Case, Hirono and Lingle pledge to pursue federal recognition for Hawaiians
POSTED: 1:30 a.m. HST, May 20, 2012
U.S. Sen. Daniel Akaka may not achieve federal recognition for Native Hawaiians before he retires next year, leaving his successor to inherit a cause that has been frustrated in the Senate for more than a decade.
Akaka and U.S. Sen. Daniel Inouye will make a last run at federal recognition — which would treat Hawaiians as indigenous people with the right to self-government — before Akaka's term expires in January.
The Hawaii Democrats will likely look to attach language to a federal spending bill, which would sidestep a stand-alone vote in the Senate, a tactic that failed last year and may have even poorer odds in an election year when political control of the Senate is in the balance.
U.S. Rep. Mazie Hirono and former congressman Ed Case, the Democratic candidates in the primary to replace Akaka, are committed to federal recognition for Native Hawaiians. Former Gov. Linda Lingle, the leading Republican contender, said federal recognition is consistent with the nation's "core values of justice and fairness." But John Carroll, a former state lawmaker and attorney challenging Lingle in the GOP primary, contends it is race-based discrimination.
Federal recognition for Hawaiians, known as the Akaka Bill, has been the dominant public-policy goal for Hawaii in Congress since Akaka introduced the legislation in 2000 to help protect Hawaiian-only programs from legal challenges. Versions of the Akaka Bill have passed the House three times but the legislation has never had an up-or-down vote in the Senate because of Republican opposition.
The strategy behind the Akaka Bill has been in transition as the 87-year-old senator, the first with Hawaiian ancestry, prepares to leave office. Gov. Neil Abercrombie signed a state bill into law last year that recognized Hawaiians as an indigenous people and created a process for establishing a roll of Hawaiians eligible to participate in a new government that could oversee land use and cultural issues. The federal government could recognize the Hawaiians eventually identified through the state law.
"The goal is very clear to me," Hirono said by telephone from Washington, D.C. "And that goal is to attain federal recognition for Native Hawaiians as a native, sovereign people with the right to self-governance.
"And this is how we treat Alaska Natives and American Indians."
Hirono said she would be creative as a senator and would work with the Native Hawaiian community and the delegation on a strategy. The congresswoman said she is not discouraged that the Akaka Bill has failed to pass for more than a decade. "There are a lot of public-policy changes that didn't happen overnight," she said.
Hirono said she does not believe additional public hearings or some type of vote on federal recognition is needed in Hawaii, as some of the bill's supporters and critics have suggested.
"There have been a lot of expressions of support for this goal," she said, the last being the state law approved overwhelmingly by the Legislature.
Case, who unsuccessfully challenged Akaka in the primary in 2006, said Native Hawaiians are entitled to the same rights and benefits as other indigenous people. He said he would pursue a three-track strategy: federal recognition from Congress, executive branch action through the White House, and assisting the state's effort to establish a roll of Hawaiians.
"I would pursue it as U.S. senator, both because I believe it's the right thing for Native Hawaiians and Hawaii, and because I would view it as a personal obligation to Senator Akaka to carry forward his effort," he said.
Case, like Lingle, broke with Akaka and the delegation over a version of the bill at a critical moment in 2010 when Democrats held majorities in Congress and Hawaii-born President Barack Obama had pledged to sign it into law. Akaka later agreed to amend the bill to win back Lingle's support, but the bill still stalled in the Senate.
Case stated his position while running for the U.S. House seat eventually won by Colleen Hanabusa. He and Lingle had objected to the version because Hawaiians would have had the inherent power to govern prior to — not after — negotiations with the state and federal governments.
Case wants a new round of discussions on federal recognition in Hawaii. Akaka led often acrimonious hearings in Hawaii in 2000 that were interrupted by protests from Hawaiian sovereignty activists who see federal recognition as a threat to Hawaii ever regaining independence from the United States.
"I believe that great decisions need to be considered publicly. They need to be discussed, and it's been a long time since we've had that discussion in Hawaii," Case said. "I don't believe that anybody should want to oppose that discussion. Yes, it's going to be a difficult discussion. But that's OK. We still need to have it."
Lingle has supported the Akaka Bill despite opposition from within her party. But she was unable as governor to get Senate Republicans to relax procedural roadblocks or persuade the U.S. Department of Justice under President George W. Bush to remain neutral.
Lingle said the next senator should work quickly with the delegation — and Akaka — to examine the reasons why federal recognition has not become law.
"We know already from history that it is not enough for Hawaii's congressional delegation alone to support the Akaka Bill. Its passage will require bipartisan support from a majority of members of both houses of Congress," she said.
"No version of the Akaka Bill has ever passed both houses of Congress and made it to the desk of any president. This is true even though the Akaka Bill has been under consideration during times when Democrats controlled both houses of Congress, Republicans controlled both houses of Congress, and control was divided.
"I believe this was due in part because many members of Congress as well as the broader public did not understand the history of Hawaii and its people, and did not understand the content of the legislation itself. It is clear that Hawaii's next U.S. senator will need to spend time talking with their fellow senators as well as the public about Native Hawaiian federal recognition — both what it means and what it doesn't mean."
Carroll, a conservative Republican, described Akaka as "one of the finest persons I have ever known." But he said the Akaka Bill would divide Hawaii into two sovereign entities.
"Citizenship will be based strictly on proving possession of a single drop of Hawaiian blood," he said. "Such a sovereign entity, as is the case with the current tribal designations, would therefore, like Islamic law, not be subject to criticism, or accountable to any law other than group interest."