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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Sunday, July 21, 2002

Candidates silent on major issue

By Jerry Burris
Advertiser Editorial Editor

In the furor surrounding the latest controversy at Kamehameha Schools, one set of voices has been — thus far at least — largely silent.

Those voices belong to the candidates for governor and lieutenant governor in this year's election.

This might be explained by plain old tactfulness, since this is primarily a "family" controversy within the Kamehameha 'ohana. Or it might be that the right occasion to weigh in has not yet arrived.

But it may also be that the candidates are waiting for the controversy to clarify. If it turns out that the Hawaiian community is solidly on one side of the issue, candidates will be all-but-forced to get into the fight.

And that's when it starts to get interesting.

It has long been clear that the "Hawaiian" vote could be a key factor in this year's election. If Hawaiians, and those who sympathize with the issues that count to Hawaiians, choose to vote as a bloc, they could swing elections for governor, lieutenant governor and other races.

The unsettled issue, however, has been what would motivate Hawaiians to vote with one voice. The threat to Hawaiian entitlements, including Hawaiian Homes, might be an issue big enough to motivate large percentages of Hawaiians to vote one way.

But there is division within the Hawaiian community on the best way to deal with those threats.

More important, however, there is also a passionate group of voters on the other side who believe Hawaiians are not entitled to special benefits or programs — at least not those which are supported with tax dollars.

So even if there were unanimity within the Hawaiian community on the threat to entitlements, joining with them would be far from a no-risk political move.

But consider, for a moment, if the Hawaiian community broadly and passionately took one side on the matter of admitting a non-Hawaiian student to Kamehameha Schools. And judging from the letters and angry public statements, that seems to be the way things are heading.

A candidate who sides with the Hawaiian community on this matter is likely to inherit a very fired-up group of friends. If that passion and energy can be translated into votes, it could be enough to tip the election.

The trick, obviously, will be to go beyond the "I feel your pain" kind of sympathy to coming up with real solutions. The issue here is frightfully complex: On the one side are those who insist Kamehameha Schools should be preserved for Hawaiians. On the other are those who fear that the schools may cease to exist, or at least lose their tax-exempt status, unless some non-Hawaiians are admitted.

If a candidate can come forward with a solution to those seemingly contradictory imperatives, he or she will have a winner.

In fact, a solution that saves the schools while threading through the complex constitutional and tax issues could do more than motivate the Hawaiian vote. It would be the kind of forward-looking statesmanship many voters might be inclined to reward.

Jerry Burris is editor of the editorial pages of The Advertiser. Reach him at letters@honoluluadvertiser.com.