All eligible voters in Hawaii can vote for board members on the Office of Hawaiian Affairs, a state agency that manages a trust for the benefit of Hawaii’s indigenous people.
But not many do.
A few choose not to vote for OHA out of respect for Native Hawaiians. OHA elections used to be limited to people of Hawaiian ancestry until that law was struck down by a 1996 Supreme Court decision.
Others just don’t know enough about OHA and leave the section of their ballots blank. It’s a key year for the agency that’s been embroiled in ethics scandals and is the target of a state Attorney General investigation. Here’s an overview of who is running.
The race for the Oahu seat — currently filled by Trustee Peter Apo, who decided not to run again — is between Esther Kiaʻaina, a seasoned federal official, and Kalei Akaka, a relative newcomer who works in the administrative office of Kamehameha Schools Bishop Estate.
Both Kiaʻaina and Akaka are Democrats but differ in their political experience and styles. Kiaʻaina has a long history of public service in state and federal government and tends to speak in technical terms, whereas Akaka has limited experience working at the Hawaii Legislature and describes her platform in broad generalities.
Akaka is the granddaughter of the late Sen. Daniel Akaka and says she wants to carry on his legacy. She supports improving education and increasing OHA’s partnerships with other organizations. She frequently cites her grandfather as an inspiration and influence and says good family values are among the biggest strengths she would bring to OHA.
“I know people talk about experience, I have 35 years of experience in having been born and raised in my family in doing things with the spirit of aloha,” she says.
Kiaʻaina says she also cares about extending Sen. Akaka’s legacy, but would bring her years of knowledge gleaned from the state Department of Land and Natural Resources and the U.S. Department of Interior.
“For me it’s not just experience at all levels of government but experience for issues that are critically important for OHA,” says Kiaʻaina, citing her work in land management when she was deputy director at the DLNR.
Kiaʻaina says her familiarity with the congressional delegation and federal policy will come in handy when a lawsuit is inevitably filed challenging the constitutionality of OHA.
“Post-Kavanaugh it is not a matter of if it will happen but when,” Kiaʻaina says, referring to the recent appointment of Brett Kavanaugh to the U.S. Supreme Court.
The OHA Maui seat is currently filled by Carmen Hulu Lindsey, a real estate broker and singer. Lindsey did not reply to multiple messages seeking comment for this story.
She’s previously expressed support for partnering with Hawaiian organizations to improve education, increasing economic development by developing Kakaako Makai and helping Hawaiians preserve their culture through lawmaking and litigation.
Ke‘eaumoku Kapu, a cultural coordinator at a nonprofit from Lahaina, is hoping to unseat Lindsey and says his extensive grassroots experience — including serving on local boards and commissions — has prepped him for the job.
Kapu spent four years as chair of the Maui and Lanai Burial Council and nearly a decade on the Native Hawaiian Historic Preservation Council. He was also part of a lawsuit to defend his kuleana land against a quiet title.
“I have way more experience than Hulu when it comes to being in the trenches,” Kapu says. He supports OHA doing more to increase the amount of affordable housing and doesn’t support federal recognition of Native Hawaiians. Kapu says he likes the current OHA CEO however and thinks he “is getting a raw deal.”
Click here for Kapu’s candidate questionnaire. Lindsey did not submit one.
The race for at-large seats pits longtime OHA trustees against relative newcomers.
Rowena Akana has been a trustee since 1990 and is known for her outspokenness and her public clashes with fellow trustees, including a recently settled lawsuit against OHA chairwoman Colette Machado and fellow board members.
Akana has had a tough year. She is facing a contested case hearing after the Hawaii Ethics Commission charged her with misspending. She denies the charges and says the commission has no jurisdiction over OHA, arguing the case is part of an effort to hurt her re-election chances.
The other incumbents on the ballot are Lei Ahu Isa and John Waihee IV. Ahu Isa says she wants to keep her seat because she wants to help bring more revenue to OHA through partnerships.
“We can’t just sit around and wait for others to help us, we have to help ourselves,” Ahu Isa says.
Ahu Isa, a former state representative, says she’s learned a lot about how OHA works in the past three years she’s been on the board and has been involved in shaping the agency’s strategic plan. Click here for her responses to our candidate questionnaire.
Waihee is the son of former Gov. John Waihee and has been an OHA trustee for 18 years. Waihee says his biggest accomplishments include initiating a partnership with Waimea Valley — OHA eventually acquired the land — and a partnership with the Center for Hawaiian Studies to create new classes and a PhD program.
Waihee says he has also long pushed for better policies governing OHA spending and successfully initiated aligning OHA’s budget with its strategic plan.
Like Ahu Isa, he’s eager to participate in the new strategic planning process and sees an opportunity to streamline the organization.
“Right now OHA is organized pretty much like a government. I think as a result of our whole organization structure we’ve probably spent more money on ourselves than we need to,” he says.
“If our biggest effectiveness comes out of our grants program and our advocacy then that should be a bigger focus and more money should be going to strengthen those things.”
He’s not advocating to fire OHA’s CEO but says the agency should improve its rules governing its CEO and adds, “I think it would be a good idea to look if there are better people for the job” when his contract is up. Here is Waihee’s questionaire.
The candidates hoping to unseat the incumbents include William Aila, deputy director of the Department of Hawaiian Home Lands. Aila, who previously led the Department of Land and Natural Resources, says he brings a wealth of experience in government and land issues along with a calm temperament.
“I think I have a proven track record in acting very ethically and I hope that’s the medicine that’s needed to cure some of the ails of OHA,” Aila says. Click here for his questionnaire.
Former state Rep. Faye Hanohano from Hawaii Island is also on the ballot. Civil Beat was unable to reach her for comment and she did not submit a questionnaire.
The underdog in the race for the at-large seats is Brendan Kalei’aina Lee. Lee works in customer service at Hawaiian Airlines and has been heavily involved in Native Hawaiian organizations as president of the Kamehameha Schools alumni association, vice president of the Association of Hawaiian Civic Clubs and chairman of the aha, the 2016 Hawaiian constitution convention.
A previous version of this story incorrectly listed Lee’s middle name as his last name.
Both Lee and Aila are similar in their support for the Thirty Meter Telescope, federal recognition of Native Hawaiians and OHA’s current CEO Crabbe.
Lee believes federal recognition is separate from the issue of sovereignty and also supports increasing OHA’s funding of affordable housing. He hopes non-Hawaiians vote for OHA. Click here for his questionnaire.
“What affects Native Hawaiians affects the entire state and that’s just a fact,” he says.
Thoughts on this or any other story? Write a Letter to the Editor. Send to firstname.lastname@example.org and put Letter in the subject line. 200 words max. You need to use your name and city and include a contact phone for verification purposes.
You can also comment directly on this story by scrolling down a little further. Comments are subject to approval and we may not publish every one.
Civil Beat is a small nonprofit newsroom, and we’re committed to a paywall-free website and subscription-free content because we believe in journalism as a public service.
That’s why donations from readers like you are essential to our continued existence.
Help keep our journalism free for all readers by becoming a monthly member of Civil Beat today.