Hawaiian government doomed by squabbles and delays

By Mark Niesse
Honolulu, Hawaii (AP) January 2011

Native Hawaiians seemed poised to get, at long last, the same rights as Native Americans and Alaska Natives. They had enough votes in Congress, the bipartisan backing of state leaders and a supportive president.

Instead, the bill failed this year amid miscommunication, surprise amendments and broken alliances. It could be years before it is seriously considered again.

The bill’s sponsor, Sen. Daniel Akaka, D-Hawaii, has sought to make it law for 11 years. He couldn’t persuade the Senate’s leadership to hold a vote on the bill, even though his aides said it had more than 60 votes needed to break a potential filibuster.

National debates on health care reform, gays in the military and a nuclear arms treaty took precedence. And Republicans opposing the measure worked to prevent it from reaching the Senate floor.

Akaka blamed them for “unprecedented obstruction.”

In a Dec. 22 Senate speech, he said, Republicans “made it a priority to prevent the people of my state from moving forward to resolve issues caused by the illegal overthrow of the Native Hawaiian government in 1893.”

But former state Attorney General Mark Bennett said Akaka could have done more to seek a vote on the bill in 2009, before it was delayed by amendments, derailed by election power shifts and overlooked during long battles over other national priorities.

“That entire time when these negotiations were going on and these changes were being made, that was a crucial time,” said Bennett, who was appointed to his post by former Republican Gov. Linda Lingle.

During 2009, the Obama administration’s Justice and Interior departments sought amendments to make the legislation more like the federal government’s relationship with the nation’s other indigenous peoples. That included granting the future Native Hawaiian government immediate rights rather than after negotiations, Akaka spokesman Jesse Broder Van Dyke said.

Akaka’s office didn’t tell Lingle or the state Office of Hawaiian Affairs about the proposed amendments until they had already been worked out with the Obama administration.

The Lingle administration objected soon after finding out about them last December. Lingle temporarily withdrew her support and sent letters opposing the bill to all 100 senators.

The Obama administration was “very insistent on making those changes, and Sen. Akaka and his staff were in the position of trying to referee between them and the former governor,” Broder Van Dyke said.

Akaka’s office tried to address the concerns, Broder Van Dyke said, adding, “It wasn’t helpful that she sent (the) letters.”

Lingle didn’t reinstate her support until July, when Akaka agreed to additional amendments clarifying that a Hawaiian government wouldn’t provide immunity from the state’s laws.

By then, there was little time left on the Senate’s calendar for the rest of the year. The bill passed the House in February.

The legislation would have had a better chance of passing if Lingle hadn’t undermined it over legal issues, said Jade Danner, vice president for the Council for Native Hawaiian Advancement.

Danner said the governor should have known that, like the nation’s 400,000 Native Hawaiians, many Alaska Natives lack a land base but aren’t immune from criminal laws.

“Gov. Lingle stopped doing her job and just delegated her position to the attorney general,” Danner said. “The governor had a responsibility to ... decide on the best policy that would move Hawaii and Native Hawaiians forward.

“She relinquished that responsibility,” Danner said.

An opponent of the Akaka Bill said its inherent flaws killed the proposal more than a politics.

“It would have been a permanent institutionalization of officially sponsored racial discrimination. That finally dawned on people,” said Bill Burgess, chairman for Aloha for All, a group organized to fight the legislation.

Hawaiians seeking independence also praised the measure’s failure. “Hawaiian nationals simply want their country back and have the U.S. stop pretending like it owns Hawaii,” said Leon Siu, a Hawaiian activist.

Akaka pledged to reintroduce the bill, but its prospects for revival appear bleak when Republicans take control of the House and gain new seats in the Senate this month. Lingle has said she’ll consider running for Senate against Akaka in 2012.

In the meantime, the Office of Hawaiian Affairs is considering plans to start forming a Native Hawaiian government without federal recognition. That process would involve signing people up, electing delegates and creating founding documents, and then returning to Congress for approval.