This year, voters in Hawaii will go to the polls to fill four seats on the Office of Hawaiian Affairs (OHA) Board of Trustees. For the more than 20 candidates vying for them, it will be a nail-biter right down to the finish line.
OHA is a public trust and quasi-state government agency established in 1978 with the mission of improving conditions for Native Hawaiians. Operating on a $40 million annual budget (most of it derived from ceded lands revenue), it strives to fulfill its mission by providing programs such as community grants, consumer and business microloans and scholarships.
The board of trustees, which sets policy and manages the agency’s trust, is comprised of nine members, one representing each of the four districts—Hawaii Island, Maui, Molokai and Lanai, Oahu, and Kauai and Niihau—and five at-large seats, representing the entire state. The seats up for grabs on November 6: the Island of Hawaii, Maui, Kauai and one at-large.
The race for the Kauai seat is the most crowded, with 11 candidates. The incumbent, Donald Cataluna, who is retiring, has held the seat since 2000, the same year a U.S. Supreme Court decision (Rice v. Cayetano, 528 U.S. 495, 2000) gave all voters in the state the right to vote on OHA trustee seats. So, for the first time, it will not be just Native Hawaiians voting.
Kanani Kagawa Fu, 31, a former OHA community resource coordinator for the Kauai district, is among the pack competing for the Kauai seat, and she could be a tough one to beat. Though young and never holding an elected position, she is enthusiastic, devoted to her people—personally and professionally—and has the backing of Cataluna.
In the final weeks of her campaign, Kagawa Fu talked to ICTM about why she decided to run and how this election could change the direction of OHA.
Do most Native Hawaiians know what OHA is and what it does?
For the most part, Native Hawaiians are in touch with what OHA does, but at the surface level.
Have you always been in touch with OHA?
I grew up in Anahola, Kauai, on Hawaiian Homelands. Because I was a resident there, we were always made aware of things that OHA was doing and all of the other Hawaiian agencies.
My first recollection of OHA is attending a taro patch event. I recall it was with Aunty LaFrance Kapaka-Arboleda [a Native Hawaiian advocate and former community resource coordinator for OHA who passed in 2006], and I had just come home from college. Aunty was passionate about haloa [taro], and I was working to develop a taro garden replica for homesteaders. I spent a large part of my childhood in the Anahola Taro Patch, attending festivals and events. OHA sponsored or funded, through Na Pua No’eau [an OHA-funded education program], many of these cultural gatherings.
I also went to Hawaiian schools, Kamehameha Schools. Because I went there, I used these resources. I used OHA for scholarships. When I graduated from college, I got a job with OHA. Most of my life, I have had a relationship with OHA.
Why did you decide to run?
As a Native Hawaiian, a beneficiary, my entire life has been affected by this trust, the Native Hawaiian trust that supports the betterment of our people. Because I worked with OHA at a professional capacity—I also worked for the incumbent trustee, Donald Cataluna, I know that I can contribute a lot of experience—a lot of my knowledge and background—to growing the trust. I believe we are at a pivotal point at OHA. Now is the time for a progressive and positive change. I wish to bring fresh perspective to the leadership, which is long overdue.
Are you doing a lot of outreach to educate voters on you and the OHA BOT?
Yes. Because this is my first political campaign, I personally have to do outreach, just to get my name out there, to let them know who I am and what I represent. There is the challenge of educating the entire state and the challenge of traveling to every island and personally doing outreach. And there is the challenge of educating those that in previous election years non-Native Hawaiians could not vote.
How are you getting the word out?
A large part of it is social media—Twitter, Facebook, YouTube. In addition to the low cost, it really reaches a lot of people. What’s awesome about my campaign is, because I went to Kamehameha Schools, I made a lot of friends. On every island I have like a network helping me to get the word out.
How could this election change the direction of the OHA?
This year, there is the possibility of four new trustees. This could change the dynamic of the Board and projects OHA is currently involved with. Because an OHA Board majority vote is needed to pursue any projects or undertakings, it will be crucial for the potential newcomers to get up to speed with OHA’s current pursuits and form working relationships with the incumbent trustees.