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2020 Election: Keli’i Akina

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  • Keli`i Akina
Name on ballot:

Keli’i Akina

Running for:

OHA At-Large Trustee

Political party:


Campaign website:

Current occupation:

OHA Trustee-at-Large; President/CEO of Grassroot Institute of Hawaii



Previous job history:

President, Youth for Christ; Founder, Center for Tomorrow’s Leaders; Faculty, Hawaii Pacific University and University of Hawaii

Previous elected office, if any:

OHA Trustee-at-Large (2016-2020)

Please describe your qualifications to represent the people of Hawaii.

When I became an OHA trustee in 2016, I stood up and challenged the system. I fought on behalf of beneficiaries to rid OHA of fraud, waste, and abuse. Despite opposition, I championed a historic independent audit which is now the blueprint for change. And when many trustees were found to have abused their personal allowances, I refused to use these funds in order to set an example and returned $44,400 to OHA beneficiaries. The Trustee board unanimously approved my independent audit proposal and has now adopted policies for financial reform which I proposed when first elected. These measures show my ability to work with and influence fellow trustees toward positive outcomes.

Beyond these qualifications, I bring to OHA my educational background (M.A. and Ph.D. in Cross-cultural Philosophy and Ethics) as well as my public policy and economics background as President/CEO of one of Hawaii’s leading think tanks.

What will be your top priority if elected?

In my first term as a Trustee, I initiated a three-point plan to develop the land and resources of OHA’s trust fund to meet the needs of Hawaiians: 1) Protect the Trust through audits and sound fiscal policies; 2) Grow the Trust by developing the financial potential of Kaka’ako Makai and other properties; and, 3) Use the Trust for the real ‘bread and butter’ needs of OHA beneficiaries for housing, jobs, education, and health-care. I will continue to steer OHA to take these steps to meet the most pressing needs of Hawaiians, empowering them to thrive, succeed and achieve great goals.

What is the most pressing need for the people you seek to represent and what can the Office of Hawaiian Affairs do to address that need?

Before I was elected Trustee-at-Large in 2016, OHA had been spending millions of dollars on pursuing a race-based nation. But in a professional survey commissioned by OHA it was discovered that the majority of Hawaiians surveyed disagreed with OHA’s focus. Instead, Hawaiians felt that OHA should focus on their real ‘bread and butter’ needs for housing, jobs, education, and healthcare. With the Coronavirus crisis, these pressing needs have only intensified, and countless Hawaiians are struggling just to make ends meet. That is why I have pushed OHA to focus on meeting basic needs rather than on pursuing controversial political agendas.

What is one specific change you would like to see in OHA’s operations and what would you do to make it happen?

Crucial to OHA’s ability to meet the needs of Hawaiians is the proper management of its trust fund and land assets, which at present are valued at nearly one billion dollars. OHAʻs trust portfolio, like many other investment funds, is facing challenges due to the economic downturn from COVID-19. Nonetheless, I have had concerns about OHA’s trust fund portfolio since before the Coronavirus pandemic. Just before I became a trustee in 2016, OHA’s own financial advisors had given a dire warning, namely, that OHA trustees were spending too much, too fast. At the rate they were spending, which exceeded 5% of the trust annually, the entire trust fund could be depleted within a decade. I wrote a report and submitted several policy recommendations to the board. Some of these recommendations have been adopted, I’m glad to say, but the spending cap, in my opinion, is still too high.

My bigger concern about the OHA trust fund is that our stock portfolio is out of balance with our landholdings. OHA is relying too heavily on its income from the stock market, while its land holdings are sitting still and losing hundreds of millions of dollars of potential annual revenues. For example, OHA owns 30 acres of valuable waterfront land in Kaka’ako Makai on Oahu. That’s from the old Fisherman’s Wharf down through Kaka’ako Waterfront Park. It’s been sitting there for more than seven years without development. Similarly, OHA owns valuable commercial property in ‘Iwilei at the old Gentry Pacific Design Center, formerly part of Dole Cannery. That property, too, remains underdeveloped.

The tragedy is that the lost revenues on these underdeveloped properties are enough to take care of the needs of Hawaiians across the Islands. Think of all the homes on Hawaiian Homelands that could be built with this income.

