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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Saturday, March 27, 2010

Aiona backs current Akaka bill

By Herbert A. Sample
Associated Press

Hawaii news photo - The Honolulu Advertiser

James "Duke" Aiona

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Lt. Gov. James "Duke" Aiona, breaking with a well-publicized position of Gov. Linda Lingle, yesterday announced his support for the current version of federal legislation to establish a governing entity for Native Hawaiians.

Aiona, who is seeking the Republican nomination for governor later this year, released a statement citing reservations about how the bill would confer sovereign immunity to the Native Hawaiian entity and define who can be classified a Native Hawaiian.

Congress should address those issues rather than face protracted court fights later, he added.

"However, I continue to support the long-standing opinion among the citizens of our state that federal recognition of a Native Hawaiian governing entity is 'pono' (right thing to do), and must move forward for Hawai'i to resolve its differences and reach its full potential."

Aiona, who is part Native Hawaiian, did not clearly state he would continue to support the measure if Congress does not amend it to his liking. But spokesman Travis Taylor said the lieutenant governor would.

"The lieutenant governor supports with reservations the current legislation under consideration by the U.S. Congress to recognize a Native Hawaiian governing entity," Taylor said.

That position differs with Lingle's. The governor has long backed federal recognition of Native Hawaiians and previous versions of the measure, which is known as the "Akaka bill" after its chief sponsor, U.S. Sen. Daniel Akaka, D-Hawai'i.

But in recent months, Lingle has publicly opposed the newest version. In a letter sent Wednesday to all 100 U.S. senators, she urged them to reject the measure because it immediately vests a Native Hawaiian governing entity with ill-defined authority instead of allowing those powers to be negotiated between the entity and federal and state governments.

Moreover, the bill exempts the entity from state criminal, public health, child safety and environmental laws, and local building and traffic safety ordinances, she contended.

Lingle's office issued an uncritical statement about Aiona's comment Friday but later retracted it. Aiona was not available to elaborate.

Lingle and Aiona separately won the 2002 Republican nominations for governor and lieutenant governor, and then successfully ran as a team that November. They were re-elected in 2006, and have rarely voiced diverging opinions on major issues in public.

However, Aiona's political aides have long been aware that the lieutenant governor needs to clearly define himself apart from Lingle. He is favored to win the GOP gubernatorial nomination in September, but he faces a difficult race against either of the two men vying for the Democratic nomination: former U.S. Rep. Neil Abercrombie or Honolulu Mayor Mufi Hannemann.

Abercrombie has been an outspoken supporter of the Akaka bill, even in its current form. Hannemann supports the bill, spokesman Bill Brennan said yesterday. The mayor in 2005 testified in favor of the legislation before Congress.

Jon Van Dyke, a University of Hawai'i law professor who has long written about Native Hawaiian legal issues, called Aiona's comments "a strong positive endorsement of the need to pass the Akaka bill."

But John Carroll, a Honolulu lawyer who opposes the bill, claimed Aiona was trying to take a "politically correct position" that might win favor among Native Hawaiians. Carroll also is seeking the GOP gubernatorial nomination.

State Sen. Sam Slom, another longtime Akaka bill foe, said Aiona 's statement may be a sign he is beginning to express his views more openly.

"It's a ... positive thing for him to speak out on issues, whether or not I agree with him," Slom said.

Advertiser Staff writer Gordon Y.K. Pang contributed to this report.