WASHINGTON — The Office of Hawaiian Affairs is looking to expand its reach far beyond Hawaii’s shores.

OHA, known best in the islands for managing Hawaiian land and administering grants for Native Hawaiians, has reopened its one-person Washington, D.C., bureau after letting it go dark for a few months this year. The intent, OHA says, is to add interns, fellows, staffers and policy analysts to beef up advocacy efforts at the federal level.

Taking the helm is new bureau chief Kawika Riley.

A graduate of Kealakahe High School on the Kona side of the Big Island, Riley has a history of Native Hawaiian advocacy. But he’s spent most of the last five years learning his way around the inside of the legislative and executive branches of the federal government. An intern in the bureau years ago, Riley said in an exclusive hourlong interview with Civil Beat that he’s happy to have found his way back.

“It was a homecoming because I felt that in a lot of ways I had come full circle,” said Riley, sitting behind a modest wood-paneled desk in the office space OHA shares with the National American Indian Housing Council a few blocks from Union Station and the U.S. Capitol.

Riley was a staffer on Sen. Daniel Akaka‘s Veterans Affairs Committee during wartime and most recently served as a national spokesman for the Transportation Security Administration, created after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. And even though he’s now a State of Hawaii employee, he still dresses like someone who knows his way around Washington.

On this day, he’s wearing a dark gray suit and striped tie and sporting a thin beard that belies his youth. Just 29 years old, he now carries the heavy burden of speaking on behalf of the Native Hawaiian community in Washington at a time when Akaka — the only Native Hawaiian to ever have a vote in Congress — is retiring.

He knows it’s an important job.

Expectations from ‘A to Z’

Advocacy is one of the pillars of OHA’s operation in Hawaii, along with resource management, research and community engagement.

Kamanaopono Crabbe took over as the organization’s CEO earlier this year and installed a new leadership team a couple of months later. That administrative realignment included a vision of an “expanded federal advocacy arm,” new OHA Chief Advocate Breann Nuuhiwa told Civil Beat in a recent phone interview from Honolulu.

“We need people on the ground in D.C. who can advocate for a policy change on the federal level … and we can get some synergy between federal and state agencies and bodies so we can have an impact and have that systemic change we’re looking for,” she said. That type of change would not be possible “if we’re only working on the local level or the state level.”

A good example of why that synergy is critical, Nuuhiwa said, was the flap over Hawaiian language students being forced to take translated state tests due to the way federal education policy was applied. Students struggled with the translated English version because developing a true Hawaiian version could cost millions.

“That’s one issue. There are a hundred that pretty much follow the same pattern: that the work we do on the state level is very important, but there’s an overarching federal piece that also needs to be addressed,” Nuuhiwa said.

That means the scope of Riley’s work is much wider than merely pushing for major pieces of legislation in Congress like the Native Hawaiian Government Reorganization Act, known as the Akaka Bill. It’s also not limited, as some might think, to advocating on behalf of Native Hawaiians who live on the mainland.

“Our expectations of the D.C. bureau are really A to Z,” Nuuhiwa said. “Any issue that OHA is engaged with locally, we expect the D.C. office to be engaged with at the federal level if there’s a federal nexus.”

‘An Exceptionally Rare Opportunity’

Riley said he’s excited about the broad scope of the job and feels blessed by the opportunity to represent the greater community.

“I talk a lot about legislation, but I don’t want to just talk about legislation because advocacy doesn’t just mean understand and influence the laws that do or don’t pass, the bills that do or don’t become law,” he said. “It also means to advocate at the implementation level. … So in addition to monitoring, analyzing and being a part of what happens in Congress, we want to monitor, analyze and be a part of what happens in the executive branch.”

He estimates there are 150 laws on the books that specifically mention Native Hawaiians, and said part of his job is making sure those programs are not rolled back. Nuuhiwa said that was a factor in OHA’s decision to re-establish the bureau with the hopes of expanding it.

“I think we are realizing, not just OHA and not just Native Hawaiians but citizens of Hawaii broadly and our beneficiaries that live on the continent, that federal monies are becoming increasingly scarce, and there are budget cuts that impact everybody across the board,” she said. “And it’s a time when we need to be more vigilant and more unified and more organized about how we interact with the federal government to protect funds that support important programs in the areas of education and health and others.

“And as federal moneys become more scarce, we see our advocacy at the federal level as being even more important,” she said. “So we see the expanded D.C. bureau not as a luxury, we see it as a necessity at this point. We don’t have the ability to stand by and let others in Washington who may not be aware of what the needs are of the Hawaiian community making important decisions about Native Hawaiian programs.”

Those who have worked with Riley before say he’s up to the task.

Kathryn Monet, who worked with Riley on the Veterans Affairs Committee and is from Maui, said Riley’s strength is his ability to both understand policy and communicate strongly and effectively. He was detail-oriented like a wonkish policy analyst, but learned how to listen to what people wanted and how to come up with solutions that met their needs, she said.

The knowledge he’ll bring to the new job, Monet said, is that proposals should be based on what’s politically tenable and shouldn’t be too complicated to explain.

Clay Park is the Veteran Program Director for Papa Ola Lokahi, part of the Native Hawaiian Health Systems. He said in an email that even though Riley looks young, he’s a smart and driven advocate on Hawaiian issues who understands the culture and people of Hawaii.

Asked what attracted him to the position, Riley pointed to the single-minded focus on the Native Hawaiian people that even the state’s congressional delegation can’t claim.

“What it really comes down to is the person who sits at this desk gets to, from the first thing that they do in the morning to the last thing that they do at the end of the day, advocate for the Native Hawaiian community,” Riley said. “To try to give back and affect change and influence policy that betters the Native Hawaiian people, that is an exceptionally rare opportunity, to get to do that, especially in Washington, D.C.”

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