Sunday, July 7, 2002

Isle political
parties work to
earn Hawaiians’ votes

Some officials say that a unified
voter block can be created

By Pat Omandam

The more than 100,000 registered voters of Hawaiian ancestry could make the difference in this year's gubernatorial election, officials say.

"It's an important group that I think every side will be playing to vote for," said Micah Kane, chairman of the Hawaii Republican Party. "I think there's a natural migration for us to want to go and spend some time making sure that we understand the issues that are important to the Hawaiian people."

Ikaika Hussey, president of the Native Hawaiian Caucus of the Democratic Party of Hawaii, said: "The native Hawaiian vote will be the decisive vote in the gubernatorial race. ... I think polls indicate it's going to be a critical vote for both sides."

The state Office of Elections in 2000 stopped tracking the number of Hawaiians who registered to vote in the Office of Hawaiian Affairs board elections after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled on Feb. 23, 2000, in the Rice vs. Cayetano case that those trustee elections should be open to voters of all races.

In 1998, the last year registration figures were collected, 100,163 Hawaiians signed up to vote for OHA trustees in the general election. It was the highest number of Hawaiians ever registered since the agency had its first elections in 1980. Statewide, 601,000 people were registered to vote that year.

Two years later, Census 2000 data show that 282,667, or 23.3 percent of Hawaii residents, claimed two or more races, one of them being the native Hawaiian and/or other Pacific Islander race.

So with nearly 25 percent of the state's current 1.2 million population having at least some Hawaiian or Pacific Islander blood, it is expected more Hawaiians will hit the polls, said Daniel Nahoopii, vice president of programs for the Democrats' Native Hawaiian Caucus.

But just what are they looking for in a candidate?

Both parties say the many issues facing Hawaiians are those shared with all of Hawaii's working class, such as housing, a living wage, education, the environment and labor.

But they acknowledged the need for special attention on specific issues, such as self-determination, possibly through the passage of the Akaka bill. Other key issues are support for ceded-land revenue for OHA and an emphasis to put more Hawaiians on homestead lands.

And they said no one issue will be likely to turn a vote.

GOP Chairman Kane, who is of Hawaiian ancestry, said Hawaiians want tough candidates willing to tackle these issues in a nonpartisan manner. He said GOP gubernatorial candidate Linda Lingle has been a strong supporter of native issues, and noted the number of Republicans in the state House who are of Hawaiian ancestry outnumbered Hawaiians in the Democratic House majority.

Kane added the Republican Party will approach the group vigorously like every other ethnic group in Hawaii. Voter turnout is extremely important for the party, he said.

"It's an all-or-nothing election for us. And really, that means giving 110 percent in every group. ... We're not letting anybody go by," Kane said.

Foremost for Democrats is getting out more information to Hawaiians so they can make informed decisions about which party has done more to help them. Such education also helps avoid voter apathy among them, Nahoopii said.

"They don't see what the party has done in state and federal legislation for Hawaiians, and that's another issue we're pushing for the caucus," Nahoopii said.

Hussey added that with so many different groups focused on separate native issues, Hawaiians are not a homogenous group -- but he believes they can be.

"I think when the Hawaiian caucus is done with our work, we'll have stitched together a block vote," Hussey said.

State Rep. Ed Case (D, Manoa), a gubernatorial candidate, said the native Hawaiian vote is important, but his message to the native community will be no different than to everyone else in Hawaii.

Still, he said, there is a lot of "talk story" going on between him and various Hawaiian groups about his support of native issues.

That is because in 1998, as chairman of the House Hawaiian Affairs Committee, Case introduced a controversial bill that consolidated OHA and the state Department of Hawaiian Home Lands under one government agency, sparking protests and 24-hour vigils.

Case said the substance of the bill remains pertinent, but he acknowledged the Hawaiian community should have been involved to a greater extent before the measure was introduced.

"I believe they are looking for a candidate that understands those concerns, wants to forward the interests of native Hawaiians and has the ability to include the native Hawaiian community into government and to make changes that will provide native Hawaiians with what they are seeking, which I believe are increased self-determination, self-governance and autonomy," Case said.

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