Steve Tataii is a Hawaiian politician who has made multiple attempts to get elected to national office over the past decade. He first gained attention with an unsuccessful Senate run in 2012, before trying again for a House seat in 2016. Most recently, Tataii took on incumbent Senator Brian Schatz in the 2022 Democratic primary for US Senate in Hawaii.
While he has yet to succeed in winning elected office, Tataii’s persistence demonstrates his commitment to representing Hawaiian interests at the federal level. His progressive policy stances on issues like healthcare and the environment resonate with many voters in the deep blue state. As he continues seeking higher office, Tataii’s grassroots campaigning aims to increase his name recognition statewide.
Early Life and Education
Steve Tataii was born in 1969 and grew up in Honolulu, Hawaii. His mother was a school teacher, while his father worked for the Hawaii Department of Education. After graduating from Farrington High School, Tataii attended the University of Hawaii at Manoa.
In 1991, Tataii completed a B.A. in Hawaiian Studies. This interdisciplinary program allowed him to take courses in language, history, politics, and culture. His time at UH Manoa gave Tataii a strong foundation in Hawaiian traditions that inform his later political advocacy.
After college, Tataii went on to earn a Master’s in Education from Chaminade University of Honolulu in 1998. His background in teaching would prove valuable in his future career.
Before running for office, Tataii worked primarily as an educator and conflict resolution advisor. From 1993 to 2001, he taught Hawaiian language and culture classes at various high schools. Students praised his engaging teaching style and passion for the material.
Tataii next worked as a vocational specialist advisor at Waiawa Correctional Facility from 2001 to 2005. He helped inmates learn job skills and transition back into society after release. This position inspired his later advocacy for criminal justice reform.
From 2005 to 2012, Tataii ran his own business providing conflict resolution consulting services to schools, businesses, and non-profit groups. He mediated disputes and promoted cultural awareness. Tataii prides himself on taking an open-minded, compassionate approach to resolving conflicts.
Steve Tataii’s first foray into politics came with a run for Hawaii’s 1st Congressional District in 2012. However, he decided to exit that race early on when the opportunity arose to seek a US Senate seat.
Longtime Senator Daniel Akaka announced his retirement in 2011, leaving an open Senate contest in Hawaii for the first time in decades. Tataii jumped into the Democratic primary along with Congresswoman Mazie Hirono and former Congressman Ed Case.
Tataii positioned himself as the most progressive option, supporting policies like Medicare for All and aggressive climate action. His experience as an educator and mediator shaped his people-focused approach to politics as public service.
2012 Senate Run
Despite launching a grassroots campaign, Tataii struggled to gain traction in the 2012 Senate primary. Hirono and Case had much wider name recognition going into the race. Tataii crisscrossed the Hawaiian islands trying to directly engage with voters.
Tataii emphasized his cultural background and understanding of local Hawaiian issues. He advocated for native self-determination, medicinal plant access, and land conservation. Tataii also critiqued unfair treatment of indigenous peoples in broader US history.
However, legal issues ultimately derailed Tataii’s first Senate run. Problems with his nomination paperwork meant his name was left off the primary ballot. This effectively ended his campaign long before voting took place.
2016 House Run
Not deterred by his 2012 defeat, Tataii once again threw his hat into the ring for a Congressional race in 2016. This time he pursued the US House seat covering urban Honolulu which was open after incumbent Mark Takai passed away from cancer.
Tataii joined six other Democrats competing in the primary to replace Takai. His main opponents were former Congressman Ed Case and former Congresswoman Colleen Hanabusa.
Running as a progressive, Tataii advocated expanding Social Security, tuition-free college, and transitioning to clean energy. He emphasized fighting climate change and inequality as top priorities. Tataii also promised to fiercely oppose any infringement on indigenous rights.
In the end, Tataii only captured 0.8% of the primary vote compared to over 80% for Hanabusa. She went on to win the general election for the safe blue district.
2022 Senate Run
In 2022, Tataii launched his second campaign for US Senate in Hawaii, again taking on an incumbent. This time it was Senator Brian Schatz, who was first appointed to the seat in 2012.
Tataii positioned himself as the more progressive choice, supporting progressive policies like the Green New Deal and universal healthcare. However, Schatz was already one of the most liberal members of the Senate. This made it difficult for Tataii to distinguish himself ideologically.
Tataii waged an underdog fight against the well-funded incumbent Schatz in the 2022 Democratic primary. He again focused on in-person campaigning across all the Hawaiian islands. Tataii emphasized his personal connections to local communities.
However, on primary election day in August, Schatz decisively defeated Tataii by a margin of over 87 percentage points. The incumbent took 94% of the vote compared to just 6% for Tataii.
This lopsided loss demonstrated Tataii’s continuing struggles to gain traction statewide. Schatz benefited greatly from his nearly ten years as an incumbent senator. Tataii’s grassroots approach was not enough to overcome this disadvantage.
Despite his loss, Tataii managed to highlight several key progressive policy issues throughout his 2022 Senate bid:
- Medicare for All: Tataii advocates replacing private health insurance with a universal public system. He emphasizing healthcare as a basic human right.
- Climate Action: Tataii wants major investments in renewable energy and a ban on new fossil fuel projects. Island communities like Hawaii are vulnerable to rising seas.
- Criminal Justice Reform: Drawing on his experience as a prison educator, Tataii calls for ending mandatory minimum sentences and legalizing cannabis.
