A year ago, Lanakila Manguil stood on the slopes of Mauna Kea under the grueling heat as hundreds of law enforcement officers arrived on the mountain. He was helping to organize the resistance to the state as it tried, unsuccessfully, to clear the way for Thirty Meter Telescope construction vehicles.
This summer, he’s standing on the side of Hawaii roads, sign-waving as he campaigns to be the next Hawaii island trustee for the Office of Hawaiian Affairs.
It’s a stark shift for the 32-year-old activist who has for years helped lead the outspoken opposition to building the TMT on the Big Island. After years of fighting against the system, Manguil says he now wants to work from the inside, to help drive conversations so that his activism isn’t just reactionary.
“We need to be involved, we have to participate, otherwise we’re constantly on the outside of things and fighting as they come down the pike,” said Manguil, a teacher and founder of the Hawaiian Cultural Center of Hamakua. He thinks that’s important so that the Hawaiian community doesn’t have to always fight, but instead can support projects.
Manguil is one of nearly a dozen people running for a single seat representing Hawaii island on the OHA board. This year’s race is a rare contest without an incumbent as current trustee Robert Lindsey Jr. plans to retire.
The fact there are so many people running this year is extremely motivating, says Healani Sonoda-Pale who leads the political action committee Ka Lahui Hawaii.
“People feel there is a real chance they can win in this case,” she said.
The nine-member board sets OHA policies and oversees the multi-million dollar trust dedicated to the betterment of Native Hawaiians.
But winning isn’t easy. Every eligible voter statewide can vote on every OHA seat, even the positions that are limited to representatives from certain islands. That makes running for OHA as challenging as running for governor, although candidates usually raise much less money and are much less well-known than gubernatorial candidates. The difficulty of reaching voters statewide is forcing some candidates to fly to various islands, campaigning across neighborhoods, despite the threat of the coronavirus.
Listen to Hawaii island candidates share their views during this OHA forum:
Still, the open seat is encouraging to many candidates, some of whom are inspired by the past year of Hawaiian activism. Last summer, dozens of kupuna were arrested on the slopes of Mauna Kea. In the months since, other activists have been arrested in Waimanalo, Kahuku and in other areas where they opposed projects they felt lacked sufficient prior consultation with the Hawaiian community.
The momentum and success of the Hawaiian movement is motivating for many of the candidates, not just Manguil.
Cyd Hoffeld, a 58-year-old health promotions manager at a community health center, says Mauna Kea isn’t her main issue but she has been inspired by the overwhelming opposition to the telescope.
“It makes me as a Hawaiian feel like it’s time for me to stand up for issues that I feel are important,” she said. “The voice of Hawaiians has been ignored for so long. All of a sudden Hawaiians are standing up.”
The Big Island OHA candidates hold an array of views about the telescope project, and bring varied life experiences. Still, many are disillusioned by OHA and all can pinpoint ways in which the organization can improve.
The fact that nearly a dozen people are running is meaningful to Kuhio Lewis, who leads the Council for Native Hawaiian Advancement. He’s not one of the candidates and has been instead working to increase Native Hawaiian voter turnout and electoral representation.
“It’s encouraging because you have individuals who have diverse perspectives on issues that are impacting the Native Hawaiian community that are rising to the occasion and putting themselves forward,” Lewis says. He says Mauna Kea was “a major galvanizer.”
“I think what everyone realized is that there’s a big disjoint at the end of the day between the system that makes decisions and the people it represents,” he said. “Mauna Kea was a wake-up call, a reality check for some to question that structure. They want to be part of a solution.”
Many of the people running for the Hawaii island seat have never run for office before. But one of them, Pua Ishibashi, has already helped create a new political party.
Ishibashi, 63, is a business owner and government worker who has been a member of the Royal Order of Kamehameha for more than two decades. In 2016, he and his fellow members decided to start a new political party called the Aloha Aina Party. It took three efforts and several years to get enough signatures to make it happen but it finally became official this year.
In addition to Mauna Kea, he said he mainly decided to run to hold OHA more accountable for its spending.
“I don’t think we can correct OHA or make it better until we clean house and put things in order,” he says.
Louis Pau is another first-time candidate who wants to improve how OHA spends money.
“I’m tired of reading the paper about what’s going on with OHA and basically providing benefits to people who are connected within OHA,” Pau, a physician, said in a phone interview. He decided to run at the last minute, thinking: “You’re in a position to help other Hawaiians to get ahead.”
Unlike many other candidates, Pau supports building the TMT on Mauna Kea, emphasizing that it’s legal.
His position couldn’t be further from that of Kalaniakea Wilson, a Ph.D. student and another first-time candidate. Wilson wants to join OHA in part to push the agency to question what he described as the illegal occupation of Hawaii.
