Editor’s note: For Hawaii’s Nov. 3 General Election, Civil Beat asked candidates to answer some questions about where they stand on various issues and what their priorities will be if elected.

The following came from Keli’i Akina, candidate for Office of Hawaiian Affairs At-Large Trustee. Other candidate is Keoni Souza.

Go to Civil Beat’s Elections Guide for general information, and check out other candidates on the General Election Ballot.

Candidate for Office of Hawaiian Affairs At-Large Trustee

Keli'i Akina
Party Nonpartisan
Age 62
Occupation President/CEO, Grassroot Institute of Hawaii, OHA trustee
Residence Honolulu


Community organizations/prior offices held

Founder, Center for Tomorrow's Leaders; adjunct professor, Hawaii Pacific University; advisor, Malama Meals; president emeritus, Youth for Christ Hawaii.

1. What do you see as the most pressing issue facing Native Hawaiians? What will you do about it? 

Before I was elected trustee-at-large in 2016, OHA had been spending millions of dollars on pursuing a race-based nation. But in a professional survey commissioned by OHA it was discovered that the majority of Hawaiians surveyed disagreed with OHA’s focus. Instead, Hawaiians felt that OHA should focus on their real “bread and butter” needs for housing, jobs, education and health care.

With the coronavirus crisis, these pressing needs have only intensified, and countless Hawaiians are struggling just to make ends meet. That is why I have pushed OHA to focus on meeting basic needs rather than on pursuing controversial political agendas. As a trustee, I initiated a three-point plan to develop the land and resources of OHA’s trust fund to meet the needs of Hawaiians:

• Protect the trust through audits and sound fiscal policies;

Grow the trust by developing the financial potential of Kakaako Makai and other properties; and,

Use the trust for the real “bread and butter” needs of OHA beneficiaries, especially those in poverty. I will continue to push OHA to take these steps to meet the most pressing needs of Hawaiians, empowering them to thrive, succeed and achieve great goals.

2. What would you do to change how OHA is run?

When I became a trustee in 2016, I fulfilled my campaign promise to stand up and successfully challenge the system. I fought on behalf of the public and OHA beneficiaries to rid the agency of fraud, waste and abuse.  Despite opposition, I championed a historic independent audit which is now the blueprint for change.  And in the midst of a scandal where many trustees had abused their personal trustee allowances on lavish expenses, I refused to take any funds and returned $44,400 to OHA beneficiaries.

Although frequently a lone voice, I also successfully worked with and influenced other trustees. For example, the board unanimously approved my independent audit proposal and has adopted policies for financial reform which I promoted when first elected. With numerous policy improvements and a capable new CEO, OHA is now being run better. If re-elected, I will continue to pursue my three-point plan (explained above) to ensure changes take root. And I will continue to fight on behalf of the people ‚ because OHA needs a watchdog.

3. What would you do to bridge the gaps within the Native Hawaiian community over issues like construction of the Thirty Meter Telescope or development of energy projects?

OHA needs to bring together the voices of the Hawaiian community to ho’oponopono and seek common ground. To do this, OHA must regain trust and restore its reputation by continuing to reform its financial and missional practices.

OHA can successfully convene Hawaiians only as it fulfills its mission to meet the needs of all Hawaiians regardless of their political views. That is why I supported an OHA resolution to meet humanitarian needs of individuals risking health and safety while demonstrating at Mauna Kea. But I insisted that the aid go to any Hawaiians regardless of which side of the controversy they stood on — against or for the TMT.  And I made sure that OHA’s funds were monitored and did not go to pay for the political activity of any one side.

As a result, I am pleased with reports that Hawaiians of differing viewpoints benefited from OHA assistance at Mauna Kea such as portable toilets, tenting and trash removal. It’s a first step of many more that are needed. But at least it’s a step toward OHA bringing Hawaiians together. Divided, there is nothing we can do, but, united, nothing can stop us.

4. Do you support the construction of the Thirty Meter Telescope atop Mauna Kea? Why or why not?

Like many Hawaiians, I believe there is room on Mauna Kea for both science and the sacred. This is in keeping with the centuries-old values of Hawaiians who promoted navigation by the stars. The Thirty Meter Telescope presents many possibilities for scientific, educational, economic and cultural advancement of Hawaiians and all peoples, especially future generations of keiki.

However, we must practice the value of malama aina by ensuring pono management of the mauna. That is why as a trustee, I have supported OHA’s measures to ensure the preservation and sustainable care of Mauna Kea. Simply put, the state must fulfill its obligations to preserve and protect the environment and cultural heritage of the mauna. As we move forward with science, we must also commit ourselves to protecting and honoring Mauna Kea’s unique sense of place.  

