Why you should care
Because Kaniela Ing is shaping Hawaii’s future — and could soon be shaping Washington’s.
He’d much rather be knocking on doors and having conversations longer than a few frenetically typed paragraphs. Nonetheless, an inadequately caffeinated Kaniela Ing is spending a December morning in the gold-laced lobby of his apartment building in downtown Honolulu, keyboard-jousting with progressive activists from across the country who logged onto Ing’s Reddit “Ask Me Anything” live chat.
Ing won his political debut at 22 by showing up at seemingly every stoop on the island of Maui, dethroning a tea party–allied state House Republican incumbent. Just six short years later, the native Hawaiian has a national brand to think about as he crafts the 2018 agenda as majority policy director for the Hawaii state House — from housing to health care to alternative energy — and wages an unlikely campaign for Congress, riding his street cred from being one of the few Hawaii politicians to endorse Bernie Sanders before he won the state’s presidential caucus in 2016.
I move a lot faster. Things can end any time. You don’t want to waste days.
“Rep. Ing is young, and he’s fearless,” says state Sen. Will Espero, a fellow Democrat. Breaking into a laugh, he adds, “Which could be both good and bad, depending on who’s looking at it.”
It’s true, Ing has made a name for himself as a maverick in the state Capitol. Last year, he took on Mark Zuckerberg, who owns 700 acres on the island of Kauai, and whom Ing criticized for filing eight “quiet title” lawsuits to force locals to sell their stakes to nearby land. “Zuckerberg is using the same legal loophole that sugar barons have historically exploited to scoop thousands of acres of Hawaiian lands,” Ing said, and threatened to propose legislation to close that loophole. After a week, the Facebook founder dropped his suits.
But for Ing, his surroundings today feel far from those of his upbringing. The ritzy apartment complex around him, which he never could have imagined while growing up in a single-story home with his mom and two siblings. The life as a legislator on Oahu, after growing up in more-remote Maui, picking pineapples at 14 to help support the family, after his father, a financial adviser, died unexpectedly from a brain aneurysm.
“You’re duck-walking, picking fruit, twisting the top off,” Ing recalls. “And if your gloves rip, it comes out of your paycheck. You only got paid $8 an hour, with one water break and one lunch break. Your wrists hurt. Your body is black. And there is so much pesticide that you have to wear chaps over your jeans, work boots.”
The experience, toiling alongside workers from places like Micronesia, helps inform Ing’s pro-immigrant stances, including his support for young immigrants brought to the U.S. illegally by their parents who now find themselves in legal limbo under President Donald Trump. And his father’s early death — which Ing believes happened in part because his dad had stopped going to the doctor after losing health insurance — taught him an appreciation for social welfare services and hustling. “I move a lot faster. Things can end any time. You don’t want to waste days,” he says.
Which helps explain why Ing announced his campaign for the U.S. House two years shy of 30. Since his decision, the state attorney general, a state senator and a city councilman have also joined a crowded primary for the seat vacated by Democrat Colleen Hanabusa, who’s running for governor. “Kaniela is representative of what we want to see in the next generation of leaders,” particularly in his ability to represent the views of younger voters, Hanabusa told OZY, although she hasn’t made an endorsement in the race to replace her.
A major challenge for Ing is that he isn’t originally from Oahu, even if he rents the apartment here. “They don’t vote on where you live. It’s about what you care about,” Ing says. At the end of the campaign, he promises, at least 50,000 Hawaiians in the 700,000-person district will have his personal cellphone number. Not everyone is so confident that will be enough. “If you don’t look at residency or geography, and just look at the person, he’s got qualifications and attributes that are positive and appealing,” Espero, the state senator, says. However, “it’s like living in Northern California but you’re running for a seat in San Diego. What are the voters going to think?”
Honolulu is home now, and a hectic one at that. Ing is running behind for his Reddit moment because he had to drop off his toddler, Laguna — the boy’s middle name, Kekipi, is Hawaiian for “rebel” — at day care. And then his partner of four years, Khara Jabola, a lobbyist for Western communications firm Strategies 360, kicked him out of the apartment so she could get ready for work.
Ing’s work, on this day, is to build national buzz — translation: money — for his campaign by assuring members of the Sanders subreddit that he supports more affordable solar power, a universal basic income and bitcoin. He tosses in an endorsement for a jaw-dropping $3 trillion infrastructure plan, which draws the question from one skeptical Redditor: How do you fund such a plan? “Don’t fall into the ‘How will you pay for this?’ trap,” Ing writes, before explaining out loud: “That activates the manipulative ‘balanced budget’ framing used to justify draconian cuts on programs that families like mine have relied on. In fact, it often makes more sense to shift money from government coffers back into the economy. Look at the recent tax bill: The GOP voted to pile on another $1 trillion in debt.” Listen and you can hear the Berniecrat tune the once-aspiring ukulele player hopes to strum in the marble halls of Washington.