Hawaiian issues and the Thirty Meter Telescope are entangled in the governor’s race this year in ways that may help drive the ethnic Hawaiian vote in the critically important Democratic primary. But Hawaiians have been lining up politically in some startling ways.

Months before U.S. Rep. Kai Kahele announced he would enter the race, the Sovereign Council of Hawaiian Homestead Associations backed Lt. Gov. Josh Green, who is white. Kahele is a Hawaiian who has been popular with homesteaders, but the organization’s endorsement will stand, according to SCHHA Chairwoman Robin Puanani Danner.

Still, Kahele has been a prominent player on a number of water and land issues important to Hawaiians, and he’s shaping up to be a powerful draw for the Hawaiian community.

His supporters range from Ka’iu Kimura and her family, who are prominent, longtime supporters of astronomy on Mauna Kea, to Hinaleimoana Wong-Kalu, a Hawaiian cultural practitioner and former chair of the Oahu Island Burial Council.

Wong-Kalu was highly active in the protests against the TMT that mobilized thousands of Hawaiians in 2019 and blocked construction of the multibillion-dollar telescope. Kahele joined in those protests, making a ceremonial offering to the Hawaiian elders who blocked the Mauna Kea Access Road in their long-running civil disobedience that year.

Then-state Sen. Kai Kahele, center, makes an offering at the blocked Mauna Kea Access Road on Aug. 5, 2019 during the protests against the Thirty Meter Telescope. Kahele is now running for governor in a race in which the Hawaiian vote may be pivotal. Submitted/2019

Underlying the scramble for political support are doubts among insiders about whether large numbers of Hawaiians will even participate in the Democratic primary this year. As one veteran of many local campaigns put it, “We don’t have a history of showing up.”

Turnout has been low in a number of Hawaiian communities for many years, as shown in the vote totals. Participation in some races in heavily Hawaiian districts has been as little as half that of comparable districts in other parts of the state, and even if there is a surge in Hawaiian voter participation this year, it is uncertain who will win those votes.

Political insiders stress the Hawaiian community today is not a monolith, and Hawaiian voters have a very long history of selecting candidates of other ethnicities. For example, the Hawaiian communities in Waianae and Waimanalo were known as rock-solid strongholds for longtime Honolulu Mayor Frank Fasi, who was white.

The Ethnic Vote

But ethnic pride clearly does nudge some people to vote for candidates who are like themselves, if that option is available.

Former Gov. Ben Cayetano enjoyed deep support in the Filipino community, which helped to elect him as the first Filipino-American governor in U.S. history in 1994. Former First Lady Vicky Cayetano is running for governor this year and was raised in the Philippines, and some observers predict she will also be a draw for the Filipino community.

The ethnic makeup of the voting public is closely tracked by political consultants and polling companies because people in the business of politics understand race still matters in Hawaii voting. Omnitrak Group recently published data that shows the ethnic composition of the Democratic base has been shifting.

Hawaiian flags on the lawn on opening day of the Legislature at the Capitol.
Ethnicity still matters in Hawaii politics, and the makeup of the Democratic base has been shifting. The share of reliably Democratic voters who are of Japanese ancestry has declined, while Democratic voters who self-identify as Hawaiian has increased. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2021

Americans of Japanese ancestry, who have been mainstays of the party for decades, have declined from 43% of the Democrats who were registered and inclined to vote in 1994 to 29% this year. However, they are still considered a core party group because of their reliable turnout, Omnitrak says.

During the same period, the share of reliably Democratic voters who self-identify as Hawaiian increased from 13% to 16%. Omnitrak reports Hawaiians have “grown as a political force” since Gov. John Waihee was elected the first Hawaiian governor in 1986, but opines that the party preference of Hawaiians has become “less predictable.”

Wong-Kalu agreed candidates do not need to be Hawaiian to appeal to Hawaiian voters. But given that Kahele has clearly identified as Hawaiian, “he has a moral and ethical obligation to give consideration to the issues that matter the most to our people in our own home.”

“Hawaii cannot continue to be a place where we say, ‘Oh, we have aloha for Hawaiians,’ but only when it’s convenient, and palatable, and when it makes the state a dollar.”

“The Hawaiian community will now be challenged, clearly, in the political arena because many of us are responding to the call to restore ourselves to political and economic leadership in our home,” Wong-Kalu said. “Hawaii has been governed by foreigners for far too long.”

