There are only nine members of the Office of Hawaiian Affairs Board of Trustees and several have served there for well over a decade.
That’s partly because there are no term limits and several of the trustees have a lot of name recognition. Re-election rates are high.
This year, however, the elections for OHA — which is tasked with protecting Hawaii’s native people and resources with money from a growing financial portfolio — have a couple of twists.
For the first time ever, there is a primary for OHA seats. Up until now, the quasi-government agency, which was established by the 1978 Constitutional Convention, has had only winner-take-all general elections.
There is also a rare open seat. Oswald Stender, who has been on the board since 2000, is retiring. Stender holds an at-large seat, one of three on the ballot.
A total of 16 candidates are competing for those three seats, including longtime incumbents Rowena Akana (first elected in 1990) and John Waihee IV, the son of the former governor who was first elected in 2000.
OHA has increasingly been in the public eye, and under controversial circumstances.
For the first time ever, there is a primary for OHA seats.
This year alone, OHA lobbied unsuccessfully to build residential units on part of its land in Kakaako Makai. It slogged through a personnel and political crisis when its CEO sought a federal legal opinion on whether the Hawaiian Kingdom still exists.
OHA’s work with the Native Hawaiian Roll Commission in signing up Kanaka Maoli for a future government has drawn fire.
And last week, OHA Chairwoman Colette Machado was subject to verbal attacks from fellow Hawaiians when she testified in support of a government-to-government relationship between the indigenous people and the federal government.
The work of an OHA trustee is as high-profile as it has ever been.
Because of the Rice v. Cayetano U.S. Supreme Court decision in 2000, OHA elections are no longer limited to Native Hawaiian voters.
But the races generally do not attract the attention that other statewide contests or congressional elections do, even though every voter in the state can vote on OHA’s nonpartisan ballot.
In recent years, OHA candidates have begun to campaign more aggressively, and it’s common to see signs for OHA candidates posted alongside signs for other elections. Now that OHA has a primary, those signs go up earlier.
The primary is the result of 2013 legislation authored by state Sen. Clayton Hee, a former OHA chairman.
Lawmakers like Hee felt that the absence of a primary election for OHA led to “a large pool” of trustee candidates competing for only a few positions in the general election.
A primary election would “narrow the pool” of candidates, according to a committee report on the legislation, “limit the significant dispersion of votes that often occurs due to the large pool of candidates, and ensure a more democratic process.”
There are three OHA races this year: for the Oahu trustee, the Maui trustee and three at-large seats that do not represent islands.
Peter Apo, the incumbent trustee for Oahu, is seeking another term. He was elected in 2010, having previously served from 1980 to 1982.
Apo has an extensive background in education, government, tourism and cultural matters. Asked why he is running again, he said, “I have served Hawaiians over the past 30 years, so it’s a continuation of that commitment.”
“I think we need to work together with all Hawaiians and find a common ground for what we want.” — Chase Kamaleihaahaa Shigemasa
Apo faces three challengers: Jackie Kahookele Burke, Christopher K.J. Lum Lee and Chase Kamaleihaahaa Shigemasa.
Lee ran for the state House of Representatives in 2008 and got “stomped,” he said. Today he is a program improvement specialist for OHA, which means he works with Apo.
“There’s no tension,” Lum Lee said. “We get along well.”
Lum Lee is supportive of OHA’s current operations, saying he likes the way its investment portfolio is managed. But Shigemasa says he doesn’t like the way OHA is run and that the voices of many Hawaiians are not heard by the agency.
“Just the loud voices are heard,” he said. “I think we need to work together with all Hawaiians and find a common ground for what we want, whether it’s self-determination, a government within a government, a government-to-government relationship. But we all need to sit down at the drawing table to discuss this.”
Shigemasa is a market researcher who worked for state Rep. Linda Ichiyama. The 21-year-old said he believes the decisions made by OHA today will need to benefit later generations.
If no candidate for the Oahu seat wins a majority of the votes cast, the top two finishers will compete in the general election.
For the Maui seat, because only two people are running, the vote will be part of the general election Nov. 4.
Mahealani Wendt is challenging incumbent Carmen Hulu Lindsey, who is seeking a full four-year term. Lindsey was appointed to the seat by Gov. Neil Abercrombie in January 2012 to replace Boyd Mossman, who resigned in late 2011 to become president of the Kona Hawaii Temple of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
Lindsey has a background in real estate, entertainment and government.
“I feel like I’ve made a difference on the board,” she said. “And I enjoy working for our people and making sure their voices are being heard.”
With 16 candidates, the at-large seat is the second-most crowded primary race. Only the nonpartisan election for Kauai County Council has attracted more candidates — 20 total, all running for seven seats.
For the OHA race, the six at-large candidates who win the most votes will advance to the general election, where the top three finishers will become trustees. History favors incumbents like Akana.
“When I first came to OHA in 1990, they had little or no money,” she said. “And during my tenure, in 1993 we settled with the state for partial past-due payments, $129 million or so. And then we invested it, and by 2000 it had grown to $400 million. So we are doing a lot better with our investing.”
Akana says she wants to “stick around” to make sure OHA’s developments are handled properly, including the parcels from the Kakaako Makai settlement with the state, which gave OHA land in exchange for past-due ceded-land payments totaling $200 million.
“I’m running so that OHA will stop dividing Hawaii’s people by pursuing a race-based nation.” — Kelii Akina
Incumbents may be favored, but the at-large race features a variety of candidates, some well known and with starkly different views on OHA’s role.
“OHA urgently needs to be reformed,” said Kelii Akina, president of the conservative Grassroot Institute. “I’m running so that OHA will stop dividing Hawaii’s people by pursuing a race-based nation.”
Akina, who lost a 2012 OHA race, continued: “Instead, OHA needs to be spending its financial resources on meeting the real needs of Hawaiians for housing, employment and education. And it needs to be uniting Hawaii’s people.”
Hina Wong-Kalu, a transgender kumu hula who teaches at Halau Lokahi charter school, has served on the Oahu Island Burial Council and is the subject of a new documentary.
“I feel that the Native Hawaiian community, as well as the larger Hawaiian community, needs solid leadership, based on sound Hawaiian philosophical analysis with a focus on education,” she said.
Another candidate is Lei Ahu Isa, who served eight years in the state House and eight years on the state Board of Education. Isa’s background is in real estate, and with Stender’s retirement she believes the OHA board could use someone with her experience and contacts.
Also in the running is Mililani Trask, an attorney who is an expert on Native Hawaiian rights and known internationally for her advocacy for indigenous populations. Trask is a former OHA trustee.
In spite of all the interest, Trustee Akana is skeptical that new candidates will be successful in the primary.
“I have never supported the primary issue because we are not like other representatives where we represent districts or whatever,” she said. “Ours is a race that has a beneficiary, and that makes it very expensive for four people to run.”
Akana continued: “It’s a statewide race and it’s hard to raise money. Not a lot of people donate. Even good candidates may not have a chance if they don’t have name recognition.”
The other candidates running for the at-large seat are Lahilahi DeSoto-McCollough, Jeremy Kama Hopkins, Landen Paikai, Lorraine Pualani Shin-Penn, Wes Kaiwi Yoon, Alona N. Quartero, Kealii Makekau, Harvey McInerny, Leona Mapuana Kalima and T. Keikialoha Kekipi.