the Public Works Division at Pohakuloa, Kahele moved to Hilo in 1976, but he returned to Milolii whenever he could. He got involved in politics by founding a citizens group, Pa‘a Pono Miloli‘i, to settle a land tenure question for displaced residents of the lava-covered village of Ho‘opuloa.

He served as chairman of the Hawaii County Police Commission and worked on numerous campaigns within the Democratic Party, rising to become the party’s vice chairman for East Hawaii in 2008. In 2010 Kahele was Abercrombie’s East Hawaii campaign chairman.

In an interview Wednesday, Kahele decided the best way to tell the Tribune-Herald about his community ties was to drive around Hilo in his white pickup truck, pointing out four of the places he lived while attending school in Hilo. The first stop was Lanakila Homes, a public housing project.

“This is one of the places we ended up at in the early 1950s,” Kahele said. The original houses have been torn down and replaced, but Kahele could still point out where his childhood friends lived. The future senator pointed to the site of a duplex on Hema Street, at what is now Building No. 24, as his former home.

“My route started here and went to the top of Mohouli Street,” Kahele said, as he drove up the same street that he pedaled up while delivering newspapers. Hauling the Sunday edition of the Honolulu Advertiser on his bicycle was tough, but there was a reward when he got to the top (there was no Mohouli extension at the time). “You just fly down,” he said, as Kahele pulled a U-turn and headed down the hill.

He drove to other places where he lived — Kimiville, which is now a soccer field; Kainehe Street, which is now the third fairway of the Naniloa Golf Course, and a place near the NAS Pool by the old Hilo Airport.

Kahele’s father worked on a fishing sampan, so Kahele spent a lot of time there, and it was one of the stops on the tour. He cast approving glances at the pallets of ahi and leaned against the railing, looking out at the ocean.

“This place here, this is in my blood,” he said. This drive around town may have been Kahele’s way of explaining his roots and his ability to talk with anybody.

“For me, growing up as a young boy, I always loved history. I liked the past, so to speak. The older folks, I was interested what they had to say. … Everyone has a story; everyone’s important. I wanted to know. I was inquisitive.”

Kahele says his existing relationships with the Abercrombie administration and department heads, and his experience in the state Legislature separate him from Ikeda.

“I get in there and talk to people and research how I can make it happen,” Kahele said. A resident of Waiakea Uka, his district included most of Puna and Ka‘u. He worked hard to secure funding for the Ka‘u gym, and pointed to that as one of his accomplishments.

Kahele says his major priority will be “lifting the economy” and getting people back to work. He wants to help UH-Hilo and lower the cost of living.

While in office, he cosponsored a resolution to form a “Hawaii-Grown Tea Working Group” to recommend labeling requirements to protect the state’s tea brands. Another resolution he cosponsored with Sen. Malama Solomon died by gubernatorial veto; it would have required professional employer organizations to obtain insurance bonds of at least $500,000. One bill that Kahele introduced and that passed into law prohibits the intentional possession, interisland transportation and release of wild or feral deer.

Ikeda, 70, was born in Hilo to Shiro and Fujiko Ikeda, who together ran Ikeda Shoyu, S. Ikeda Factory and Hilo Macaroni Factory. Growing in Shinmachi up with six brothers and one sister, Ikeda recalled delivering the Hilo Tribune-Herald to Lanakila Homes residents when he was 11. He attended Hilo High for one year but graduated in 1959 from Mid-Pac Institute, then a private boarding school in Honolulu.

He majored in at California State College in Los Angeles and returned to Hawaii to help with the family business. The businesses were sold in 1990, but the family held on to the land.

In the early 1990s, Councilman James Arakaki hired Ikeda as a legislative auditor assistant because of Ikeda’s accounting background. He rose to become county clerk before his election in 2004 to the first of four consecutive terms.

While in office, Ikeda worked on paving a sidewalk for the lower section of Kaumana Drive, a stop light for the intersection of Mohouli and Kumukoa streets, the Kapiolani Street extension and improvements at Carvalho Park.

Ikeda says he votes his conscience. Often that puts him on the losing end of a vote in the County Council, but he paints it as a positive mark, a willingness to be more independent than the governor’s handpicked senator.

“I know I’m right. I will not vote for something that’s wrong just because it’s popular,” Ikeda said. In the Senate, Ikeda would look into improving elder care. He’s also talked about the need for flood control improvements.

Ikeda says he doesn’t have anything personal against Kahele. He’s running to bridge the “disconnect” between Hawaii Island and the state government.

But first he has to get past Kahele’s tremendous fundraising advantage. In the financial disclosure reports for the period ending June 30, Ikeda reported $37.58 in cash on hand with about $9,700 in debt. Kahele, meanwhile, reported a war chest of $23,593, and he added to that total with a fundraiser Thursday night. During that six-month period, Ikeda was outraised by nearly 3 to 1. (A previous story the Tribune-Herald published that found a 10 to 1 fundraising advantage was incorrect, as those numbers referred only to large contributions in excess of $100).

“I thought it was going to be more of an equal race,” Ikeda said. “I’m more grass-roots. I believe in the sign waving, house to house, one on one.”

Email Peter Sur at psur@hawaiitribune-herald.com.


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