But Green also has backing from Hawaiians. Danner of the Sovereign Council of Hawaiian Homestead Associations said the leadership in the Hawaiian homesteads is “voting like our lives depend on it.”

Danner cited Green’s extensive experience in state government including the House, the Senate and as lieutenant governor, adding: “We truly need reliability in a governor, that values and will implement common sense solutions, we need a committed experienced policymaker and executive level leader. Green has that.”

Certainly the candidates are acutely aware ethnicity matters to the voting public.

Green reminds listeners his wife Jaime and his children are Hawaiian, sometimes mentioning that if he wins, Jaime would become the first Hawaiian first lady in state history. And the opening sentence of Kahele’s online campaign biography describes him as “a Native Hawaiian hailing from Hawaiʻi’s last remaining fishing village of Miloliʻi.”

Will Issues Matter?

An intriguing political question this year is whether the energy and activism of the Mauna Kea protests in 2019 — or the furor over the Red Hill fuel spills — have made more Hawaiians politically active. Some believe that is happening.

Davis Price, who has worked on voter engagement initiatives in the Hawaiian community for years, said he’s seen a spike in “awareness and activation” in the Hawaiian community in the last five years, much of which he attributes to Mauna Kea.

“I believe that Hawaiians are more engaged than at any other time in the last 20 years in terms of paying attention to issues,” he said.

Price points to an increase in Hawaiian candidates for office in the last two election cycles, particularly among candidates running for Oahu neighborhood board seats last year.

He cited data showing 127 Hawaiians won seats, which was slightly less than a third of the candidates elected. The neighborhood boards are a traditional training ground for candidates for higher office.

View of the House in session. The last day of 2022 Legislature session..
Lawmakers closed out the Legislative session this year after committing more than $1 billion to housing on Hawaiian home lands and other Hawaiian causes, which some see as evidence that awareness and activism in the Hawaiian community is already having a political impact. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2022

While the political leanings of Hawaiians range across the spectrum from liberal to conservative, Price argued many share core “Aloha Aina values.”

A Hawaiian may be a determined advocate for the right to own firearms but also be committed to  protecting Mauna Kea, be furious at the fuel spills by the U.S. Navy at Red Hill and want adequate funding for Hawaiian homelands, he said.

“Even though they don’t vote with a political party block, if they’re engaged, that’s still powerful, and that’s something that I think we lose sight of,” Price said. “If we’re lined up on core issues — aloha aina, for example — the needle will move. Even though that may not result in people getting elected, our issues will be pushed to the forefront.”

He cited the extraordinary progress made on some key Hawaiian issues this year at the Legislature, including appropriations totaling $1 billion to develop housing on Hawaiian home lands, or to compensate people who have been on the homelands waitlist.

Kahele stood out in recent years for his efforts to try to overhaul management of Mauna Kea, clean up and return Makua Valley, close the massive fuel tanks at Red Hill, and limit stream diversions on Maui — which are all issues that resonate with many Hawaiians.

Kahele participated in the protests on Mauna Kea against the Thirty Meter Telescope, which became a powerful rallying point for Hawaiian activism.

When asked if he now supports construction of TMT, Kahele said in an interview Friday he opposes that project “in its current form,” but supports “the future of astronomy on Mauna Kea” in general.

“I’ve never supported the project as it’s currently proposed, sited on the north plateau where it’s currently proposed to be sited. I think there was a fatal error 20 years ago when they looked at the northern plateau, an area that’s undisturbed and has never been touched, to site Thirty Meter,” he said.

“We need to move in a different direction on Mauna Kea and throughout all of our sacred places throughout Hawaii, and I think my world view as a Native Hawaiian … who was born in Hawaii, who has lived my entire life on Moku o Keawe, and is ancestrally and culturally connected and plugged into my ancestral home, which is Milolii in South Kona, is very, very vital to the next decade of leadership in this state,” Kahele said.

Green, who is a physician, also visited the protesters on Mauna Kea, telling an interviewer at the time he was there to check on the health of the participants. He also wanted to show his respect, he said.

“I think we’re seeing something extraordinary on Mauna Kea. I think that it’s important that if there’s a way to find harmony, we do,” Green told Hawaii News Now at the time.

Green was unavailable last week to answer questions about his political standing in the Hawaiian community and the TMT issue, but said in a written statement that “Hawaii is one ohana and we must always listen to each other with respect even if we don’t always agree.”

