Editor’s note: For Hawaii’s Aug. 9 primary, Civil Beat asked candidates to answer some questions.

The following came from Lei Ahu Isa, one of 16 candidates for three at-large seats on the Office of Hawaiian Affairs Board of Trustees. The six who win the most primary votes advance to the general election.

Go to Civil Beat’s Elections Guide for general information, and check out other candidates on the Primary Election Ballot.

Name:  Lei  Ahu  Isa  (Leina’ala)

Office:  OHA at large

Profession:  Principal broker for Hilton Grand Vacations/adjunct professor

Education: University of Hawaii, Ph.D. 

Age: 69

Community organizations: Ahahui Ka’ahumanu Benevolent Society, American Resort Development Association, former member of state Board of Education, former member of OHA’s Native Hawaiian Revolving Fund.

Lei Ahu Isa

Lei Ahu Isa

1. Why are you running for the Office of Hawaiian Affairs?

Maybe the question for me should be, “Why shouldn’t I run?” As a child growing up with by pure Hawaiian tutu, I watched how she and my half-Hawaiian grandpa lived in poverty after their land was taken from them because they did not have a “paper,” a deed to prove it was in our family for years. I felt their pain when we moved into the basement of a relative’s basement in Kalihi on Kalani Street … the smell of mold, centipedes living in the makeshift shower stall. And yet, I was taught to hold my head up high. My tutu would say, “Stand up straight!  Speak the Queen’s English … don’t speak Hawaiian! You study hard so you can get a good job, go to college! No hula dancing because shame to show your half naked self on a stage!”

I grew up in a very different world.  My tutu showed her proud heritage whenever  she would walk with her Ka’ahumanu sisters in the Kamehameha parade and many others. I would watch and hoped that I could join them when I grew up. Being privileged to be raised by such strong women (my Mom was a devoted Christian), I excelled in school and went on to get my PhD all while raising two children (both graduated from Kamehameha Schools) as a single parent.  Being a state representative (chair of Economic Development Committee), State Board of Education member, business professor, executive director of UH Small Business Management and PKF Hawaii’s Center for Professional Development, principal broker for major hotels, etc., I think it’s about time I go back to my roots and give back in whatever way I can help our Hawaiian people. As a vice chair of the State Board of Education, I had opportunities to experience the harsh environment our Hawaiian children grow up in. I’d witness homeless children go to school to eat breakfast, then run back to the beach after being teased, bullied, shamed!  It broke my heart and brought back memories of my childhood at Kalihi Kai School and Kalakaua Inter when I was bullied, teased. 

My political mentor and dear friend was Senator T.C. Yim, who went to heaven in May. He admonished me, “OHA is like the culminating … end game for you … run just one more time because I feel you can offer so much in ways where you will do so much to help our Hawaiian keiki. So many need help! Education is your forte! Help them!”  So as I finally enter my 20th year of running for public office, I do it to honor the most honorable T.C. Yim, who is probably looking down from heaven and cheering me on!

2. What is your view regarding OHA’s efforts to build a Hawaiian nation?

This has been an ongoing effort by many, many people.  I remember Kau Inoa and receiving my ID photo card verifying that I am a Hawaiian member of this endeavor.  The “entity”  should be decided by our Hawaiian people … There are lots of very smart, good, caring Hawaiians out there who would make great leaders!

3. What is your view on the U.S. Department of the Interior’s proposed rule-making on a government-to-government relationship? 

A’ole, no, as it would just result in the same “ole boy network” controlling everything from the federal to state to city.   The Kanaka Maoli would still be in the same situation as they have been for years … broken promises, mistrust …

4.OHA has focused on developing land holdings in order to raise revenue to help beneficiaries. Is this an appropriate avenue for OHA to pursue?

