The headline on Civil Beat reporter Chad Blair’s Oct. 28 article asked a painful political question: “OHA Races Offer Stark Choices, But How Many Voters Will Care?”

Blair quoted political analyst Neal Milner, who said, “If you surveyed what people know about OHA, it would be an F grade.”

Milner attributes some of the voter apathy — or perhaps deliberate push-away — to the absence of the usual voter “cues” that help define a choice such as partisan preferences (OHA elections are nonpartisan) and other commonly invoked criteria by which voters measure a candidate.

I think there are more fundamental reasons voters look past the OHA trustee elections. More than a few voters don’t think OHA is relevant to their lives. Others, actually out of respect, believe Hawaiians ought to be left alone to make their own decisions free of any third party intervention.

Flag waving Aloha Aina Unity Demonstrators walk along Kalakaua Avenue on their way to Kapiolani Park for a rally. 9 aug 2015. photograph by Cory Lum/Civil Beat
Passion drives many Native Hawaiian issues, and non-Native Hawaiians may feel they’re not entitled to a say. When it comes to the OHA trustee elections, however, every state resident has a stake. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

Still others are turned away by the discomfort of watching Hawaiians passionately argue among themselves, quite publicly, over sovereignty and nationhood which they believe, if it occurred, it would be to their exclusion and political alienation.

Then there are those who are convinced that the Hawaiian quest for self-determination is racist and file lawsuits against OHA, whose very existence they believe to be a violation of the 14th amendment.

I welcome the question about why voters should care about OHA elections as a call to join the discussion. This is not my first attempt to connect with what I believe to be a substantial group of voters who might welcome information that addresses the question.

Why OHA?

OHA was created in 1978 by state constitution. The constitutional descriptor of OHA’s purpose is very short and broad. It reads, “to formulate policy relating to affairs of native Hawaiians and Hawaiians; and to exercise control over real and personal property set aside by state, federal or private sources and transferred to the board (of trustees) for native Hawaiians and Hawaiians.”

OHA is a state agency governed by nine elected trustees. Four serve at-large, and the other five represent Oahu, Maui, Hawaii Island, Kauai and Molokai with Lanai.

OHA candidates, whether at-large or specific to an island, are subject to the same statewide voter pool as the governor, lieutenant governor and U.S. senators. No other elected official in the state is subjected to the significant challenges of having to run a statewide campaign to win a majority of the entire statewide voter base.

To complicate matters for OHA candidates, Oahu has by far the largest voter pool, so it is disturbing to those running for a seat specific to one of the neighbor islands that they essentially have to win the favor of the Oahu electorate to win their election.

This is the unfortunate reality of having to comply with federal election law that is based on the contiguous political geography of the mainland and unsuited to an island state where naturally created island political subdivisions are separated by the sea.

OHA Spending Benefits More Than Just Hawaiians

OHA directly contributes to the growth of the Hawaii economy. OHA has about 170 employees, with offices on every island. It manages a total asset base valued at approximately $630 million in cash, real estate and a Wall Street investment portfolio. OHA’s annual operating budget hovers around $40 million.

OHA hires or subcontracts experts in law, finance, architecture, development, research, economics, communications, banking, planning, and more. Thousands of dollars are spent on office supplies, furniture, and equipment.

One does not need to be ethnic Hawaiian to work for OHA or to qualify for grant funding or to engage in a competitive public bid for an OHA contract as long as those who receive OHA dollars are engaged in serving OHA’s Hawaiian beneficiaries. Many of our consultants, contractors and suppliers are not Hawaiian.

OHA Office of Hawaiian Affairs offices Iwilei. 5 sept 2016
The Office of Hawaiian Affairs is headquartered in Iwilei. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2016

OHA money is color-blind when it comes to awarding contracts because the quality of the beneficiary service being provided is not measured by the blood quantum of the provider. Provider competence is paramount as a matter of fiduciary duty.

OHA’s range of beneficiary services includes health care, education, culture and the arts, business loans, home loans, communications, research, political advocacy, native rights, historic preservation and a host of other activities that collectively addresses quality of life issues that affect OHA’s beneficiaries and the general community.

There is a common misunderstanding of how OHA spends its money in the delivery of these services. OHA, with a few exceptions, does not itself provide direct services to the community. Instead, it prefers to leverage its resources by empowering community-based organizations through financial support to provide such services and help grow the capacity of the community to serve itself.

The community empowerment concept is rooted in the Chinese proverb which I loosely paraphrase here as, “Give a man a fish and he eats for one day but teach a man to fish and he eats for the rest of his life.”

OHA Decisions Affect Everyone

OHA trustees routinely make decisions that affect everyone in Hawaii. The most recent example is the OHA decision to support President Obama’s proposal to expand the Papahanaumokuakea Marine National Monument of the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands, making it the largest marine protected conservation district in the world.

