Two dozen people are running for four seats on the Office of Hawaiian Affairs Board of Trustees, spurred by the potential of an open Hawaii island seat and encouraged by Native Hawaiian-run organizations that have been urging Hawaiians to run for office.

The election comes a year after hundreds of demonstrators faced off against Honolulu police on the slopes of Mauna Kea. Since then, similar protests have popped up against developments statewide, a movement that has led to the creation of a new political party called the Aloha Aina Party.

The race for the Hawaii island seat on the OHA board is the most crowded field, with 11 people jockeying to represent it. Seven people are running for the at-large seat. Three people are competing to represent Molokai and Lanai, and three hope to represent Kauai and Niihau.

The four new board members will join five existing board members to make decisions on how to manage a trust worth an estimated $600 million and what stances, if any, OHA should take on developments, state actions and Native Hawaiian self-determination.

The empty seats will be chosen by voters statewide and the winners will serve four-year terms. Here are answers to frequently asked questions about the office, a list of who is running and links to their candidate questionnaires for Civil Beat so you can get a sense of where they stand on important issues.

What Is The Office Of Hawaiian Affairs?

The Office of Hawaiian Affairs is a semi-autonomous state agency that was created in the 1978 constitutional convention as part of a series of reforms aimed at helping address historic and ongoing injustices against Hawaii’s native people.

The idea was that the organization would manage a trust fund made up of revenue from former crown lands to help improve the conditions of Native Hawaiians, who continue to suffer from above average poverty rates and other disadvantages.

Check out our explainer video about what OHA is: 

Among other priorities, OHA uses the money to support Native Hawaiian businesses, schools and organizations and advocate on behalf of Native Hawaiians at the Legislature.

The Board of Trustees of OHA is responsible for ensuring that the trust funds are managed properly, setting policies for the agency and hiring and firing the executive director. This has been a challenge — OHA manages millions of dollars and valuable lands, including Kakaako Makai, and has been investigated for poor fiscal management.

If you want to learn more about the history of OHA, read our 2018 article about why OHA was created and how some Native Hawaiians feel about it today. Click here for OHA’s website, which also has lots of information.

Who Can Vote For OHA?

Any Hawaii voter can cast a ballot for an OHA candidate. You don’t have to be Native Hawaiian. That’s the result of a U.S. Supreme Court ruling in 2000 that determined it was illegal to limit OHA elections by race.

Voting for OHA matters because the board makes critical decisions on whether and how OHA takes a stand on Hawaiian issues such as the proposed Thirty Meter Telescope on Mauna Kea. OHA initially supported the project but rescinded its support in 2015, and more recently asked the governor to halt construction temporarily.

Here’s a recording of a recent candidate forum sponsored by OHA:

Some people choose not to vote for OHA out of respect for Native Hawaiians and in protest of that Supreme Court decision. And some Native Hawaiians prefer that non-Hawaiians abstain from voting for OHA unless they are well educated on Hawaiian issues.

“Definitely don’t vote blindly,” says Healani Sonoda-Pale, who runs Ka Lahui Political Action Committee.

Four of the nine board positions are at-large trustees. The other five seats are dedicated to one representative for five island groupings: Oahu; Hawaii; Maui; Kauai and Niihau; and Molokai and Lanai. All seats are statewide races.

Watch this OHA forum to learn the stances of people running to represent Molokai and Lanai:

Who Is Running For OHA This Year?

Below is a list of this year’s candidates. We linked to the candidates’ answers on our questionnaires so you can get a sense of where people stand on some of the top issues. Not every candidate responded to our questionnaires.

At-Large Seat

  • Keli‘i Akina is the incumbent. Akina leads the Grassroot Institute, a conservative nonprofit advocacy group that has opposed limiting Hawaiian self-determination votes to Hawaiians. Akina has often been the voice of dissent on the OHA board, pushing for fiscal audits and opposing OHA’s support for particular Native Hawaiian governance models.
  • Shane Palacat-Nelsen is a community outreach advocate who says Hawaii’s economy is the most pressing issue for Hawaiians.
  • Jackie Burke is an artist and a designer who wants to create an OHA decolonization task force.
  • Larry Kawaauhau says the most pressing issue facing Native Hawaiians is “full reparation of the 1893 illegal overthrow and full inventory of lands confiscated after 1893.” He supports OHA providing financial support for activists on Mauna Kea.
  • Kaipo K. Hanakahi is an activist who supports using OHA money to help build affordable housing for Hawaiians.
  • Lenson (Kawekiu) Sonoda is an entrepreneur who says his priorities include helping caregivers, improving homeownership and protecting vulnerable people.
  • Keoni Souza is a musician and member of the Grammy-nominated group Nā Hoa who performs traditional Hawaiian music.

Hawaii Island Seat

  • Kauilani Almeida is a community developer who opposes telescopes on Mauna Kea. She says COVID-19 is the biggest problem facing Hawaiians today and that OHA island trustees should be voted on locally, not statewide.
  • Louis Pau is a physician and small business owner who says OHA should operate more like a business.
  • Noelani Cashman-Aiu is a veteran of the tourism industry and says the biggest problems facing Hawaiians are lack of affordable housing, drugs and homelessness.
  • Louis Hao is a former OHA trustee who says, upon returning to the board, he’d push for a management audit of OHA as well as more funding for housing.
  • Cyd Hoffeld is a health promotions manager who says the biggest challenges facing Hawaiians are lack of education, poor health, housing insecurity and incarceration.
  • Keola Lindsey is the advocacy director at OHA. He says some of the top issues facing Native Hawaiians are their poor health and stress caused by the high cost of living.
  • Lei Kihoi is a retired attorney who says housing and homelessness are the biggest issues facing Native Hawaiians.
  • Laura Desoto-McCollough is a retired school counselor who opposes building the Thirty Meter Telescope on Mauna Kea.
  • Pua Ishibashi is a Department of Land and Natural Resources land agent and mediator who also runs the Black Koa clothing company. He wants to prioritize providing affordable housing to Hawaiians and rehabilitating OHA’s image. He also co-founded the Aloha Aina Party.
  • Lanakila Mangauil has for several years helped lead activism on Mauna Kea against the construction of the Thirty Meter Telescope. Mangauil works as a Hawaiian studies and hula teacher.
  • Kalaniakea Wilson is a PhD student who also supports the activism against the Thirty Meter Telescope. “Hawaiians deserve justice now, not tomorrow, not next year!” he wrote in his candidate questionnaire.

Molokai And Lanai Seat

  • Colette Machado is the incumbent who has also served as chairwoman of the Board of Trustees. She opposes building the Thirty Meter Telescope on Mauna Kea and supports creating a government-to-government relationship between Native Hawaiians and the U.S.
  • Luana Alapa is a former Miss Hawaii who ran her own modeling school and says her priorities include increasing affordable housing and developing Kakaako Makai as a revenue stream.
  • U’i Kahue-Cabanting is a business owner and Native Hawaiian cultural practitioner who values sustainability and self-sufficiency.

Kauai And Niihau Seat

  • Dan Ahuna is a current OHA trustee and a teacher. He says OHA needs to better prioritize the community’s needs through better consultation and engagement.
  • Kamealoha Smith is a program administrator and education specialist who wants to develop new strategies to address the housing crisis and wants to increase transparency about OHA.
  • Brittny Perez is a home health aide and mother of two who wants to help OHA improve its transparency and make sure its money goes to those most in need.

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