- Special Projects
Just days before Saturday’s primary election and more than a week after walk-in and absentee voting began, longtime Hawaiian sovereignty activist and Office of Hawaiian Affairs candidate Mililani Trask has publicly denied claims she has teamed with Kelii Akina, president and CEO of the politically conservative Grassroot Institute of Hawaii, to oust two OHA incumbents.
“I am supportive of those candidates that are open, transparent and accountable to the beneficiaries and the public of any decisions impacting OHA,” Trask wrote in an Aug. 7 Facebook post. “Further, I will work with any trustee that embraces and supports reform.”
However, Trask said emphatically that she has not endorsed any other OHA candidate.
While Trask did not specifically name Akina, supporters commenting on the post were quick to draw the connection, accusing Akina of dropping her name and then promoting the misleading impression they were working together or “teamed up” in the campaign.
To which Trask replied: “Aloha FB friends, mahalo for your astute insight!”
But not all of those visiting Trask’s Facebook page were satisfied by her generalized denial of a link with Akina. One pointedly asked Trask to state directly whether or not she supports Akina “and his agenda.”
“If I was running for trustee and was posed this question I would answer it honestly,” wrote a commenter identified as Zachary Keanaaina. “My answer would look like this….’I have never and will never support Keli’i Akina in his agenda in limiting the special rights we Kanaka have left’. Simple and to the point.”
The appearance of a team effort began when Akina interviewed Trask for a 30-minute episode of “E Hana Kakou,” a weekly television program broadcast online by ThinkTech Hawaii and made available on YouTube.
The interview was headlined, “Akina and Trask: Working Together and Challenging the Office of Hawaiian Affairs.”
Akina’s campaign followed by quickly issuing a press release about the interview. The purpose of the interview, according to the release, was “to communicate that they are working together” to reform OHA.
According to the press release: “Akina opened the discussion, stating, ‘We are working together. We’re going to tell you why we’re working together because what’s at stake is far beyond anyone’s political agenda.’”
The press release was almost immediately picked up by Hawaii Free Press, a politically conservative on-line newspaper, which repeated the “working together” headline with a small but significant twist: “Keli’i Akina and Mililani Trask Team-up to Reform OHA.”
The “team-up” claim was then repeated via social media, leaving the distinct impression the two had become one of those politically improbable odd couples.
In some ways, Trask and Akina could not be more different.
Trask was an early leader in and advocate for the Hawaiian sovereignty movement, a self-described “realist” who was among the founders of Ka Lahui Hawaii, a Hawaiian nationalist movement advocating native self-determination as a “nation within a nation” since the late 1980s. In recent years, she has been a frequent participant in international settings as an advocate for Hawaiian rights and human rights more generally.
Akina, on the other hand, has been strongly opposed to Hawaiian sovereignty in any form, calling the proposals “race based” and discriminatory. And the Grassroot Institute has gone further, opposing any programs granting special preferences to Hawaiians, and has been closely tied to those who have gone to court challenging these Hawaiian programs as unconstitutional.
These past and potential lawsuits are widely seen as threatening a variety of programs, including those providing federal funds for Hawaiian health, education or housing, and extending even to things like Kamehameha Schools’ admissions policy giving preference to Hawaiian students.
The push to garner federal recognition for Hawaiians through congressional action was, at least in significant part, an attempt to prevent a future court ruling that could potentially jeopardize all programs specifically benefiting Native Hawaiians.
The Grassroot Institute utilized a network of conservative think tanks to lobby actively against the so-called “Akaka Bill,” the congressional effort long championed by then-U.S. Sen. Dan Akaka. The bill, which was amended several times, would have granted legal recognition to Native Hawaiians’ self-governance, and legal protection to programs benefiting Hawaiians.
And Akina was the lead plaintiff in the federal lawsuit that derailed the Na‛i Aupuni election of delegates to a Native Hawaiian political convention last year. As a result of court rulings in the case, the election was cancelled and all candidates were invited to take part in the convention.
But both candidates have also said they share a concern about transparency and accountability, and see these issues as key to reforming OHA’s leadership.
During the 2014 elections, Trask and Akina were among 16 candidates vying for three at-large OHA positions. Both were among the top vote-getters who made it past the primary, but they finished just out of the money when the general election votes were counted. Trask ended in fourth place, just 10,570 votes short of being elected. Akina finished another 10,372 votes behind Trask.
During the 2014 election, Trask was endorsed by trustee Robert Lindsey, who was later elected chairman of OHA’s board of trustees. This year, she is returning the favor by trying to unseat Lindsey, who is finishing his second term as trustee representing Hawaii Island. Lindsey suffered a stroke earlier this year, and just returned to OHA at the end of June following a three-month medical leave.
Akina, meanwhile, is among six challengers hoping to unseat Haunani Apoliona, who has been an OHA trustee since 1996 and served as chair from 2000 to 2010.
One surprise is that during their broadcast interview, Trask and Akina publicly appealed to non-Hawaiians to give them the additional votes necessary to oust Lindsey and Apoliona.
In the video interview, Trask said: “Unless we get the support of the non-Hawaiian voters, we are just not going to be able to clean up the situation at OHA … We need the other voters to join us to help clean it up.”
Prior to 2000, only those of Hawaiian ancestry could serve as OHA trustees or vote in OHA elections. A ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court in the case of Rice v. Cayetano opened OHA elections to all registered voters, and a second lawsuit led to a decision allowing non-Hawaiians to run for election as trustees.
However, in past elections as many as half of all voters left their OHA ballots blank. This could reflect a view of some voters that these decisions are best left to Hawaiians themselves. For others, it’s likely the more practical matter that the low- or no-budget campaigns of most OHA candidates provide insufficient information for many non-Hawaiian voters to choose between unfamiliar candidates.
In any case, the influence of non-Hawaiians on the outcomes of OHA elections remains a sore point for many Hawaiians, who may find Trask’s appeal to those same non-Hawaiian voters inconsistent with her longstanding support for Hawaiian self-determination.