What's in a Name? A lot for OHA Candidates

Oct 25, 2018

Candidates for the Office of Hawaiian Affairs Board of Trustees' O'ahu seat sign wave to get the vote out for the General Election. Public service veteran Esther Kia'aina is the underdog going up against 35-year-old Kalei Akaka, granddaughter of the late U.S. Senator Daniel Akaka. Akaka won the primary by 5,000 votes.

Name recognition is a factor in any election, but here in Hawaiʻi it is a dominant factor in Office of Hawaiian Affairs races. And no race better exemplifies this phenomenon than the two candidates running for the Oʻahu seat on OHA’s Board of Trustees. HPR’s Kuʻuwehi Hiraishi reports. 

There’s a running joke in Hawaiʻi political circles that to run a successful campaign for the Office of Hawaiian Affairs, you need a last name that starts with an “A” – Ahu Isa, Akana, Akina. Those are last names of current OHA trustees.

“They werenʻt even joking,” says Esther Kiaʻāina, OHA Candidate for the Oʻahu Seat, “They said, ʻEsther, why donʻt you just cut off the Kia and put ʻĀina?ʻ And I was offended.”

No official research has been conducted on the matter, but with less than two weeks left before the General Election, Esther Kiaʻāina has been trying everything to get her alphabetically-disadvantaged name out in hopes of securing the Oʻahu seat on the OHA Board of Trustees.

KIAʻĀINA: Aloha Malia this is Esther Kiaʻāina...

Today, it’s phone banking. Kiaʻāina and a dozen or so family members, friends, and supporters spent the afternoon in Kailua making calls and sending text messages. 

KIAʻĀINA: I know I can count on your support, but I was hoping that you could also call your family and friends to get out the word to vote for me.

Kiaʻāina has worked for more than 25 years in public service at the local and federal level. She’s had her name on major legislation like the 1993 Apology Resolution, and a recent federal rule providing a process for native Hawaiian self-determination.

“I have to be proud of my last name, and Iʻd like to think that over time people will get to know me,” says Kiaʻāina

But in a statewide election that continues to garner the most blank votes and the least voter attention, her merit is up against one of the most widely-recognized Hawaiian names in politics…and it starts with an “A.”

AKAKA: Aloha my name is Kalei Akaka and I humbly and kindly ask for your vote.

Kalei Akaka is the granddaughter of the late U.S. Senator Daniel Akaka, whom Kiaʻāina worked for in Washington, D.C. in the 90s. The 35-year-old Kamehameha Schools employee beat Kiaʻāina in the primaries by more than 5,000 votes, and she hopes to do it again.

“What I’ll bring is that sense of style of aloha because that’s what you get with our Akaka ‘Ohana,” says Akaka.

I met Akaka in the bustling Kewalo Basin parking lot as she prepared to participate in the annual Aloha Festivals Parade. She’s not here to campaign. But it wasn’t long before…

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Akaka? So do you know…

She’s here to support her father Danny “Kaniela” Akaka, Jr. – this year’s inductee into the Hawaiian Music Hall of Fame. She’s been tasked with driving him through the parade.

“It’s very ‘ohana-geared here,” says Akaka, “Everything is ‘ohana.”

And ‘ohana means votes, at least in this ‘ohana. Akaka admits her grandfather’s legacy played a role in her primary win. But instead of feeling discouraged that voters may not be paying attention to her own merit or platform, she’s embraced it as a possible stepping stone to elected office.