When Gov. Linda Lingle in February raised objections about changes made to the Akaka bill in late 2009, her lieutenant governor, James “Duke” Aiona, publicly disagreed with his boss.

In a March 26 statement, Aiona said, “While I share valid objections regarding the sovereign immunity bestowed upon a Native Hawaiian governing entity and the amended definition of a qualified Native Hawaiian constituent, as provided in the 2010 Akaka Bill, I believe the proper balance of state and federal laws can be fully vetted and resolved in a manner that is consistent with the best interests of all of Hawaii’s citizens.”

In making his statement, Aiona evoked his ancestry and his legal background.

He said, “My support for federal recognition of Native Hawaiians as an indigenous people is as strong as ever, as is my belief in their right to self-determination…Federal recognition of a Native Hawaiian governing entity is a necessary step forward for Hawai’i to continue the process of reconciliation, and it’s long overdue.”

His statement continued: “My experience as a former state judge has taught me to be a fair, objective and dispassionate decision-maker. As Lieutenant Governor, I swore an oath to represent all the people of Hawai’i, and as a Native Hawaiian, I pay close attention to issues that have a direct impact on the indigenous community and how those issues affect the general public.”

The Honolulu Advertiser reported at the time that Lingle’s office subsequently “issued an uncritical statement about Aiona’s comment” but “later retracted it.”

By summer, Lingle and Attorney General Mark Bennett were able to work with U.S. Sens. Daniel Akaka and Daniel K. Inouye to craft a compromise on the Native Hawaii Government Reorganization Act. The changes — primarily to do with protecting health and safety — satisfied the governor sufficiently that she sent a letter in June to all U.S. senators encouraging them to pass the Akaka bill.

Aiona’s split with Lingle over the Akaka bill was a rare exception in an administration that has nearly always acted in lockstep.

Many interpreted Aiona’s move as one to distance himself from members of the Hawaii Republican Party — including state Sen. Sam Slom and Aiona’s then-primary opponent, John Carroll — who do not support the Akaka bill.

His independence could also help Aiona against a Democratic opponent in the general election who was the lead sponsor of the legislation in the U.S. House.

The Akaka bill’s fate could be determined during the Senate’s lame-duck session following the Nov. 2 election and before the 112th Congress is sworn in in January.

Nationally, many Republicans oppose the Akaka bill, calling it racially discriminatory and thus unconstitutional. Many believe this Congress is the last-best chance for the bill for years to come, given the possible change in the makeup of Congress.

When the Senate last voted on the measure, in 2006, the vote to invoke cloture and allow debate fell short, 56-41. Only 12 Republicans voted “aye” on the motion; five of them are no longer in office.

The Senate currently has 57 Democrats and two independents who caucus with the majority party.

On Oct. 9, Aiona and running mate Lynn Finnegan released their policy agenda on justice. The three-page document does not mention the Akaka bill, nor does the Aiona-Finnegan issues page.

However, just three days later the team released a policy agenda on Native Hawaiian issues. The release came just hours before a televised gubernatorial debate sponsored by the Office of Hawaiian Affairs.

OHA is the chief advocate of the Akaka bill, and the Aiona-Finnegan position on the legislation was at the top of the list in its policy agenda.

“Duke Aiona and Lynn Finnegan remain committed to preserving and protecting Native Hawaiian rights, entitlements and programs,” according to the policy. “The Akaka Bill extends long-overdue recognition to Native Hawaiians and affords a measure of protection to these important Hawaiian programs.”

The policy continued: “As Governor, Duke Aiona will work to ensure a fair, just and comprehensive negotiation process that will focus first and foremost upon lands that: (1) hold significant historical and cultural value; (2) can be developed in a culturally sensitive manner; and (3) will produce revenue needed to sustain the Native Hawaiian governing entity.”

Learn about Abercrombie’s Shades of Red, on topics such as the military, the estate tax and same-sex marriage and also about how he stood alone on a controversial vote on aid for the Palestinian government.

Learn more about Aiona’s Shades of Blue, on topics such as the homeless, clean energy and sustainability and healthy lifestyles.

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