Keli‘i Akina, president of the Grassroot Institute of Hawaii, seemed headed for a surprising victory over Office of Hawaiian Affairs veteran Haunani Apoliona, after trailing narrowly in early returns.
OHA Chairman Robert Lindsey defeated challenger Mililani Trask, 44.6 percent to 32.5 percent, with almost all votes counted.
Akina waged a spirited campaign against Apoliona, who has served continuously on the board since first being elected in 1996. He had 37.3 percent to her 35.9 percent of the votes for the at-large seat in a tally near midnight, with the remaining votes blank.
It was Akina’s second campaign for OHA and he recognized the challenge of taking on a well-known incumbent.
“Name recognition is a huge advantage for any candidate who has it, but we’ve made use of all forms of media to build our own name recognition,” Akina said.
“This has been a great opportunity to do something good for the people of Hawaii, both Native Hawaiians and non-Hawaiians. The public has responded tremendously to our message that it’s time for all people to work together.”
Akina had made some headlines himself as plaintiff in the lawsuit that wound up stopping the Na‘i Aupuni Hawaiian self-governance election, which he considered racially discriminatory. The institute he leads is devoted to individual liberty and limited government.
As the polls closed Tuesday evening, Apoliona looked back over her tenure, which includes a decade as OHA chairwoman.
“It definitely has been a building process,” she said. “It’s all about empowering Native Hawaiians in our efforts for self-determination, social and economic development. Having the opportunity to serve for these 20 years, you have the chance to see the improvements and the bigger challenges that await OHA.”
Lindsey, a retired land assets division director for Kamehameha Schools, was seeking his third term. He sees his role as being “a thoughtful rudder in leading the board” and “a quiet, rational voice in times of crisis.”
In the primary, Trask had edged Lindsey for the Hawaii island seat by less than 2 percentage points in a three-way race.
A former trustee herself, Trask campaigned as a critic of OHA, calling on it to be more transparent, accountable, and focused in its efforts.
“OHA can’t continue to be everything to everyone,” Trask said. “Trustees must consider and prioritize their areas of service to beneficiaries.”
All voters statewide may cast ballots in OHA elections. In the past, the top vote-getters in November were declared the winners. But since 2014, OHA elections have had primaries.
The Office of Hawaiian Affairs is governed by nine trustees who serve four-year terms. Four were up for election this year.
Molokai Trustee and 20-year OHA veteran Colette Machado received more than half of the votes in the primary and won outright. Trustee Dan Ahuna was unopposed for his Kauai seat.
Many voters leave the OHA portion of their ballots blank. First-time voter Tobi Watanabe, a University of Hawaii student, decided to weigh in on the races although she didn’t know a lot about the candidates.
“I voted for Bob Lindsey,” she said after casting her ballot at Stevenson Middle School. “That was solely based off things I heard on the radio. If it wasn’t for Bob Lindsey’s radio commercials, I wouldn’t have known who he was.”