“The breakdown in trust between the two sides on Mauna Kea and the TMT has created a toxic atmosphere that makes it impossible to have a rational approach to the problem,” Green said in his statement. “I want to listen to both sides with respect, build trust, and cut through the impasse by working with both sides on a solution that will allow us to move forward.”

Lieutenant Governor Josh Green urges the public to get Covid-19 vaccinated at a press conference held at the Straub Medical Center.
Lt. Gov. Josh Green said he wants to “listen to both sides” on the Thirty Meter Telescope issue and come up with a solution that is workable to both sides. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2021

Green made similar comments during an interview on the Honolulu Star-Advertiser’s Spotlight program on April 1, declaring that whether he would support construction of TMT “is not a yes or no question.”

During that same interview Green said he “would love to see astronomy go forward for the state of Hawaii, but only through a trusting relationship can that happen.” He added: “I will not steamroll people. I really think we have to come back to a place of trust and respect before we go forward.”

The Green campaign did not respond to a follow-up request last week asking him to specifically explain if he supports construction of the Thirty Meter Telescope on Mauna Kea, or not.

The Politics May Be Changing

How the energy of the Mauna Kea protests will play out in the primary election this year — or if it will have an impact — is a puzzle.

Total vote counts in the Leeward area increased somewhat in 2020, but that was a presidential election year, and presidential races usually prompt more people to vote. And skeptics note the recently formed Aloha Aina Party — which was created to reflect Hawaiian values — didn’t elect anyone to office in 2020.

Jon Osorio, a Hawaiian studies professor at the University of Hawaii Manoa, said 2022 will be a better measure of the impact of the Mauna Kea protests on voting behavior than 2020 was.

Many who joined in the protests have political reasons for refusing to vote, including some who believe the Hawaiian kingdom still exists and Hawaii is a “fake state.” It is unlikely those people will suddenly begin voting now, he said.

But for those who do participate in elections, the aftermath of the protests may have a profound effect. The state continues to struggle with longstanding problems such as climate change and a flawed public education system, and “I think 2022 might be a really different kind of election,” Osorio said.

“We’re two years away from the mauna, we’re back in our homes, we’re dealing with this Covid stuff, we’re watching with alarm as the tourists come flooding back in, there’s Red Hill, there’s all of these other things,” he said. “Actually, I think that Kahele might be somebody who would bring more people out to vote.”

Former Gov. John Waihee, the state’s first Hawaiian governor, said another major variable will be the impact of all-mail voting.

Primary elections in Hawaii are held on Saturdays, which traditionally meant people were required to set aside part of a weekend day to participate. The primary voters willing to do that tended to be more active and engaged, but Waihee said mail-in voting has changed that.

“You had to do something to vote,” Waihee said of past primary elections. “Today, you just walk past your kitchen table, and, ‘Oh, there’s my ballot.’”

He expects mail-in voting will encourage people to participate who have historically sat out most elections, which makes it harder to predict the final results.

Another potentially important wrinkle in the Democratic primary this year is the campaign of mixed martial arts fighter BJ Penn, who is running in the Republican gubernatorial primary. Penn is also Hawaiian, and could draw some Hawaiian voters away from the Democratic primary to support him in his campaign.

Some experienced local political operatives on the Democratic side suspect Penn may indeed have that effect, but others discount that possibility. Osorio said he doubts Penn will have enough statewide appeal to make a significant impact on the Democratic primary.

“I think we vote rationally, which is why this is a blue state in the Trump era,” he said.

There appears to be a consensus in political circles that Green’s advantage in the Democratic primary will narrow in the weeks ahead, and Kahele will peel off at least some of that support. Some see the contest in terms of defense and offense, with Green seeking to protect his early lead, while Cayetano and Kahele are intent on attacking the frontrunner.

Green’s challenge will be to hold the support of at least 40% of the voters until the primary is finished, and that scenario suggests even relatively small shifts among the participating primary voters can make a difference.

Kahele’s entry into the race is certain to focus more attention on issues important to Hawaiians, but Price observed that Green is also “not an unfriendly candidate to Hawaiian issues.” That bodes well for Hawaiian causes in the future, he said.

“I think Hawaiians like myself and many, many others who have been advocating for Hawaiian issues for a number of years are in a good position to see change and progress made no matter who is elected because of the work that has been going on, and because of the elevation of consciousness,” he said.

“I think Hawaiian issues will be a prominent piece of this race. From an unbiased perspective, that’s good for our community,” Price said.

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