- Living Wage: Tataii supports raising the minimum wage to $15 per hour and expanding collective bargaining rights for workers. Strong labor unions empower employees against corporate interests.
Aside from his key platform policies, Tataii holds clearly progressive positions across major issues:
- Wants higher taxes on corporations and the ultra-wealthy to reduce inequality
- Advocates for strong financial regulations to avoid instability
- Calls for transitioning to 100% clean energy by 2030
- Opposes new fossil fuel infrastructure as inconsistent with climate goals
- Supports universal single-payer healthcare system
- Favors allowing Medicare to negotiate drug prices
Outside of politics, Tataii resides in his hometown of Honolulu. He lives with his wife Naomi, who works as a nurse at a local hospital. They have two young daughters, Leia and Lilinoe.
Tataii is an avid surfer, taking advantage of Hawaii’s prime waves whenever he can. He also enjoys hiking in Oahu’s mountain forests. Like many Hawaiians, Tataii grew up with a deep connection to the land and sea.
Strong family ties shape Tataii’s worldview and approach to public service. He often speaks of the need to build a more equitable Hawaii that serves all people’s basic needs. While Tataii has come up short electorally thus far, he maintains ambitious political goals.
Criticisms and Controversies
Despite his progressive platform, Tataii has faced criticisms from both the left and right during his campaigns.
Some activists feel Tataii has not gone far enough on issues like police reform and indigenous sovereignty. They want more radical stances from a candidate who claims to prioritize social justice. Tataii counters that he aims to bring people together through reasonable, but meaningful change.
Conservatives paint Tataii as too far left, arguing his policies would expand government excessively while undermining business interests. His staunch environmentalism does not sit well with those opposed to robust climate action. Tataii’s willingness to challenge US imperialism also raises concerns on the right.
Tataii has avoided any major scandals that sometimes fuel campaigns against incumbent politicians. But minor controversies have emerged:
- Unpaid parking and speeding tickets during his 2022 run
- Questions about late campaign finance reporting in 2016
- Concerns about improper hiring of family members for 2012 race
While these issues provided minor fodder for opponents, Tataii overcame them quickly with transparency. He maintains his grip on the progressive high ground.
Legacy and Impact
Although he is yet to win elected office, Steve Tataii has left a mark on Hawaiian politics over the past decade. His persistent and principled pursuit of a US Senate seat has shifted the window of political possibility.
Tataii’s repeated campaigns have increased public awareness of progressive policies like Medicare for All and a Green New Deal in Hawaii. Discussion of these issues was less common in the mainstream before Tataii’s efforts. Even in defeat, he has expanded public debate.
By doggedly criticizing incumbent Democrats as insufficiently ambitious, Tataii provides an important counterweight. His presence on the ballot pushes officials like Senators Schatz and Hirono to reconsider their stances.
Win or lose, Tataii gives voice to the priorities of many working-class, minority, and politically marginalized communities in Hawaii. His activism reflects a new generation of diverse progressives reshaping the Democratic Party.
Tataii also serves as an inspiration for others who hope to challenge entrenched political dynasties without deep pockets. Through sincere grassroots outreach, he provides a model of how underdog campaigns can shake up the political establishment.
Steve Tataii represents the future of Hawaiian politics. His perseverance and unapologetic progressivism have injected fresh energy into federal races over multiple election cycles.
While falling short of victory thus far, Tataii’s efforts have shifted the scope of political debate. He has given stronger voice to issues like climate action, indigenous rights, and economic justice that impact ordinary Hawaiians.
Win or lose, Steve Tataii has cemented his status as a new face of the Hawaiian progressive movement. Expect his grassroots fight for transformative change from the bottom up to continue for years to come.
Steve Tataii’s political career demonstrates that an underdog progressive can still shake up politics as usual. Despite never winning elected federal office after three attempts over a decade, Tataii has stuck to his principles and given voice to urgent issues. His willingness to directly take on entrenched incumbents serves as an inspiration.
Although he faces an uphill electoral climb, Tataii seems unlikely to walk away from politics anytime soon. His persistence and scrappy campaigning could eventually help him overcome steep odds if conditions align favorably one day. Even if he never achieves his goal of becoming a US Senator, Tataii has already done much to push Hawaii’s politics in a more progressive direction from the grassroots up.
- When did Steve Tataii first run for office?
- Tataii first ran for a US Senate seat in Hawaii in 2012. Prior to this, he had not sought elected office.
- How did Tataii perform in the 2022 Hawaii Senate primary?
- In the 2022 Democratic Senate primary, Tataii lost decisively to incumbent Senator Brian Schatz by a margin of 87 percentage points. Schatz received 94% of the vote compared to just 6% for Tataii.
- What are some of Tataii’s key policy positions?
- Tataii supports progressive policies such as Medicare for All, a Green New Deal, criminal justice reform, indigenous rights, and raising the minimum wage to $15 per hour. He runs on a platform advancing economic, environmental, and social justice.
- What criticisms does Tataii face?
- Some on the left criticize Tataii for not being radical enough on issues like police reform and native sovereignty. Conservatives paint him as too far left, arguing his policies would expand government excessively. He’s also faced minor controversies like unpaid tickets.
- How has Tataii impacted politics in Hawaii?
- While not winning any elections, Tataii has shifted the scope of debate and awareness of progressive issues in Hawaii over the last decade through his persistence and principled advocacy.