That is why I am passionate about returning to OHA as Trustee-at-Large to implement my three-part plan for growing OHA’s Trust fund: 1) Protect the Trust through audits and sound fiscal policy; 2) Grow the Trust by developing Kaka’ako Makai and other properties; and, 3) Use the Trust for real ‘bread and butter’ needs of beneficiaries, especially those in poverty. That way, Hawaiians will have housing, jobs, education, and healthcare.

Do you support or oppose the construction of the Thirty Meter Telescope on the Big Island and what should OHA’s role be in the process?

Like many Hawaiians, I believe there is room on Mauna Kea for both science and the sacred; for both the TMT and Hawaiian cultural practice. This is in keeping with the centuries-old values of Hawaiians who promoted navigation by the stars. The Thirty Meter Telescope presents many possibilities for scientific, educational, economic, and cultural advancement of Hawaiians and all peoples, especially future generations of keiki. However, we must practice the value of Mālama ‘Āina by ensuring pono management of the Mauna. That is why as a Trustee, I have supported OHA’s measures to ensure the preservation and sustainable care of Mauna Kea. Simply put, the State must fulfill its obligations to preserve and protect the environment and cultural heritage of the Mauna. As we move forward with science, we must also commit ourselves to protecting and honoring Mauna Kea’s unique sense of place.

Hawaiians are dIvided on the issue of TMT, so OHA needs to bring together the voices of the Hawaiian community to ho’oponopono (peacefully reconcile) and seek common ground. To do this, OHA must regain trust and restore its reputation by continuing to reform its financial and missional practices. OHA can successfully convene Hawaiians only as it fulfills its mission to meet the needs of all Hawaiians regardless of their political views. That is why I supported an OHA resolution to meet humanitarian needs of individuals risking health and safety while demonstrating at Mauna Kea. But I insisted that the aid go to any Hawaiians regardless of which side of the controversy they stood on – against or for the TMT. And I made sure that OHA’s funds were monitored and did not go to pay for the political activity of any one side. As a result, I am pleased with reports that Hawaiians of differing viewpoints benefited from OHA assistance at Mauna Kea such as portable toilets, tenting, and trash removal. It’s a first step of many more that are needed. But at least it’s a step toward OHA bringing Hawaiians together. Divided, there is nothing we can do, but, united, nothing can stop us.

What is OHA’s role in easing the overrepresentation of Native Hawaiians in prisons?

Hawaii has long been in need of criminal justice reform, and many basic reform measures will help both native Hawaiians and the population as a whole. One measure that would help is reform of the state’s civil asset forfeiture laws. At present, no conviction is required for police to seize property. This is devastating to many innocent native Hawaiian families when one member is arrested. At a minimum, the system should be reformed.

There are many other actions the state could take to improve Hawaii’s criminal justice system. These include:
– A clean slate initiative, which would make it easier for non-violent offenders who have been rehabilitated to get their records expunged;
– More culturally sensitive alternatives to rehabilitation (especially for drug-related crimes) rather than just putting people in prison;
-Improved vocational training that can help ex-offenders re-enter the job market;
– Providing incentives for employers willing to give Hawaiian ex-offenders a job.

But the best solution is prevention. And that means building strong ‘ohana (families) so Hawaiians don’t end up in the criminal justice system. In my early career with Youth for Christ, I worked with youth and families on the Waianae-Nanakuli Coast and across the state to empower them through community programs such as “Parent Project,” which equips parents to intervene successfully in the risky behaviors of their children. I have personally mentored and seen “at-risk” Hawaiian youth overcome family, educational and economic barriers, and achieve success in life.

It is empowering to see them embrace the Hawaiian values that I have learned from my kupuna and taught to my own children. These include, “Kulia I Ka Nu’u” – strive to achieve the highest; and “Mai maka’u i ka hana, maka’u i ka molowa” – Don’t fear work, fear laziness.

Is there anything more that you would like voters to know about you?

I am a husband and a father. My wife Liz and I live in Honolulu and we have a small farm where we are trying our hand at sustainable regenerative farming. My four grown children are, like myself, graduates of Kamehameha Schools. They are KeAupuni (The Kingdom), Kamana (The Power), Ho’onani (The Glory), and Mauloa (Forever).

View more candidate questionnaires or see more 2022 Hawaii elections coverage.
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