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On a recent Saturday morning inside a community nonprofit in Honolulu’s Kalihi neighborhood, Ernesto “Sonny” Ganaden had the attention of a captive — and young — audience.
Mostly elementary, middle and high school kids from the community, the 20 students weren’t exactly a target demographic for the first-time candidate vying to unseat incumbent state Rep. Romy Cachola in District 30, which includes Kalihi.
Most of the kids aren’t old enough to vote. Many have never seen a candidate in person. Some were not yet familiar with the terminology that comes with running for political office.
“What’s a politician?” “What are you running for?” “How old are you?” “What’s your name?”
The teens, many of whom are of Micronesian background, mainly Chuukese, fired away at Ganaden. Perched on a stool at the front, the lei-draped 37-year-old encouraged the students to keep the questions coming.
“Your parents are hardworking folks and they’re doing the best for you and they deserve more than they’re getting,” he said. “Keep in mind, when you run for office, you’ve got to be open for questions. So don’t think any question is silly, OK?”
It’s not a path many candidates running for office might take: reaching out to non-voting age youths and fielding their questions while explaining what he’s doing and why, as the Aug. 11 primary zooms closer.
But Ganaden knows informed young people of today are the voters — and possibly candidates — of tomorrow. And in Kalihi, a heavily immigrant community home to many Micronesians who could be potentially a big voting bloc years down the road, the opportunity for election education is ripe.
“It’s what politicians call, ‘expanding the electorate,’” Ganaden told Civil Beat. “Here is my opportunity as a first-time politician to connect with them.”
Kalihi, home to several public housing complexes, struggles with lack of affordable housing, crumbling roads and infrastructure and few sidewalks and bike lanes. Walking to and from school can be treacherous for kids.
Four of the stations for Honolulu’s new rail system will pass through Kalihi, signaling redevelopment that is a source of concern to some longtime residents.
Historically home to a large Filipino population, Kalihi now has a large number of Micronesians, many of whom reside in public housing units such as Kuhio Park Terrace off North School Street.
Area public schools reflect the shift in demographics: nearly two-thirds of students at nearby Linapuni Elementary and one-third of students at Fern Elementary are of Micronesian descent. A quarter of Dole Middle school students, and more than 10 percent of those at Farrington High, are Micronesian.
The Micronesian migration to Hawaii over the last several decades is a result of COFA, or the Compact of Free Association, treaties between the U.S. and the Federated States of Micronesia and the Republic of the Marshall Islands in 1985 and between the U.S. and the Republic of Palau in 1994 that allow residents of the three nations — the FSM includes the islands of Chuuk, Yap, Pohnpei and Kosrae — to live and work in the U.S. without a visa, in return for U.S. military control over those areas.
COFA citizens are not U.S. citizens and aren’t eligible to vote. But many of their children — Micronesian-American youth born on U.S. soil — have that right once they turn 18.
The latest census numbers show there are roughly 35,000 Micronesians living in Hawaii, but it’s unclear how many are eligible to vote.
Ganaden, a half Filipino-American, half Mexican-American lawyer, writer and ethnic studies instructor at UH Manoa, calls these Micronesian-American teens “Generation One” of voters in their families.
“These are local kids who were born here, go to our schools, that are entering our work force,” said Ganaden, who moved to Hawaii from Southern California at age 21 to attend law school. “This is Generation One.”
The event at Kokua Kalihi Valley Comprehensive Family Services was planned as a candidate forum with Ganaden’s two primary opponents: Cachola, a long-time Kalihi resident who’s held the District 30 seat since 2010, and Mar Velasco.
But neither opponent showed up, citing conflicts in their schedule, so Ganaden had the floor.
The youths, mainly young boys seated around small tables, broke out into cheers and applause when the candidate referenced his heritage, his intention to make the community safer and his learning to find ease with public speaking.
The day before the candidate forum, Ganaden stood behind a folding table on the patio of Tower A of Kuhio Park Terrace, along with campaign volunteers, handing out free school supplies to parents, kids and relatives who live in the community.
“What’s your name? My name is Sonny. I’m running for office,” Ganaden said to several pre-teen girls, as he handed them bags containing No. 2 pencils, loose-leaf paper tucked into folders and spiral notebooks.
“Is anybody at your house 18 years old? That means they can vote. When you get old enough, that’s what you’re going to do,” he engaged them.
Those standing in line included Prenta Inasio, a native of Chuuk who looks after kids aged 15, 14, 7 and 8, at home.
The kids are still too young to vote but Inasio, who came to the U.S. more than a decade ago and works as a cook at King David Kalakaua Middle School, nodded when asked if she’d like them to exercise that right one day.
“Yes, of course, I need her to help some people,” Inasio said of her 15-year-old niece.
The potential rise of young Micronesian-American voters is not lost on public officials like state Sen. Glenn Wakai, who was invited to speak at the second annual Micronesian Youth Summit, the youth empowerment conference, earlier this year.
“I don’t see them currently as a political force, but I do see them as a political force in the next generation.” said Wakai, who also serves as Palau’s honorary consul to Hawaii. “My colleagues and I know, don’t discount these folks, they could be the ones who vote you out of office.”
Vidalino Raatior, a Chuukese native and current California resident who serves as an education consultant on Micronesian issues, said it may take at least another decade for U.S.-born Micronesian youth to find their political voice.
One obstacle to mobilization, he said, is a belief they are not full-fledged Americans with the right to vote.
“It takes a reframing of their mentality — they’ve been in schools where they’re not treated as Americans, but treated as Micronesians,” Rattior said, referencing the discrimination they may face.
Ganaden believes it’s an injustice that despite their contributions to the community, COFA citizens — as well as the immigrants from other countries — cannot vote.
“If Kalihi didn’t go to work, the whole city would shut down,” he said. “They cook your food, mow your lawns, clean your hotels.”
During Saturday’s event at KKV, health worker and parent Josie Sagisi, originally from the Philippines, thanked Ganaden for showing up to speak to the area kids.
Ganaden told the teens, “I want you kids to know this is what the job is.” And when it comes to those who do take office, he added, “You’ve still got to be accountable, you’ve got to be listening.”
Once he finished his remarks, a 15-year-old student at Farrington High, a Samoan-American who was born in the U.S., said quietly under his breath, “I want to run for office now.”
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