From Miloliʻi to the Hawaiʻi State Senate

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About State Senator Gilbert Kahele

Hawaiʻi Island State Senator Gilbert Kahele

The Last Fishing Village In The State Of Hawaiʻi, Miloliʻi

Hawaiʻi Island State Senator Gilbert Kahele was born in a grass shack by the sea on May 15, 1942 at Kalihi, just south of the Hawaiian fishing village of Miloliʻi in South Kona.

Born to Peter and Rebecca Kahele, both of Hawaiian descent, Gilbert was the third-born behind brothers Ronald and Peter and would be the older brother to Leighton, Mona, and Corrine.

Life was very simple in the fishing village of Miloliʻi. Hawaiian was the predominant language. Most families earned their living by fishing the plentiful waters off Miloliʻi for ʻOpelu and ʻAhi.

Gil remembers when he was three years old, following his older brothers to school in Miloliʻi which was taught by the only teacher in the village, the very strict Mrs. Kalua.

Becky, Peter, Ron and Gilbert (Miloliʻi, circa 1940s)

Peter, Gilbert, Ron and Taketu (Miloliʻi, circa 1940s)

The Miloliʻi Schoolhouse in the 1940s attended by all the children in the village. (Gil is next to Mrs. Kalua)

Growing Up In Hilo

Because Peter and Rebecca Kahele valued education highly, in 1947 they decided to move the family to Hilo, 90 miles away. Gil was five years old.

The move to Hilo from Miloliʻi was a big change for the Kahele family. Hilo in the 1940s was a bustling town. Having recovered from World War II and the 1946 tsunami, it was full of commerce, cars, buildings, sporting events and multiple nationalities, a far cry from the isolated fishing village of Miloliʻi on the other side of the island.

Gil remembers first living with his Uncle Abel at the Hilo Airport Naval Station Military Housing complex. They then moved to the Kimiville housing complex (near the present-day Bay front soccer fields). Gil began to attend kindergarten at Waiakea Kai school.

Tragedy struck the Kahele family in August of 1950 as Gil’s father Peter succumbed to tuberculosis at the Puumaile Hospital in Hilo, dying at age 39. A young widowed mother of five children, Becky moved the family to Lanakila Homes and provided for her children through the public welfare system.

Peter and Rebecca Kahele (In Honolulu in the early 1930s)

Peter Kahuakai Kahele (Gilʻs Father)

Hilo in the 1950s ~ Sports, Spartans and the Hilo High Vikings

Hilo is a sports town and it was no different growing up as a young boy in the 1950s. Gil, following his older brothers around every day, was exposed to sports and immediately excelled. He enjoyed playing baseball, basketball and football and would play with his brothers and Lanakila friends every chance he would get.

Older brothers Ron and Peter graduated from Hilo High School and joined the Army and Marines.  Ron headed off with the “All Hawaiʻi Marine Platoon” in 1953.

Gil attended Hilo Intermediate and played on the Spartan basketball team. He remembers being honored as the Most Valuable Player on the losing team at a tournament held at the Hilo Armory.

“Sports was a big thing in Hilo those days and it was a great way to keep you out of trouble”.

Gil attended Hilo High School and played on the Vikings football team. Along with the rest of the class of 1960. Gil  graduated in the Hilo High School gym because the 1960 tidal wave damaged the newly built Hilo Civic Auditorium.

Gil in the 1960s ~ The USMC, The South and California

After graduation, Gil began his long career of service to his country by joining the United States Marine Corps. Stationed at Camp Lejeune, North Carolina, Twentynine Palms and Camp Pendleton, California, Gil was part of the engineering troop responsible for refrigeration. As a young Hawaiian traveling through the South in the 1960ʻs, Gil remembers riding a bus across the country and seeing the discrimination of African Americans on buses, in bus stations and restrooms in the South.

