Hawaii real estate agent Keoni Souza hopes to unseat Keli’i Akina, an outspoken critic of the Office of Hawaiian Affairs who has served on its Board of Trustees since 2017.

The OHA elections are nonpartisan but Souza and Akina appear divided along party lines as they compete for an at-large seat.

Akina has spent the past few years pushing for more auditing of OHA spending and more fiscal transparency. He is a former youth pastor who leads the Grassroot Institute of Hawaii. The nonprofit is a vocal critic of state spending and local unions. In 2015, the group sued OHA and successfully prevented the organization from funding a self-determination vote that would have been limited to Native Hawaiians.

Souza, on the other hand, is endorsed by Hawaii unions such as the Hawaii Government Employees Association, which represents thousands of government workers, and has gotten money from Jennifer Sabas, a longtime staffer of the late Democratic U.S. Sen. Daniel Inouye and Democratic state Sen. Kai Kahele, who is running for Congress.

The 2020 elections include a race between Keli’i Akina and Keoni Souza for an OHA at-large seat. 

The race has far more campaign money going into it than any other OHA contest. As of Sept. 26, Akina reported spending more than $150,000 this election cycle, more money than any other OHA candidate by far. He still had a surplus of nearly $19,000.

He spent thousands on advertising in mailers, in news media and on social media and Google. Akina’s donors include the political action committee for the Oahu League of Republican Women and retired University of Hawaii professor Randall Roth, known for his criticism of Bishop Estate in the late 1990s.

Over the same time period, Souza had spent just over $34,000 and was more than $9,000 in the red. His funders include the Washington-based International Brotherhood of Teamsters and the Hawaii Firefighters Association political action committee.

The former Hawaiian Airlines flight attendant told Civil Beat that more transparency from OHA is important but he doesn’t agree with Akina’s style, noting that Akina is “trying to dismantle OHA from the inside out.”

“He’s the watchdog, he’s out to get his peers,” Souza said. He said he’d prefer to work with his fellow trustees to improve transparency as well as highlight the good things that OHA does.

“No hidden agenda, no trying to dismantle OHA — I want to bring the relationships I have and I want to use them for the benefit of OHA,” Souza said. “Now is the time for change.”

Akina said he wants to improve the organization by fighting waste, fraud and abuse. He was the first OHA trustee to refrain from spending his annual trustee allowance and successfully pushed for an additional internal audit of the agency.

“In the vast majority of votes during the first term of office I have stood unanimously with the board. It is necessary however to stand up and challenge the board on behalf of the public and beneficiaries where transparency and accountability demanded it,” Akina said. “I’m running again because there’s so much work left to be done.”

Opposing Race-Based Government

The Grassroot Institute lawsuit that Akina initiated effectively paused OHA’s efforts to advance Hawaiian self-government. OHA was created in the 1978 constitutional convention to manage a trust of Hawaiian assets for the betterment of the Hawaiian people. The agency was perceived as the precursor to a Native Hawaiian government.

Akina has long opposed the creation of a separate Native Hawaiian government. But he contends that the perception that the Grassroot Institute opposes Hawaiians is wrong.

“Grassroot Institute is fully supportive of Native Hawaiians. The only thing it has opposed is a misuse of government funding,” he said. “We absolutely support the first amendment rights of Hawaiians to organize and seek self-determinism. Hawaiians have a diversity of views on self-determinism and as an OHA trustee it is my responsibility to allow Hawaiians to give voice to their varied views. It is not the place of OHA to mandate one direction or another.”

All Hawaii voters are allowed to cast ballots in OHA races, the result of a 2000 U.S. Supreme Court ruling in Rice v. Cayetano that struck down state law limiting voters to people of Native Hawaiian descent. The ruling is seen by many as a blow to Native Hawaiian efforts to achieve reparations and self-government.

In an article mourning Rice’s death in 2018, Akina described him as a good friend whom the candidate has long admired. Akina’s campaign has been reminding Hawaii voters of the ruling through the slogan, “Everyone can vote OHA.”

The encouragement of non-Hawaiians to vote in OHA races has prompted some pushback on social media:

Souza has tried to turn the slogan on its head: “If everyone can vote OHA, everyone can vote Souza,” he said.

OHA contests traditionally have attracted relatively low voter turnout, in part because some voters decline to cast ballots out of respect for Native Hawaiians. But Akina’s aggressive campaigning is prompting some to vote when they otherwise wouldn’t, including Kim Coco Iwamoto, a progressive candidate who unsuccessfully ran for the state House this year.

Some Similarities

Akina believes that OHA funding should be used for “bread and butter” issues such as jobs, education, housing and health care.

On that note, Akina and Souza have something in common. Souza’s plans for a potential four-year term on OHA’s board largely revolve around funding for housing.

He wants to improve mortgage education so that Hawaiians who are offered homestead leases are ready to receive them; establish a down payment assistance program within OHA; and partner with unions to provide training in construction and other trades.

They both support the development of Kakaako Makai to provide additional revenue for OHA.

Neither Akina nor Souza are staunchly opposed to the construction of additional telescopes on Mauna Kea, an issue that has prompted widespread protests and divided candidates running for other OHA seats. Souza said he does not support current plans for the Thirty Meter Telescope but is open to construction projects that benefit Hawaiians.

Akina said he definitely supports the TMT as long as the mountain’s management follows the recommendations of various audits, such as removing obsolete telescopes.

“There’s room on the mauna for both science and the sacred,” he said.

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