On the opening day of the 2020 legislative session, hundreds of people, many of them Native Hawaiians, gathered in the State Capitol rotunda after a year filled with protests, marches and demonstrations.
They registered people to vote, made speeches, hung banners and flags from the railings and even held classes in the Capitol’s meeting rooms.
The event foreshadowed what is happening now in the 2020 elections: Hawaiian activists, who have often operated outside the political system, now want to drive change by running for office.
They’re spurred by Hawaiian-led movements in 2019 that opposed the construction of the Thirty Meter Telescope on Mauna Kea, the building of giant wind turbines in Kahuku and the excavation for a ballpark in Waimanalo.
Those same events gave a renewed sense of urgency for some leaders to create a new political organization, the Aloha Aina Party. The party managed to field a candidate for Congress, two for the state Senate, and 12 for the House. It is also endorsing several nonpartisan candidates.
Political observers have noted an apparent overall increase in the number of Hawaiian candidates running this year. Many of them are young, and at least several of the candidates Civil Beat spoke to were involved with various resistance movements like the Mauna Kea protests.
It’s still to be seen if the “activist energy” that some have used to describe the mood of the last two years will translate into higher voter turnout, an area Hawaii has struggled with in past election cycles.
But there’s reason to believe Hawaii may be on the cusp of change. Others have likened the buildup to the 2020 elections to the Hawaiian Renaissance of the late 1970s.
Desmon Haumea compares the phases of Hawaiian activism the islands have experienced since the overthrow of the crown in the 1890s to waves which sometimes gently lap on the shore, and at other times come roaring in.
Haumea, a Big Island school teacher and an Aloha Aina candidate for a House seat representing Puna, sees the Mauna Kea movement as the most recent — and most powerful — wave yet.
“It just exploded,” Haumea said. “It created. It divided. But it also brought together. It was a different level on the mauna. It brought renewed awareness of our identity.”
Haumea saw that firsthand. He was one of 38 demonstrators arrested last July during protests blocking the TMT from being built atop Mauna Kea. The estimated $2 billion telescope is still not built, and project officials have not said when they might return and attempt to restart construction.
The movement galvanized Native Hawaiians, and led to a new wave of cultural awareness and political involvement.
In many ways, it’s also where the story of this election season begins.
Mauna Kea led to more organized resistance to projects elsewhere in the state. Last year, Honolulu police made more than 200 arrests during demonstrations to halt delivery of turbine parts for a wind farm in Kahuku. Community opposition rose to a proposed new park and ballpark in Waimanalo, on what is believed to be one of the oldest inhabited sites in Hawaii and has long been of interest to archeologists. Honolulu Mayor Kirk Caldwell scrapped the plan recently.
At issue in almost all of the protests was the feeling that the community wasn’t being listened to.
“You had thousands of Hawaiians engaged in that movement,” said Joe Kuhio Lewis, head of the Council For Native Hawaiian Advancement. “And now, you have candidates that represent their interests.”
In 2020, the elections have another backdrop: the state’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic that has tanked the local economy, coupled with the widespread Blacks Lives Matter protests around the nation against racial injustice. More than 10,000 people came out for a BLM march and rally in Honolulu two weekends ago.
But it’s still questionable whether that energy will translate into votes after ballots are mailed out in July.
It’s unclear at what rate Native Hawaiians vote in each election. That kind of data has been hard to come by since the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Rice v. Cayetano struck down a Hawaii law that had limited voting on races for the Office of Hawaiian Affairs Board of Trustees to only Native Hawaiians.
There are other variables that could affect turnout too, such as how the state’s all-mail voting system will work in its first election.
Those looking for change have drawn parallels between the movement that started on Mauna Kea in 2019 with the Hawaiian Renaissance in the 1970s.
Those demonstrations set the stage for the 1978 constitutional convention, which enshrined Native Hawaiian rights into the constitution and also led to the creation of OHA.
Former Gov. John Waihee appeared on an OHA web series in May to talk about the changes the 1970s brought to Hawaii. Waihee described the decade as a time of “so many great Hawaiian leaders. Hundreds of heroes.”
But in looking at parallels between the 1970s and now, Hawaii’s only Native Hawaiian governor noted the same frustrations coming from the community.
“We are entering a time of the same kind of dissatisfaction, and maybe the hidden blessing in this whole COVID-19 situation is that it’s forced us to reevaluate our value system,” Waihee said.
That reevaluation, Waihee says, should make the government think about the kind of impact projects have on the state’s people. He said economic benefits have been the reason to push certain projects forward.
“We never ask the question, beneficial for who?” he said.
If Native Hawaiian movements are like a wave, then Walter Ritte has caught a few sets.
Ritte, a longtime activist, was a leader of the Kahoolawe protest in 1976 and has remained active, overseeing demonstrations all the way through Mauna Kea last year. Even Ritte is awestruck when he talks about the gatherings on the mountain.
Still, the veteran activist is also unsure how that momentum will carry over into the elections. He spent the early part of this year getting people registered to vote before announcing his candidacy for the House.