“Justice delayed is justice denied equals genocide. Live on the land, don’t die on the list,” he said, referring to the Hawaiian Home Lands wait list.
The failure of the homelands program was also motivating to Noelani Cashman-Aiu, who says she jumped in the race after seeing her parents struggle with the bureaucratic red tape of building a home on their homestead. She says her experience running multimillion-dollar budgets as a longtime executive in the tourism industry will enable her to bring leadership and civility to the board room.
“My ultimate goal as a trustee is to increase the Native Hawaiian trust,” she said, referring to the money that OHA manages. “Without the funding we can’t help and do everything we need for Native Hawaiians.”
Laura Desoto-McCollough, a retired school counselor, hasn’t served in public office before but has a strong connection to OHA. Her mother, the famous late Hawaiian activist Frenchy Desoto, pushed to create the organization during the 1978 constitutional convention.
But Desoto-McCollough says her mother, at the end of her life, questioned the direction of the organization.
Desoto-McCollough ran unsuccessfully for OHA before but is trying again this year because she wants to bring the organization more in line with her mother’s original vision.
“OHA has been a topic of disappointment for many Hawaiians,” she said, adding the telescopes on Mauna Kea are an example of how Hawaiians have been sidelined. “The people’s voices are not being heard. OHA needs to visit communities more often and hear them.”
Keola Lindsey is another candidate who says listening to the community is key. The longtime OHA staffer is also the nephew of the outgoing trustee. Lindsey says he’s proud of his uncle but has different perspectives from him. Lindsey also stands out from the other candidates as being neutral on the TMT.
“The job of an OHA trustee is to make the best decision for the place Mauna Kea and being neutral puts me in the ideal position to do that,” he said.
Lindsey has lots of ideas for improving OHA but says the biggest way OHA can improve is by spending more time listening to what the Hawaiian community wants and communicating with them.
“OHA can definitely do better and in the COVID world we need to figure out what that looks like,” he said.
One of the candidates, Louis Hao, has actually served on the OHA Board of Trustees before, back in the 1990s. Hao, age 85, said he’d do a better job this time around. He said he wants a second chance to help fix the ceded land revenue issue.
“I think I can contribute much more today than I did 20 years ago,” he said.
Lei Kihoi is another first-time candidate and she’s 75 years old. She says she was encouraged to run by the current trustee and is coming out of retirement after a career as an attorney.
So far, that’s meant walking door to door throughout neighborhoods on multiple islands. Before dawn, she says, she slides her brochures under newspapers on doorsteps. After the sun rises, she says she keeps a social distance and wears a mask as she tries to convince people to believe not only in her, but in OHA.
“I’ve been very concerned over the past two to three years after all the fighting and the FBI investigation and the self-dealings,” she said, referring to the reported FBI investigation into OHA. “I believe in openness in government, transparency and accountability. My hope is to build integrity back into the institution.”
Lewis, from the Council for Native Hawaiian Advancement, said one of the best parts about seeing so many people running is realizing that many of them are people who were previously disenchanted with the political system.
His organization held a candidate training earlier this year and has been funding census outreach efforts. His hope is that Hawaiians will see a candidate who reflects their ideals and vote.
“We want to see our community civically engaged, politically engaged,” he said. “I’m encouraged.”
Cashman-Aiu was among the candidates who attended Lewis’ training this year.
“I’m really proud to see Native Hawaiians kind of standing up and really try to help our community,” she said. “It’s really, really nice to be a part of change.”
“More than past years I feel kanaka maoli are more engaged this year and they’re really trying to do their research on what each candidate is standing for,” she said. “People really want to make sure they make the right choice this year.”
She said she thinks all mail-in voting this year will increase the number of voters, and — counterintuitively — so will the pandemic.
“Because we’re in such a crisis in Hawaii, people are on the verge of losing their jobs, of losing their housing. I really believe COVID is making us think that we really got to be more invested and educated when we vote,” she said.
Kauilani Almeida, a 64-year-old community developer, didn’t respond to voicemails requesting a comment for this story but wrote in her candidate questionnaire that confronting COVID-19 is the most pressing issue affecting Native Hawaiians.
The pandemic sharpened the sense for many that Hawaiians need to be involved in decision-making. Hoffeld, the community health center worker, said she never thought she’d run for office but after years of observing many disparities suffered by Hawaiians and serving on public commissions and boards, she decided OHA would be the best way to serve her people.
“Change has to include Hawaiians helping to make decisions and being at the table and being heard when decisions are being made,” she said. “If we can lift Hawaiians up, we all get lifted. When Hawaiians rise, we all rise and it’s the most pono thing to do.”
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