A’e! Yes! With the waterfront properties in Kaka’ako, and the developments of Howard Hughes and Kamehameha Schools contributing to the mega-land values there, OHA becomes a major player in this “game.” “Highest and Best” use of the land does NOT always means “high rise” condos!   I know  of some global investors who would love to develop world class venues for the Hawaiians, maybe a “Riverwalk” like San Antonio, or a “Pike’s Market” in Seattle where our local vendors have a place to showcase their cultural skills, or maybe a world class museum like they have in Singapore showcasing their heritage in glass … etc. Partnerships, private/public, plus control of these lands (not have these lands under the authority of HCDA) could bring in millions/billions in revenue for the Native Hawaiians! We just need good, honest, caring  leaders!

5. OHA’s stated purpose is to provide “opportunity for a better life and future” for all Native Hawaiians. Is it doing that? And if not, what would you do about that?

In my humble opinion, A’ole. Quality education is the key to their future! My priority is to carry out the OHA’s mission: The OHA mission is the betterment of conditions for all Hawaiians and to provide Hawaiians with the opportunity for a better life and future.    

As a state representative, I helped pass a bill together with Kauai Representative Bertha Kawakami to set aside funds so we could help educate Hawaiians on the risks of diabetes, unhealthy eating. We requested our major health providers to educate/reach out to our Hawaiian community to help stem this problem. Hawaiians need help now!  Homeless = majority Hawaiians, incarcerated = majority Hawaiians, children in poverty = majority Hawaiians. It all starts with quality education for our children… the next generation can have more productive, better lives.

6. Is OHA doing enough to protect the environment, improve the health of Native Hawaiians and perpetuate the culture? What ideas would you bring to OHA?

As Trustee Apo knows and understands, our tourists come to Hawaii to “experience” the cultural and historical traditions, legends and stories of Hawaii. Being part of the hospitality industry for many many years now, I can see how our culture has come to play a bigger/larger part of the overall island experience for people from all over the globe. Everyone loves Hawaii … and yet the Kanaka Maoli has not tasted the profits. Why? As the chair of Economic Development in the House of Representatives, I introduced a bill with the help of attorney Bill Meyers, to give our Hawaiian entertainers a GET tax exemptions because they were a struggling group who were expected to always “give/perform” at charity events for great social causes, yet never “paid.” I remember when Robbi Kahakalau and  Jake Shimabukuro came to testify at my committee hearings, pleading for a tax break so they could survive. HTA should give more grants to Native Hawaiian groups who want to begin/expand their entrepreneurial pursuits.

7. Are you satisfied with the way OHA has negotiated with the state over ceded-land revenues?

OMG!  I was a state rep when Ed Case and U.S. Sen. Brian Schatz were my colleagues. Rep. Michael Kahikina and Rep Ezra Kanoho were my colleagues on the Finance Committee and I learned sooo much about the overthrow, actually saw the copy of the original petition signed by thousands  to “free our Queen.” Where is the “justice” … Where is the “fairness” for our people? We would discuss this in the legislative Hawaiian Caucus. Soooo, when the governor and the current OHA Trustees ended up with Kaka’ako lands (with final blessing/approval coming from HCDA), I cringed! As a real estate broker and familiar with land development,  having HCDA controlling OHA’s land assets was ridiculous. IMHO! They should have negotiated back in 2007-2008 when land values were “tanking” …  much more land could have been acquired.

8. What other important issue would you like to discuss here?

Building educational academies for our best and brightest keiki with free tuition. Test them when they are young … ones with potential, bring them into this educational environment with the best and  brightest teachers, just like Finland did. Their students have the highest test scores internationally. Their kindergarten teachers must have master’s degrees!

Never mind Punahou, Iolani, Kamehameha Schools … Our Kanaka Maoli have our OWN high achieving academy, free for our keiki!

Partner with HHL  (Hawaiian Home Lands) and build multi-family homes, fab townhouses, for our people on the “wait list.” Why have only one house on one lot? Design, build places using traditional Hawaiian ideas and values such as the Ahu’pua’a  concept.