5. Do you support OHA providing financial aid to Mauna Kea protesters?

Please see my response to Question 3.

6. What role should the Department of Hawaiian Home Lands play in reducing homelessness?

There are more than 27,000 Hawaiians on the Hawaiian Homelands waiting list, yet annually less than 1% acquire homes. Thousands have died while waiting on the list. This tragic situation is the result of mismanagement and inadequate funding, but the root cause is a century-old failed business model which renders the Homelands land-rich and cash-poor.

To fulfill its mission to homesteaders and to provide accommodations to the homeless, the Hawaiian Homelands must aggressively pursue commercial development that generates revenue through shopping centers and other commercial ventures, much like the Bishop Estate/Kamehameha Schools has done in creating one of the world’s wealthiest charitable institutions.

Although the Hawaiian Homelands are administered by a separate agency (DHHL), OHA has a constitutional mandate or “kuleana” to better the conditions of Native Hawaiians. For this reason, I advocated for the inclusion of helping Hawaiians acquire homesteads in OHA’s new strategic plan, and I advised a working group that reviewed OHA’s commitment to helping finance the Hawaiian Homelands.  I am committed to OHA increasing its efforts to work with DHHL to eliminate the long waiting list and to provide housing initiatives for the homeless.

7. Why do you think Hawaiians are disproportionately represented in our prisons and jails? What can be done about it?

The level of Hawaiians in prison is due to many social and economic factors, which are best resolved by strengthening Hawaiians’ family life, education and economic conditions. Studies show that when these factors are positive Hawaiians thrive and are less likely to end up as “statistics.” That is why I have spent decades in my professional life working with youth and families on the Waianae Coast and across the state to empower them through community programs such as “Parent Project,” which equips parents to intervene successfully in the risky behaviors of their children.

In my first term as an OHA trustee-at-large, I worked with my colleagues to launch a new strategic plan for OHA which will invest millions of dollars in bettering the conditions of Hawaiians that will ultimately empower more Hawaiians to be productive and thriving members of society. I have personally mentored and seen “at-risk” Hawaiian youth overcome family, educational and economic barriers and achieve success in life. That is why I always tell Hawaiian young people to “Kūlia i ka nu’u,” which literally means “strive to reach the summit.”  In other words, “Believe in yourself and pursue great goals in life!”

8. What are your views regarding Hawaiian self-determination?

Any model of self-determination should come from and be decided on collectively by the Hawaiian people.  And most Hawaiians reject a form of governance over them resembling the experience of Native American tribes under the U.S. Department of Interior. Further, Hawaiians have diverse views on self-determination, independence and sovereignty.  Therefore, OHA as a government agency, should respect this diversity and remain neutral as to the form of political future for Hawaiians and focus, instead, on meeting the needs of all Hawaiians (i.e., for housing, jobs, education, and health care).

Many Hawaiians are proud to be both Hawaiian and American. As for my fellow Kanaka Maoli who pursue various models of self-determination, I affirm their First Amendment right to advocate for independence or nationhood. OHA can support and facilitate civil discussion of this topic among Hawaiians and the broader community, but it should refrain from using its resources to impose any one model of political self-determination. Instead, OHA should foster economic empowerment for all Hawaiians as individuals and a people.

9. What other important issue would you like to discuss here?

Sometimes non-Hawaiians ask why they should vote in the election of OHA trustees. Simply put, everyone benefits from the betterment of conditions of the Hawaiian people. When Hawaiians go without essential needs, everyone suffers; when Hawaiians prosper, everyone prospers!

Even so, some non-Hawaiians feel it is not culturally respectful to vote in OHA elections. Let me share what I told Honolulu Magazine:

As a Native Hawaiian, I believe it is important for all registered voters, regardless of race, to participate in the election of OHA trustees. This is the way to be culturally respectful because it honors the Hawaiian Kingdom practice that citizenship was not based upon race. From the time of Kamehameha the First to Queen Lili‘uokalani, leaders of multiple ethnicities were appointed to manage the kingdom’s land and assets for the benefit of all. Hawaii was the first place in what is now the United States where citizenship and voting were based upon “the content of one’s heart, not the color of one’s skin.”

So, as more Hawaii voters realize it is everyone’s kuleana to vote for OHA trustees, there will be more opportunity for democracy and change.

E hana kākou/let’s work together.