Eighteen candidates are vying for six seats on the Office of Hawaiian Affairs Board of Trustees this year, with promises to address affordable housing for the community, homelessness, education and more.

The election comes at a critical time as the semi-autonomous state agency is poised to receive more revenue from public lands than in past years.

Those who win their races will help decide how to spend the money. OHA currently gets $15.1 million each year from public land revenues, but that amount will rise to $21.5 million if Gov. David Ige signs Senate Bill 2021. That would be the first increase since 2006.

The competition for three at-large seats is the most crowded field, with 11 candidates in the running, while four people are seeking the Oahu seat. Those races will be on the ballot in the Aug. 13 primary, which will whittle the candidates down to two for each seat.

Since there are only two contenders for the Hawaii island seat, they will go straight to the Nov. 8 general election. OHA Chair Carmen Hulu Lindsey is running unopposed for the Maui seat.

OHA Office of Hawaiian Affairs sign. Photograph made thru the glass entrance area.
There are six seats up for elections for the Office of Hawaiian Affairs. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2022

OHA was created in 1978 as a semi-autonomous state agency tasked with managing a trust fund made up of revenue from lands once held by the Hawaiian kingdom to help improve conditions for Native Hawaiians who suffer from above average poverty rates and other disparities.

The nine board members are responsible for making sure that more than $600 million in trust funds are properly managed, as well as setting policies for the agency and hiring and firing the executive officer.

OHA elections are statewide so anyone, including non-Native Hawaiians, can cast a ballot. A 2000 U.S. Supreme Court ruling, Rice v. Cayetano, determined it was illegal to limit OHA elections by ethnicity.

At-Large OHA Seats

OHA board members serve four year terms, with four at-large seats and one each representing Oahu, the Big Island, Maui, Kauai and Niihau, and Molokai and Lanai.

Lei Ahu Isa and John Waihee IV are running for reelection to an at-large seat.

Isa, the vice chair for OHA, previously served in the state House of Representatives and the Board of Education. She also served on OHA’s first Native Hawaiian revolving loan fund board.

OHA Trustee Leinaala Ahu Isa.
OHA Vice Chair Lei Ahu Isa is running to keep her at-large seat on the board of directors. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2018

Waihee IV, the son of former Gov. John Waihee, has served as an OHA at-large trustee for more than 20 years. He also has served on the Kahoolawe Island Reserve Commission and the Native Hawaiian Historic Preservation Council.

Both incumbents have some recognizable competition, including retired Canadian Football League player Chad Owens, retired Grace Pacific Chief Operating Officer William Paik, former state Sen. Brickwood Galuteria, and Thirty Meter Telescope supporter and attorney Sam King.

Keoni Souza, a real estate agent and a traditional Hawaiian musician, is running for OHA after an unsuccessful bid in 2020. Souza said it’s time for a “new generation” of leaders, and he wants to tackle the housing crisis in Hawaii, where the median price for a single-family home has surpassed $1 million.

“I want to be able to leverage my relationships with state agencies,” Souza said. “Right now we’re going through a major housing crisis. We’re trying to put together programs to help with that. My No.1 thing is to not leave anyone behind, no matter what nationality you are or what race you are.”

Galuteria said he could “bring value to the table.”

“Historically, from my perspective, I would like to ensure that OHA reaches its full potential constitutionally,” Galuteria said. “There has to be value and balance in all branches (of government), and I want to ensure that OHA is respected in that way.”

Check out our explainer video about what OHA is: 

U‘i Kahue-Cabanting, a business owner and Native Hawaiian cultural practitioner, is also running for one of the at-large seats. She unsuccessfully ran for the Molokai seat in the 2020 primary.

Kahue-Cabanting said the first issue she wants to tackle is homelessness.

“The No. 1 thing for me would be to answer homelessness, the answer to the cost of living, the fact that our children are migrating away, the fact that they are even leaving the state, is to stop the sale of Hawaii. Period,” Kahue-Cabanting said.

Zuri Aki and Julian Ako are also on the ballot.