“I rode a bus cross country to Mineral Wells, Texas and then caught a plane to visit my brother Ron in 1962. When our visit was done, I headed to North Carolina, making stops in Tennessee, Alabama and Georgia. It was here that I saw segregation for the very first time. The black man was treated differently than the white man in this part of the country, something that was uncommon to me growing up in Hawaiʻi where everyone was treated with aloha. Blacks sat in the back of the bus, they used different restrooms, they sat in a separate area of the bus terminal, they were made to look and feel like a lesser man. It was these early experiences in my life that began to shape the ideals I have today about equality, and the rights of all Americans regardless of their race or gender. I am thankful for the Marines for giving me a broader view of the world at such an early age”. — Gil Kahele


Gil and his brother Ronald in St. Louis (1962)

After four years serving in the USMC, Gil left the Marines with an honorable discharge and settled in California for a few years. His first son Gibson was born in October of 1963, and he attended Chapman and Laney Colleges in Northern California.

Moving back to Hawaiʻi and a Career in the Federal Government

After graduating with an Associate degree in Science in 1967 from Laney College, Gil moved back to Hawaiʻi where he began a civil service career that would last 33 years. He got a job with the Federal Government at Naval Station Wahiawa as a refrigeration mechanic. He married United Airlines stewardess Linda Haggberg in October of 1971, and the couple lived in Wahiawa. In 1976, the couple moved to Hilo. They had two children, Kai and Noelani. For the next 25 years Gil drove from Hilo up the Saddle Road to his job at the Pohakuloa Training Area, where he would eventually retire in 2000 as the Director of Public Works.

The Kahele family at Lokahi Circle (Back row, L-R: Ontherio, Becky, Corrine. Front row: L-R: Ron, Colin, Michelle, Gibson, Gil and Leighton)

Democratic Politics and The Hawaiian Renaissance

The 1970s was a rapidly changing time for Hawaiʻi.

  • Governor John Burns and the Democratic party controlled Hawaiʻi politics.
  • Hawaiʻi elected its first Governor of Japanese descent in 1974 with George Ariyoshi.
  • Walter Ritte and a small group of men landed on Kahoʻolawe to protest the illegal occupation and bombing of the island.
  • The Office of Hawaiian Affairs was born out of the 1978 Constitutional Convention.
  • All over the State, Hawaiians were standing up for their rights, denouncing the illegal overthrow of the monarchy
  • A rebirth of interest in the Hawaiian language and the hula began.

At this time, Gil was still living on Oahu. Following his interest in land and real estate, he became a licensed realtor.

One evening in 1976, a real estate friend invited him to a “coffee hour” to meet and listen to an up-and-coming Hawaiian politician who was running for Congress to replace then-Congresswoman Patsy Mink. Gil had no idea what a “coffee hour” was and had never had an interest in politics, but went along to see what it was about.

It was held at a home in Wahiawa and attended by a few dozen people. The candidate was Daniel K. Akaka. That evening would change Gilʻs life forever. Gil and Danny became friends and soon after, Gil became a member of the Democratic Party.

Thus began a 36-year political career helping fellow Democrats campaign for Hawaiʻi seats from the County Council, Mayor, Legislature, Governor and the United States Congress.

Congressman Daniel K. Akaka and the Kahele family on the steps of the United States Capitol

Gil Kahele, Bob Yanabu and friends campaigning for Dante Carpenter in 1984

Returning to the Village and the Birth of Paʻa Pono Miloliʻi

Around this time, a land tenure issue re-surfaced in Miloliʻi as a result of the 1926 Mauna Loa lava flow.

A relative’s home had burned down in the village. When he went to the County of Hawaiʻi to get a building permit, they said he wasn’t the rightful owner of the land.

Gil, using his knowledge of real estate, researched the issue, which dated back to the Territorial Government of Hawaiʻi. As a result, he formed the community group Paʻa Pono Miloliʻi in 1980 to address this and other land rights issues.

Aware that the newly created Office of Hawaiian Affairs was looking for issues to take up, Gil approached a young Hawai’ian trustee named Malama Solomon. Knowing that they would need the legislature’s approval, Solomon and Kahele approached two Senators to help champion their cause, Hawaiʻi Island State Senator Dante Carpenter and State Senator Neil Abercrombie.

Their support was successful, and the bill was approved by the legislature. Governor Ariyoshi signed it into law on May 2, 1982. Finally, after 56 years, the issue was resolved. Miloliʻi residents would own their land and be given self-help affordable homes.

OHA Trustee Leiomalama Solomon

State Senator Dante Carpenter

State Senator Neil Abercrombie

Paʻa Pono Miloliʻi

Miloliʻi, The Song Of South Kona, Resort Development

During the 1980s, Gil spent a lot of time in Miloliʻi and made a name for himself as a successful community organizer in South Kona as a result of his ability to bring people together in the village to rally around a common cause or project.

