HONOLULU (AP) – 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 seen 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 neighboring islands. In the U.S. Senate, incumbent Democratic Sen. Brian Schatz is also running for re-election and faces 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 mailboxes across the islands since late last month. Each county’s election clerks have set up a number of voter service centers for people who are 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 Councilwoman Heidi Tsuneyoshi are in the running.
Ige has served two four-year terms and cannot run again. The winner of the Democratic primary would be the favorite to win the general election in the liberal state.
Many voters say high housing costs in Hawaii 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 he would build rental-ownership housing and work with counties to streamline requirements that prevent affordable housing from being built. Green said he would issue an executive order to cut red tape and streamline approvals and enforce existing laws to shut down illegal vacation rentals. Kahele said he would build workforce-specific 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, a construction worker from Oahu, said he likes Green’s plans to address Hawaii’s housing and homelessness problem.
“I’m from this island, I’ve been here all my life. I don’t want my kids to move off this island because it’s too expensive and they can’t find a house,” Rowland said as she held a green campaign sign and waved to cars passing by in Honolulu.
Large numbers of travelers and “over-tourism” overwhelming popular sites are another major problem. Annual visitors to Hawaii reached a record 10 million in 2019. Numbers plummeted early during the COVID-19 pandemic, but have since rebounded.
Green proposed charging all travelers over the age of 12 a $50 fee. He said that would add $350 million to $400 million that the state could use to restore parks, shorelines and build housing. Cayetano endorsed that fee and said eliminating illegal vacation rentals was a good first step.
Kahele said Hawaii needs to reimagine tourism by focusing on 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 serving as lieutenant governor from a limited liability company called Green Health International LLC. Green, who has continued his side job as an emergency room doctor while serving as lieutenant governor, said the money was for the work he performed as a doctor.
Kahele drew attention this year for his own side job as a pilot for Hawaiian Airlines and his heavy use of delegate voting in Congress. Like everyone who has voted by proxy, he sent a mandatory letter certifying that he was “physically unable to vote” to 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 commitment to the community. Over 34 years, Cayetano built the largest laundry service provider in Hawaii, serving hotels and hospitals on three islands. She resigned as president in February.
“He’s very successful. He built his 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 the U.S. House races, state Rep. Patrick Pihana Branco and former state Sen. Jill Tokuda are among six candidates vying for the Democratic nomination in Hawaii’s 2nd Congressional District. Kahele, the incumbent, decided to run for governor instead of seeking re-election, leaving the position up for grabs.
Among Republicans, former US Air Force intelligence analyst and businessman Joe Akana and business owner Joseph Webster are in the running.
In the 1st Congressional District, attorney and political newcomer Sergio Alcubilla is challenging 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 ran unsuccessfully for Congress in 2016.
In the Republican primary for the United States Senate, state Rep. Bob McDermott is among five Republicans seeking his party’s nomination.
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