In my opinion, that would not have happened if Hawaiians did not support it. OHA administration, cooperating with Hawaii U.S. Sen. Brian Schatz, participated in navigating the Washington, D.C., politics of supporting the Obama proclamation.

OHA also provide substantial financial support in helping to recruit the International Union for the Conservation of Nature to hold its every-four-years global convention in Hawaii. It marked the first time the convention has been held in the United States and was held amid much pomp and circumstance that drew a global spotlight.

Coral reefs such as this one in the Papahanaumokuakea Marine National Monument provide places for fish to reproduce and sustain the vitality of their populations around Hawaii.
The expansion of the Papahanaumokuakea Marine National Monument probably would not be happening if it hadn’t had the support of OHA. UNESCO via Wikimedia Commons

OHA-owned properties have a direct impact on a lot of people. They include 30 acres of commercially zoned lots at Kakaako Makai, 1,800 hundred acres of Waimea Valley, OHA’s purchase of the previously known Gentry-Pacific building renamed Na Lama Kukui, the 500-acre Galbraith property at Wahiawa, 20,000 acres of Wao Kele O Puna forest lands and Palauea Cultural Reserve on Maui (partnering with the University of Hawaii Maui College).

OHA plays a vital role in influencing the outcome of important issues such as the Thirty Meter Telescope project on Mauna Kea, geothermal development on Hawaii Island and the military use of Pohakuloa for training.

Through its support of the Native Hawaiian Legal Corporation, OHA has been instrumental in the legal battle for water rights that affect everyone in the state. Other important legal issues includes OHA’s role in protecting public access to Hawaii’s beaches and trails. OHA’s contribution in supporting 13 Hawaiian charter schools around the state affects everyone living in and around those communities.

Probably the most important impact OHA will have over time that will be relevant to everyone who lives in Hawaii is its implied duty and responsibility to weigh in on the burning political question of self-governance commonly referred to as nation building.

The two major options are independence from the United States, or some form of nation within a nation self-governance model via federal recognition. OHA leadership will be critical to the eventual outcome of where Hawaiian self-governance will lead. It is a passion-driven subject that, no matter the outcome, will profoundly impact the socio-cultural economic dynamic of Hawai’i society.

In the end, OHA is a fast-growing and integral part of the Hawaii economy and makes an important contribution to the quality of Hawaii’s future that is not limited to the Hawaiian community. It is unfortunate that most of what OHA does occurs under the radar.

People only seem to hear about OHA when there are controversies. Consequently too many folks, including many Hawaiians, view what OHA does through a hazed-over window. For those really interested in knowing more about OHA’s programs. services, governance, and structure go to and one can spend hours navigating the website.

Your Vote Matters

While the state constitution originally intended for the OHA trustee election to be a Hawaiians-only affair, that provision was ruled illegal by the courts as a violation of federal election law. The result: All registered voters of Hawaii have a right to vote for OHA trustees. 

Many non-Native Hawaiians believe that Hawaiians should be left to determine their own political future. They are generally supportive of Hawaiian self-determination, but are content to remain observers and do not engage. Their hands-off inclination is manifested by not participating in the election of OHA trustees partly as a respectful gesture to leave Hawaiian politics to Native Hawaiians. But I would encourage everyone to vote – not just Hawaiians.

For information on the candidates, go to the OHA Election Guide. I encourage you to do this and cast an informed vote.

Moving Forward

Between OHA and the four largest Hawaiian economic institutions that include The Kamehameha Schools, Queen’s Hospital Systems, Queen Liliuokalani Trust and the Department of Hawaiian Home Lands, the Hawaiian community has arrived at a place of staggering capacity.

There is no doubt that Hawaiians will have a profound impact on the direction and quality of the growth of these islands. So it is important to note that OHA joining the other leading Hawaiian institutions in carrying out our individually stated missions will collectively be near the center of the vortex of moving Hawaii toward its 22nd century future.

If you care about where the ship is headed, you should care about having something to say about who will be standing at the wheel. So go vote.

On Tuesday, Civil Beat’s question, “How many voters will care enough to mark their ballots in the (OHA) races?” will be answered. I hope Civil Beat readers will rise to the occasion and exercise their obligation to vote. It matters.

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About the Author

  • Peter Apo
    Peter Apo is a former trustee of the Office of Hawaiian Affairs and legislator. He is the president of the Peter Apo Company, a cultural tourism consulting company to the visitor industry. He has also been the arts and culture director for Honolulu, the city's director of Waikiki Development and served as special assistant on Hawaiian affairs to Gov. Ben Cayetano.