In 1986, Gil teamed up with Boone Morrison to produce a documentary, “Song of South Kona”. Featuring Diana Aki, the film took a look at the history of the village and the songs that had been passed down through generations of musicians.

Additionally, Gil, the president of  Paʻa Pono Miloliʻi at the time, successfully prevented the development of Kapua Bay and Kahuku by the Farms of Kapua and the Hawaiian Riviera Resort.

Tragedy struck the Kahele family again in 1987 as Gil’s older brother Peter died of cancer. Later that year, his younger sister Mona died in a car accident, along with her husband Eric, leaving their three young children without parents. Gil and Linda adopted the three children, Ihilani, Ilima and Imaika. Family took immediate priority, and Gil began to spend more time in Hilo and less time in Miloliʻi.

The Kahele ʻohana in Miloliʻi. (L-R: Abel, Noelani, Gil, Kai, Ron, Peggy, Michelle, Becky and Peter)

Gil, Ron and Leighton with their Mom Becky at Kahikolu Church, Kona

Gil, Geno Kaupiko, Jippy Mattos and Peter Kahele in Miloliʻi

Kai, Ihilani, Gil, Linda, Noelani, Ilima and Imaika

The “Song of South Kona” ~ 1986 from Senator Gilbert Kahele on Vimeo.

Hilo Politics, Neil Abercrombie and the Hawaiʻi State Senate

Starting in 1990, over the next 22 years Gil would serve in multiple capacities in both the Democratic party and civic life.

  • He was a member of the Hawaiʻi County Police Commission serving as Chair in 1992
  • He has served on the Na Ala Hele Trails advisory council for the last 22 years
  • He was the Hawaiʻi County Democratic Party’s East Hawaiʻi Chair and served on its State Central Committee.

He was also awarded the Yoneo Ono award for being an outstanding rural community volunteer and received the meritorious achievement award for service to the Democratic party of Hawaiʻi.

In 2008, his friend Congressman Neil Abercrombie asked Gil to head his campaign in East Hawaiʻi for Governor. Gil agreed. With the help of friend and West Hawaiʻi Coordinator John Buckstead in Kona, they helped win resounding victories for Neil in both the primary and general elections on Hawaiʻi Island.

After Neil was sworn into office in December of 2010, Senator Russell Kokubun resigned his seat to take a position in Governor Abercrombieʻs cabinet. Initially reluctant, Gil eventually submitted his name for consideration to replace Kokubun. On January 12, 2011, Governor Neil Abercrombie selected Gil Kahele to represent Senate District Two on Hawaiʻi Island. He was sworn in at the opening of the 26th Legislature seven days later as a Hawaiʻi State Senator.

Gil has represented Hawaiʻi Islandʻs Senatorial District Two for the last two years and posted an impressive record for a freshman legislator. Just this past May, Gil was selected by his Democratic peers at the 2012 State Democratic Convention to represent Hawaiʻi as a national delegate at the 2012 Democratic National Convention in Charlotte, North Carolina in September. He will travel to Charlotte Sept. 3-6th 2012 where he will join thousands of other convention delegates from across the country in nominating President Barack Obama to his second term as President of the United States of America.

Having just celebrated his 70th birthday in May, Gil lives with his wife of forty years, Linda, in Waiakea Uka, Hilo. He is still serving as the State Senator for District Two and is currently a candidate for the State Senate District One seat representing Hilo.

Not bad for the young Hawaiian boy from Miloliʻi….

Candidate Neil Abercrombie and Gil on the 1926 Lava Flow in Miloliʻi

Candidate Neil Abercrombie and Miloliʻi keiki

The new governor of the state of Hawai’i, Neil Abercrombie and Gil

Russell Ruderman, Anthony Marzi and Gil Kahele (Finalists for the State Senate Seat)

The headline in the Hawaiʻi Tribune Herald on Jan 12, 2011

State Senator Gil Kahele on the Senate floor

The Kahele ʻohana (Kai, Maria, Linda, Leighton, Noelani, Avery and Makai) with State Senator Gil Kahele at the opening of the 26th Legislature, January 2012