What's at Stake in the Office of Hawaiian Affairs Race?

Aug 9, 2018

OHA's nine-member board of trustees includes four at-large seats and five resident seats – one each for the districts of Hawaiʻi, Maui, Moloka'i & Lāna'i,O'ahu, and Kaua'i & Ni'ihau.
Credit Wayne Yoshiyoka

Hawaiʻi’s primary election is just two days away. While a lot of attention is focused on the Governor’s race, there’s a lot at stake for the Office of Hawaiian Affairs as well. HPR Reporter Kuʻuwehi Hiraishi has more.

Most of the seats on the Office of Hawaiian Affairs board are up for grabs this election. Two dozen candidates are vying for five of the nine spots on the OHA Board of Trustees.

Kuhio Lewis, CEO of the Council for Native Hawaiian Advancement (CNHA) welcomes guests to the Office of Hawaiian Affairs Candidate Forum.
Credit Office of Hawaiian Affairs/Facebook

Kūhiō Lewis is the CEO of the Council for Native Hawaiian Advancement.

“The Office of Hawaiian Affairs over the year has become a major economic and political player. They have a trust worth nearly $600 million,” says Lewis, “This is our chance to decide who will lead this $600 million trust.”

OHA was established as a semi-autonomous state agency by the 1978 Hawaiʻi Constitutional Convention. The agency’s mission is to use a portion of the revenues the state receives from public trust lands for the betterment of the conditions of native Hawaiians.

Some of the candidates for the OHA Trustee At-Large seats. From left to right: William Aila Jr., Pohai Ryan, Landen Paikai, and Lei Sharsh-Davis.
Credit Office of Hawaiian Affairs/Facebook

Native Hawaiian scholar Davianna Pomaikaʻi McGregror

“The vision of OHA was to be a form of self-determination for native Hawaiians,” says McGregor, “To have the state acknowledge that resources that it is managing rightfully belong to the native Hawaiian people, and to begin that process of turning over those assets for eventual establishment of a sovereign Hawaiian entity.”

Some of the candidates for the OHA At-Large trustee seat at a recent Candidate Forum. From left to right: Keali'i Makekau, Kau'i Amsterdamn, Brendon Lee, and Makana Paris.

Healani Sonoda-Pale heads Ka Lāhui Hawaiʻi Political Action Committee.

“It actually has a lot of resources that it can utilize in terms of money, land, influence,” says Sonoda-Pale.

She says issues such as the long-term management of Mauna Kea and federal recognition for native Hawaiians are coming to a head in coming years, and OHAʻs stance makes a difference. She says OHA impacts non-Hawaiians as well. Take homelessness for example.

Some of the candidates for the OHA O'ahu trustee seat. From left to right: Jackie Kaho'okele Burke, Samuel Wilder King II, Esther Kia'aina, and Kalei Akaka.
Credit Office of Hawaiian Affairs/Facebook

“When you look at the houseless issue, our people make up 40 percent of the houseless in Hawai’i,” says Sonoda-Pale, “OHA can really make a dent in that. If they just address the houseless kanaka maoli, they can really help to alleviate a large portion of the houseless.”

OHA’s election is open to all Hawai’i residents, not just native Hawaiians. Sonoda-Pale says a recent state audit critical of OHA’s spending could lead to more residents voting in this race.

“The audit has made people realize that they need to pay more attention to what’s going on at OHA,” says Sonoda-Pale, “When it comes to this election, I think people are ready for new leadership because they’re looking at the audit and they’re thinking this can’t happen again.”

Trustees serve four-year terms with no term-limit. The average term for the current board is 11 years. Lewis, a former OHA employee who once ran for trustee, hopes voters will choose by more than name recognition.  

“I think five of the nine trustees, theyʻre name starts with A. So perhaps people donʻt…they donʻt know WHO to vote for so theyʻre just going for whoever’s at the top of the ballot,” says Lewis, “So I would really would encourage the public, I know it’s more work for you but voting with some background and understanding, it’s really important.”

On the ballot this Saturday will be candidates for the Oʻahu seat as well as three At-Large seats. The Maui trustee race will be decided in the general election because there are only two candidates.