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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.
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.
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:
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.
Hawaii Island Seat
Molokai And Lanai Seat
Kauai And Niihau Seat
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