Editor’s Note: There’s a feeling in Hawaii that people here don’t like to rock the boat, to speak up or publicly raise concerns about important issues and possible wrongdoing. How many times have we heard that the nail that sticks up gets pounded down? But public debate and discussion are vital if we are going to make Hawaii a better place for residents and businesses. Today we launch a new series that spotlights people and organizations in Hawaii who aren’t afraid to make waves.

The new leader of the Grassroot Institute of Hawaii, a nonprofit hui focused on public policy, has a rallying cry.

“E Hana Kakou — let’s work together,” says Kelii Akina. “That’s what Grassroot wants to do — let’s not be partisan, let’s not tend to a left side or a right side. Let’s identify some central issues around which all people can come and work together. We want to unite Hawaii’s people for a better economy, government and society.”

Akina, who was named president and CEO of the institute March 1, has already identified two policy areas as priorities: the cabotage laws that govern maritime rules in U.S. waters (the Jones Act) and the formation of a race-based government (the Native Hawaiian Roll Commission).

Akina and the Grassroot Institute — yes, it’s singular; more on that later — want to amend or repeal the century-old Jones Act because they believe it limits competition and raises the price of consumer goods. They also want to prevent federal recognition of a Native Hawaiian governing entity that they argue would discriminate against non-Hawaiians.

Both issues are embraced by a large swath of the Hawaii political and business status quo, making change an uphill battle.

But Akina, a 55-year-old educator, is not deterred.

“Ideas are very important to us — we’re a think tank,” he said. “We do the research work to educate the public and policy makers. But we also do advocacy work. We’re not lobbyists. We are not partisan — we don’t promote candidates or fund them. But we do stand for bringing our values to bear on society.”

OHA Candidate

Akina, an expert in East-West philosophy, is an adjunct instructor at University of Hawaii Manoa and Hawaii Pacific University. His publications, like one on Confucian ethics for a global society, are for the academic-inclined.

But Akina has an interest in politics and government, too. Last year, he ran for the Office of Hawaiian Affairs at-large seat, losing to longtime Trustee Haunani Apoliona.

Akina, a graduate of Kamehameha Schools, is critical of OHA, whose mission is to help Native Hawaiians. His views are detailed in both his campaign platform and two Community Voice commentaries published by Civil Beat.

One, titled Native Hawaiian Roll Commission Is Racial Discrimination, takes issue with the commission’s five-member panel that is “charged with disqualifying any Native Hawaiians, even those with proof of Hawaiian blood ancestry, who do not pass a specified test.”

The other article, Why The Public Must Hold OHA Accountable, argues that OHA is in need of a leadership change: “Regardless of the exchange of personal insults, the fact remains that one trustee, Rowena Akana, has publicly charged another trustee, Haunani Apoliona, and the entire board with self-dealing in OHA’s recent purchase of the Gentry Pacific Design Center.”

(Read Civil Beat’s OHA Trustee Says $21M Property Deal Was Shady.)

Asked about his 2012 campaign, Akina said his “broader concern was to create a more collaborative space in Hawaii for people to do politics and serve the public good.”

“I’m very concerned about the fragmentation, the polarization, how you are either for or against,” Akina said. “And we saw that in many issues in the 2012 election. What I want to do is help people come and work together in the area where their concerns and needs overlap, and find solutions.”

Those areas include advocating for Hawaiians.

Akina thinks the original goals of institutions like OHA or the roll commission have fallen short and may hinder Hawaiians’ advancement.

As head of the Grassroot Institute, Akina says he will continue to oppose a Hawaiian government separate from the United States.

“My great concern is that Native Hawaiians as well as all people need to have the fullness of the Bill of Rights protecting them,” he said. “And whenever we create tribal leaders, and create a tribe of people, we limit and sometimes work against their rights. We have seen this take place throughout the nation in the Native American Indian reservation system.”

Three Values

The Grassroot Institute, a 501(c)3, was founded in 2001 by Dick Rowland. A graduate of Texas A&M University and Columbia University, he came to Hawaii in 1971 to serve as a key officer on the U.S. Pacific Command staff.

After retiring at the rank of colonel in 1975, Rowland worked as a financial representative with Northwestern Mutual for 26 years.

Rowland, now 83, has a passion for politics: He twice ran for the U.S. Senate as a Libertarian, and once for the nonpartisan Honolulu City Council. He also has a passion for the Bill of Rights and the Declaration of Independence, which inform the core of the institute’s philosophy.

Civil Beat

Dick Rowland.

Rowland’s institute advocates for a better economy, government and society in Hawaii by promoting three broad goals: individual liberty, free markets and limited, accountable government. The institute is a member of the State Policy Network, a sort of national think tank umbrella group.

Why Grassroot instead of Grassroots?

Rowland has a detailed explanation involving the Declaration of Independence and the importance of individual rights. It’s people working together who create government, he says.

“Frankly, we wanted to remind us and our staff every day of this phenomenon of the individual,” he said.

Rowland and Akina insist that the institute is nonpartisan, though Rowland acknowledges that it continues to work with the conservative-leaning Hawaii Reporter and Republican state Sen. Sam Slom. Akina said the institute is supported primarily by local donations, though it does accept grants for projects from nongovernmental organizations.

Since its formation, Rowland and the institute (its offices are on South King Street) have been consulted frequently by the media, and have issued positions and papers on various issues. It was particular outspoken on the Akaka bill, U.S. Sen. Daniel Akaka‘s legislation calling for federal recognition of Hawaiians.

“I think we had a lot to do with the fact that the Akaka bill never passed,” said Rowland, who helped form a “vast network” of national contacts to persuade Republican senators to kill the legislation.

OHA, which lobbied heavily for the Akaka bill’s passage, did not respond to Civil Beat’s inquiry Tuesday concerning Rowland’s statement and Akina’s views on OHA.

‘Cheerfully Obstinate’

Despite some policy successes, Rowland believes Akina will have greater success than he did in doing the Grassroot Institute’s work.

“And he does this with so much confidence because he’s rooted in principle,” said Rowland, describing Akina’s ability to bring people together on issues. “You can just tell when you reach the principle area — all of a sudden he becomes cheerfully obstinate. Whereas I would be obstinate in a less cheerful manner.”

Akina welcomes at the description.

“I’m very hopeful of the capacity of Hawaii’s people to work together, when we step out of party labels, step out of partisan sides and focus on practical solutions around values that we share,” he said.

Akina embraces the institute’s three goals, which include a robust free market economy that promotes small businesses and free enterprise, limited, accountable government and the defense of the Bill of Rights.

Opposition to the Jones Act is high on Akina’s priorities.

He says Hawaii ranks low when it comes to competitive market economies. Part of the problem is the Jones Act, he says, which requires that shipping between U.S. ports be done on U.S.-owned and U.S.-built ships that are manned largely by U.S. crews.

Akina said the Jones Act may increase consumer prices in Hawaii by as much as 30 percent. He believes support is growing locally and nationally to change the law.

I reminded Akina that the late U.S. Sen. Daniel K. Inouye was a strong supporter of the Jones Act. Akina offered a careful response.

“Since the passing away of the Honorable Sen. Inouye, who did so much to build the framework for politics in Hawaii, there are new opportunities for leaders on all sides of party lines to come together around centers of concern,” he said. “Grassroot wants to work in those centers of concern.”

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