State Rep. Faye Hanohano, according to her legislative biography, "grew up in a truly Hawaiian environment" on the Big Island. Hanohano has represented the Puna district in the House since 2007, and her legislative efforts normally never make the news. It's her waha that makes headlines.
Last year, while workers hung paintings by local artists in her office at the Capitol, Hanohano called the paintings ugly and wondered why no Native Hawaiian artists were on display. Excellent point. But then she added that "Any work done by haoles, Japs . . . Pakes, you can take them away right now."
After the press published her comments, she apologized on the House floor. She explained that her words "were intended to be an impassioned plea for increasing the visibility and support for Native Hawaiian artists." She conceded, however, that her comments "did not accurately reflect their intent, sentiment or the integrity of this office."
The whole thing blew over.
Then came Aarin Jacobs - a student from Hawaii Pacific University majoring in environmental studies. Last month, Jacobs went before the Ocean, Marine Resources and Hawaiian Affairs Committee, chaired by Hanohano, to support a bill that proposes to penalize those who harm sharks and rays within state waters.
The earnest student of marine biology from Oregon provided written testimony ahead of time and provided some oral testimony that day. Apparently, the chairwoman was not happy. According to Jacobs, he was called back to the microphone to answer Hanohano's questions.
He said he was berated and handled quite rudely by the representative from Puna. Hanohano accused him of trying to take away her food sources. She posed a strange hypothetical: Let's say there was a taro famine after this bill passes. That would mean she could not resort to eating sharks because of the penalties and would have no choice but to eat people. Perhaps it was meant to be a joke, but Jacobs was nonetheless stunned.
The questioning delved into other subjects like whether swimming in the ocean crowds the sharks' home and whether the health hazards associated with eating sharks applies to loan and business sharks (no, really). For her grand finale, Hanohano asked rhetorically why Westerners come over here and tell them what they can and cannot do. Then she asked for Jacobs' age. When he said he was just 22, she audibly sighed and ordered him to sit down.
When this story broke, reporters tried to get others who were there - namely the other legislators - to corroborate Jacobs. No cameras were rolling at the committee meeting and nobody came forward publicly. Still yet, some anonymous folks confirmed that Jacobs' version was the real deal.
The incident roused Rep. Joe Souki, the speaker, into action. He ordered an investigation into her behavior and conduct. William Aila, the head of the Department of Land and Natural Resources, wrote a scathing letter to Souki. He accused Hanohano of being "abusive in authority, racially discriminatory, and inappropriate." He wrote that Hanohano accused a staff member of being responsible for genocide. He also reported that she complained about malihinis commenting on bills and regulations. He also wrote about Hanohano's obnoxious tendency to lecture in the Hawaiian language without translation.
Last week, while Souki's investigation was continuing, Hanohano was debating a bill and started speaking Hawaiian. Rep. John Mizuno asked her to "please translate for members."
"I don't want to translate," she replied and resumed in Hawaiian. The incident was minor, and the business of the day quickly resumed. But it certainly seemed consistent with Aila's letter.
Hanohano has sparked a lively debate. There is no doubt that she is a proud and vocal advocate of the indigenous Hawaiian people. She is their supporter and will defend their interests proudly and fiercely in the House. It is her right to speak Hawaiian in all public forums. After all, it is the official language of our state.
But she's also a representative who swore to uphold and defend the state constitution. She agreed to respectfully hear the opinions of all people when considering legislation. Her actions in the office affect everyone - whether you're a fresh-from-California hippie kid hitchhiking to Hana or a born-and-raised kanaka on Molokai. People should not be intimidated about speaking their minds in a public committee before a representative. A public official's words should be understood by all citizens - not just those proficient in another language.
In the end, Hanohano was not punished. Souki just wrote her a letter. He found Aila and Jacobs credible, and remanded her for her conduct. Souki warned her that if her behavior continued, she would be reprimanded from her committee assignments and referred to the House for disciplinary action.
Looks like this is going to blow over too. Hanohano spent the rest of the week apologizing yet again - in both languages.
* Ben Lowenthal is a trial and appellate lawyer who grew up on Maui. His email is firstname.lastname@example.org. "The State of Aloha" alternates Fridays with Ilima Loomis' "Neighbors."