The period from the late-1990s to the mid-2000s was tumultuous for Native Hawaiians.

Hawaiian programs and rights were under constant attack. Kamehameha Schools and the Office of Hawaiian Affairs (OHA) battled lawsuits that challenged their core missions: their ability to serve Native Hawaiians. Meanwhile, Hawai‘i lawmakers considered limiting Native Hawaiian gathering rights and stripping ali‘i trusts of key revenue sources.

The Native Hawaiian response was decisive. We held historic marches that turned some of the main thoroughfares of Honolulu red, the color of the Hawaiian justice movement. And we shifted our activism to the polls. Native Hawaiians arguably cast the decisive votes in two close races in back-to-back elections: the 2002 gubernatorial race and the 2004 mayoral race.

As this year’s democratic primary race for governor tightens, once again the Native Hawaiian vote could be critical in determining who will lead the state for the next four years. Moreover, our vote up and down the ballot will help shape Hawai‘i’s future.

Below are two stories from the recent past that serve to remind everyone – not just Native Hawaiians, but every candidate running for office – about the power of the Native Hawaiian vote.

Native Hawaiians Vote to Restore Hawaiian Funds

In September 2001, the state Supreme Court invalidated a law that provided a detailed formula to calculate the Native Hawaiian people’s 20-percent share of revenues from the Public Land Trust (PLT). After the court ruling, Gov. Ben Cayetano refused to make any further PLT transfers to OHA. And just like that, millions of dollars that for more than a decade had supported Native Hawaiian programs disappeared.

Left with few other options, Hawaiian leaders set their sights on the 2002 gubernatorial race, which pitted Democrat Mazie Hirono against Republican Linda Lingle. By November, the contest was being called a “dead heat.” After a media poll indicated that Native Hawaiians were the largest group of undecided voters in the race, we began to position ourselves as the swing vote. Just days before the election, OHA held a gubernatorial debate, where PLT revenues became a central issue. While Hirono declined to make firm commitments, Lingle made an emotional promise to immediately restart PLT transfers to OHA.

On election day, Lingle pulled off the improbable win, becoming the first Republican governor in Hawai‘i in 40 years. Shortly after the election, Lingle was asked by the media what one issue or event was the key to her victory. She cited the OHA debate, noting that the audience had the opportunity to see her passion on issues of justice for Native Hawaiians.

Three months later, Gov. Lingle delivered on her campaign promise by immediately resuming PLT transfers to OHA. In 2006, Gov. Lingle and the Legislature approved Act 178, which temporarily set the Native Hawaiian people’s share of PLT revenues at $15.1 million annually.

Although momentous at the time, the temporary amount set by Act 178 has not been updated in more than a decade despite ample data showing that the $15.1 million for Native Hawaiians is far less than the 20 percent standard provided by law.

Keeping Hawaiian Lands in Hawaiian Hands

By the early 2000s, Native Hawaiians gave Honolulu’s leasehold conversion law a nickname: legalized theft. The law threatened to force ali‘i trusts like Kamehameha Schools and Queen Lili‘uokalani Trust to sell their lands against their will.

After years of council debates, lawsuits and rallies, our last hope was the 2004 mayoral race. The race was close and featured two candidates who didn’t really differ on many policy issues, with one very notable exception: leasehold conversion. Mufi Hannemann committed to repealing the law; Duke Bainum would not.

The ‘īĪio‘ulaokalani Coalition, a Native Hawaiian political organization of cultural practitioners, launched a campaign to register voters and inform them of the candidates’ positions on the issue. Led by Kumu Hula Vicky Holt Takamine, the coalition canvassed door to door in rural communities with strong Native Hawaiian populations.

The race remained close on election night. Takamine remembers reading a late-night printout that showed Bainum ahead by just a thousand votes. Then she checked which precincts were already counted: the main urban areas, like Hawai‘i Kai, Aina Haina and Downtown. Then she looked at which precincts weren’t in yet: Wai‘anae, Kahuku, Lā‘ie and the Hawaiian homesteads in the suburbs.

“At midnight, the race was still neck and neck, no one could call it,” she said. “When I saw which precincts weren’t in yet, I told Mufi, ‘Go home and take a nap because you won. That’s all my people. That’s all us Hawaiians.’”

Takamine was right. Hannemann won by 1,354 votes, or less than half of one percentage point of the total votes cast. Three months later, the new mayor signed the law repealing mandatory leasehold conversion.

“I purposely said that I wanted this to be the first bill that I would sign as the mayor of Honolulu,” Hannemann told the crowd of Native Hawaiian supporters during a ceremony at City Hall. “You made that happen, by going to the polls and electing a mayor who certainly saw that this was the right thing to do.”

I Mana Ka Leo

The Native Hawaiian vote has mana. Over the next few weeks, OHA will be sharing mo‘olelo about our lāhui’s rich history of voting on OHA’s Facebook and Instagram accounts. For more information about voting and to register, please visit: olvr.hawaii.gov.