Even if vote counts may still be hard to predict, Ritte says that given the events of the past year and last few months, he believes Hawaii is on the brink of change.
“It’s made huge imprints,” Ritte says of the economic downturn and Black Lives Matter protests. “We all feel this is a time to do something.”
He believes Hawaii is an occupied state, and has for years worked with others to right the wrong done to Hawaiians. Now, he says working within the political system might be the only way to get things done.
“I’ve been around long enough to know what’s not working,” Ritte said. “Now, it’s like ‘OK, let’s get in the system with the same goals.’”
When Ritte announced his run as a Democrat for a House seat representing rural Maui, Molokai, Lanai and Kahoolawe in February, he listed food security and agriculture as some of his top priorities. Growing the ag sector and making Hawaii more self-sufficient has been on the minds of many politicians this year after the coronavirus exposed Hawaii’s over-reliance on tourism.
“It was a pause,” Ritte said of the virus. “It shined a light on what is existing, and especially what we’re building our economies on — and nobody’s happy.”
Kalani Kalima, a leader in the movement to halt development of the Waimanalo Beach Park, also wanted to run for the Honolulu City Council because he felt the city did not listen to community concerns over the project.
“And no matter what we did, nobody listened,” Kalima said, adding that he decided to run because City Council Chairman Ikaika Anderson is terming out.
“We were afraid we wouldn’t have a viable candidate,” he said, “someone who would listen to the people, bring their voices up to a level where they can make a difference, actually make change, with what’s going on in local politics.”
Kalima is also running because he doesn’t want to see his children have to fight through the same struggles folks are dealing with now.
That’s also a reason why Haumea, of the Big Island, decided to run. The Hawaiian studies teacher running for a House seat hopes it might encourage youth in the islands to vote.
“If I can get those 18 year olds to vote, man!” Haumea said. “It’s about opening the door to the young ones. And if I get elected to office, maybe I can encourage one of my students to go for it.”
To get more potential candidates for office, the CNHA ran a candidate bootcamp earlier this year called Hooponopono, or reconciliation. The 20 candidates chosen for the program spent four days role playing and getting a crash course in politics, Lewis, the executive director, said.
The candidates learned how to pitch to their districts, how to attract voting blocs, the structures of Hawaii’s largest unions, and how to raise campaign cash. There were also lessons on how candidates should position themselves for the best chance to get elected.
But no matter how a candidate engages, Lewis says, their values will still be important.
“I think at the end of the day what it’s always going to come down to is having candidates that align with the interest of Native Hawaiians,” he said.
Leaders of the new Aloha Aina Party are hoping to position themselves as an option that puts Native Hawaiian values at the forefront.
“We started talking about what we can do to move our community forward,” said Pua Ishibashi, an Aloha Aina Party official and candidate for the OHA Board of Trustees. “We determined that, to really make a difference, it can’t be a party focused solely on Native Hawaiian issues. It must address all issues of Hawaii.”
Planning for the party began about a decade ago, Ishibashi said. The group tried and failed in 2016 to get the necessary votes required to form a party under state law. The same happened in 2018.
But the events on Mauna Kea and elsewhere spurred party leaders to organize for the 2020 elections.
They had to put in a bit of work along the way.
In 2016, Ishibashi said the group had difficulty courting some Native Hawaiians, who said they wouldn’t participate in the election process because of their objections over the U.S. taking of Hawaii.
In early planning for the party, Ishibashi said sovereignty was a primary focus, but they have since decided to broaden their platform to appeal to a wider base of voters.
The party’s main principles include the freedom to worship, love for the people, protection of land and sea, reconciling the overthrow of the Hawaiian Kingdom, and government accountability and transparency. While sovereignty remains a key issue, Ishibashi said the group takes no stance on how it should be resolved.
“We need to address the overthrow of the kingdom. It was wrong,” Ishibashi said. “We aren’t saying how, whether it be complete sovereignty or federal recognition.”
The party had a leadership change in 2019, making Donald Kaulia the party chair. He also has roots in the sovereignty movement. He’s a direct descendant of James Kaulia, who in 1897 gathered together the Kue petitions, which protested the annexation of Hawaii to the U.S.
“He drew on that connection,” Ishibashi said of Kaulia.
As the protests against the Mauna Kea telescope erupted across all the islands, the party found a renewed sense of urgency to collect the more than 700 signatures necessary to qualify for the 2020 elections.
Ishibashi said they also hope to capture some of the 400,000 registered voters who didn’t cast ballots last election.
“The people who are fed up with the whole system, the ones that don’t want to go Democrat or Republican,” Ishibashi said.
The party also wants to appeal to non-traditional Hawaiian voters. Its website has a section about Hawaiian Nationals, or people who believe they are citizens of the Hawaiian Kingdom.
Ishibashi said he’s also seeing a shift within the community since 2016, leaning more toward greater political participation, and a willingness to work within the political system.
“We need to move forward,” he said. “Stop being on the outside throwing stones at the tents. We need to be in the tent and at the table.”
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