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It ended with a unanimous vote, but William Aila Jr.‘s confirmation was hardly smooth sailing.
Twenty-three Hawaii senators on Thursday agreed to give Aila a four-year term to head the Hawaii Department of Land and Natural Resources, ending a week of acrimony over his nomination. (Two senators were absent and excused.)
The vote was all but official after a closed-door caucus meeting Wednesday, when Sen. Clayton Hee agreed to drop his request that the vote on Aila’s appointment be delayed a second time. But when Hee rose in ostensible support of Aila Thursday, he did so with grave reservations.
Hee recalled the words of King David Kalakaua warning Native Hawaiians about the existential threat from American expansion into the islands in 18871. His stemwinder of a speech criticized Aila, a Native Hawaiian advocate and cultural practitioner, for his handling of key Hawaiian issues since becoming interim director. He even compared Aila to a castrated horse.
“This nominee, one of his first actions was to sign off on a programmatic agreement required as a component of the Environmental Impact Statement process on the rail,” Hee said. “That provides the first footprint and gives some indication, although brief as it may be, of the nominee as a director.”
Hee also criticized Aila for his vote last week in favor of the proposed Thirty-Meter Telescope atop Mauna Kea on the Big Island and for testimony Hee said would hurt efforts to protect animal species.
“These are but only a few of the instances that my staff has been able to develop a track record to try to understand the conflicts inherent in this Native Hawaiian who has himself said that he is held at a higher standard,” Hee said.
“The nominee has an opportunity and a privilege as a Native Hawaiian to demonstrate that what Kalakaua said in 18871 stops right now,” Hee said, emphasizing the last three words. “Every decision that I can see, every testimony that I have had … suggests just the opposite.”
Hee acknowledged that Aila was a vocal advocate for Hawaiian issues before being nominated, but questioned whether he could incorporate that passion into his new position.
“I’m not sure if the nominee is a stallion or a proud cut gelding,” he said, referring to a horse castrated late in life that still shows the behaviors of a stallion. “From what I’ve seen up to this point, he’s the second, not the first.”
Hee’s remarks were the parting shot in a battle between the Senate veteran and Aila supporters.
The intra-Democratic Party squabble started when Hee asked for, and was granted, a surprise one-week deferral last week. He then explained on the Senate floor that he wanted to explore questions about Aila’s commercial fishing license and financial disclosure form raised in Civil Beat stories.
Over the weekend, Hee and Water, Land and Housing Commmittee Chair Donovan Dela Cruz traded e-mail barbs over the committee’s work on Aila’s nomination. On Wednesday, Senate Democrats met in caucus to figure out how to proceed.
Dela Cruz came to Aila’s defense on the floor Thursday. He compared the transition from advocacy to objectivity to a lawyer becoming a judge. Sens. Sam Slom and Maile Shimabukuro also rose in support.
Majority Caucus Leader Ron Kouchi turned Hee’s stallion reference on its head, joking that even a great racehorse needs a team of trainers and jockeys to perform at its best. He said Aila’s leadership has attracted great people to work at the DLNR and inspired them.
Not everyone made jokes: Sen. Malama Solomon said she found the horse analogy “offensive.” But Solomon said she agreed with Hee’s concerns about Native Hawaiian burials and the Big Island telescope and said the Legislature will need to give the administration guidance on how it wants policies to be implemented.
“Mr. Aila has a lot to learn, but don’t we all, Mr. President?” she asked Senate President Shan Tsutsui. “We have made great strides in terms of our leadership … and now it’s our opportunity to have a Native Hawaiian person be in charge, Mr. President, of one of the largest departments of the State of Hawaii.”
The confirmation process may finally be at a close, but Aila’s relationship with the Senate has just begun.
“I’ve already put the nominee on notice,” Solomon told her colleagues. “He is answerable to us.”
After the Senate’s unanimous consent, Aila, covered in lei up to his ears, was led to the Senate floor. Hee was among those to congratulate him, and the two shared a brief embrace and some words.
Asked by reporters outside the Senate chamber what the two had talked about, Aila said he told Hee that he would “strive to understand the meaning of his words.”
The senator, Aila said, told him he had an important job to do and wished him good luck.