Aki is a former public policy advocate at OHA and he’s the former trustee aide to Brendon Kalei‘aina Lee, who is an at-large representative but is running for the Oahu seat this year. Aki previously ran for the Mililani House seat in 2016, but was unsuccessful.

According to his website, some of his plans are to remove the cap on OHA’s share of public land revenues and to leverage OHA assets to “build effective income stream to grow its capacity to better serve its mission.”

Ako’s website described him as “an accomplished career educator, humble servant, and renowned haku mele (music composer).” His priorities are focused on OHA receiving “the entire 20% of ceded lands revenue” and that OHA “prudently manages its assets on behalf of our kanaka oiwi.”

Another candidate who is running again is Kealii Makekau, who previously ran for the at-large seat in 2018.

Oahu Seat

OHA Trustee Kaleihikina Akaka during board meeting.
OHA trustee Kalei Akaka has represented Oahu on the board of directors since 2018. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2019

The Oahu seat is currently held by Kalei Akaka, who was elected as a trustee in 2018. Akaka is the granddaughter of Hawaii’s late Sen. Daniel Akaka.

Akaka will face three other people, including Lee.

Lee said he made the switch because he “did not feel that the aina (land) of Oahu has been adequately represented for the last four years.”

He wants more community meetings on Hawaii’s most populous island, promising at least six per year if he’s elected.

“We have a community meeting at 6 p.m. so we can hear from our beneficiaries what their concerns and needs are, what we can improve on, that has not happened on the island of Oahu in over four years, and that’s not OK,” Lee said.

Jackie Kahookele Burke, an artist, designer and planning consultant, is trying again after unsuccessfully running for an at-large seat in 2020. She said her main cause is trying to address the issues with Hawaiian blood quantum, which is used to determine whether Hawaiians can get on the homestead waitlist. Although she didn’t explain how to do it, she said she wants to get rid of the blood quantum.

“The No. 1 reason that I’m running is I would like to convince the Hawaiian community to get rid of the 50% blood quantum, and to realize that this is a separating principle that keeps us constantly divided,” Burke said.

Robert Peters is also on the ballot, but he declined to be interviewed.

Hawaii Island Seat

Incumbent Mililani Trask, an attorney and a prominent Native Hawaiian rights advocate, is running for the Big Island seat against Hope Alohalani Cemerlj, a Native Hawaiian advocate who said this is her third run as a political candidate.

Trask replaced former OHA trustee Keola Lindsey, who resigned on Feb. 1. Her experience includes work at The Gibson Foundation, a nonprofit organization dedicated to helping Hawaiians buy homes.

Mililani Trask nov 2016. 10 nov 2016
Mililani Trask currently fills the Hawaii island seat for the Office of Hawaiian Affairs. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2016

She said the most pressing issues facing Native Hawaiians are the lack of clarity about who is entitled to the ceded land trust and affordable housing issues.

“We need to look at the affordable housing crisis as something that should bring us all together to work for one solution, rather than feeling that money for the county for affordable housing takes away money for affordable housing for the state and the native,” Trask said.

Cermelj said this is her third run as a political candidate in Hawaii. In 2020, she unsuccessfully ran for the House of Representative District 4 as a Republican.

She also wants to address the problems facing Native Hawaiians who have been languishing for years on the home lands waitlist.

“I’ve lived here now for 15 years,” Cermelj said. “I am a Hawaiian national with the Kingdom of Hawaii, as well as an occupied American citizen. But with my political background and education, I believe learning about OHA and getting in there and helping people is my kuleana.”

Support public service journalism and your gift will be matched

As a local newsroom, Civil Beat has a unique public service role in times of crisis.

That’s why we’re committed to a paywall-free website and subscription-free content, so we can get vital information out to everyone, from all communities.

We are deploying a significant amount of our resources to covering the Maui fires, and your support ensures that we can pivot when these types of emergencies arise.

Make a gift to Civil Beat today and your donation will be matched up to $10,000 thanks to the generosity of the WHH Foundation.

About the Author