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Native Hawaiian Enters Congressional Race

A Native Hawaiian and long-time indigenous rights advocate has thrown her hat in the ring for a seat in Congress.

Esther Kia’aina, who previously served as a congressional aide to Democratic Sens. Daniel Akaka and Daniel Inouye and former Rep. Ed Case and who currently serves as chief advocate for the Office of Hawaiian Affairs, recently declared her intent to run for the open 2nd Congressional District in her state, which includes all of Hawaii outside metro Honolulu.

Her campaign biography notes that she is an expert on Native Hawaiian issues, indigenous rights, and the U.S. Pacific Territories and Freely Associated States of Micronesia, and Asian and Pacific Islander issues. “She believes strongly in empowering communities by promoting leadership and capacity building, sustainable solutions, economic-self sufficiency, and business opportunities,” according to her campaign website.

Kia’aina worked for Akaka in 1993 when he played a key role in getting the United States to apologize to Hawaiian Natives for overthrowing their indigenous government in the 1800s.

“The apology resolution leveled the playing field. So for the first time, number one, the United States, with the president's signature admitted the role of the U.S. in the overthrow of Queen Lili‘uokalani,” she reflected in a later interview published at Aloha Quest. “Number two, it committed itself to a reconciliation process, which, in lieu of redress, which should not be determined by the federal government, is ongoing. And that is what we have here today. And I think that it's clear that apart from federal programs, reconciliation cannot begin without a substantive discussion on political status and the return of ceded lands.”

American Indians have long pushed for an official apology to be said out loud by the President of the United States for the American government’s role in creating historical injustices for Indians.

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Kia’aina’s name also came up in the aftermath of the infamous Jack Abramoff lobbying scandal of the mid-2000s, which saw him accused of bilking tribes out of millions of dollars. A 2006 House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform report that examined his dealings in Washington found that his lobbying team sometimes had direct access to the White House over nomination issues, and may have played a role in preventing her appointment to a position at the Department of the Interior during the George W. Bush administration.

“One example of the Abramoff team’s access to the White House regarding the nomination process is a February 20, 2001 e-mail from Susan Ralston to Matt Schlapp to let him know that Jack Abramoff had called Karl Rove a few days earlier to discuss appointments at OIA,” the Talking Points Memo summarized in a 2008 posting. “According to this e-mail, Mr. Abramoff had heard that Esther Kia'aina was going to be considered for a position and ‘wanted to let Karl know that he didn't think this was a good idea.’”

“Ms. Ralston continued, ‘Karl asked that you return his call.’ Ms. Kia'aina was not appointed to a position at OIA.”

OIA stands for the U.S. Department of the Interior’s Office of Insular Affairs, whichhas administrative responsibility for coordinating federal policy in the territories of territories of American Samoa, Guam, the U.S. Virgin Islands, and the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands, and the responsibility to administer and oversee U.S. federal assistance provided to the Freely Associated States of the Federated States of Micronesia, the Republic of the Marshall Islands, and the Republic of Palau under the Compacts of Free Association.

Kia’aina’s family is rooted in Hawaiian history, and her platform will be partly dedicated toward supporting the rights of Native Hawaiians. In a recent interview with Roll Call newspaper, she noted that the state agency she currently helps oversee is tasked with “improving the conditions of native Hawaiians.” She added that she has the experience to bring about change at this “critical time for the people of Hawaii.”

Aware of what will be needed to win her race, she said she wants to raise $1 million to $1.5 million for the campaign. “I’m availing myself of all of the networks that I have built up over the years,” she told Roll Call.