The 17 years Esther Kia'aina spent working behind the scenes as a congressional staffer may not have made her a household name in Hawaii, but she says it's given her the experience to get things done in Washington.
Kia'aina, who has announced her candidacy as a Democrat for the 2nd Congressional District, said it made sense for her to run for the House of Representatives seat being vacated by U.S. Rep. Mazie Hirono, even though she has never held elected office before. After serving as a legislative assistant to U.S. Sen. Daniel Akaka, and chief of staff for former U.S. Rep. Robert Underwood of Guam and former U.S. Rep. Ed Case of Hawaii, Kia'aina said she believed Congress would be where she'd be most effective.
"I'm not running just to run," she said in a recent interview with The Maui News. "I believe my experience and what I can do for the people of Hawaii would be best served in D.C."
ESTHER KIA‘AINA, currently works for OHA
Kia'aina, 48, grew up on Guam and currently lives in Nanakuli, Oahu, on a Hawaiian homestead property.
Since leaving Washington in 2007, she worked as the land asset manager for Kamehameha Schools, and has served as chief advocate for the state Office of Hawaiian Affairs from 2009 to the present.
She acknowledged it will be a "challenge" to introduce herself to voters after spending most of her career working in the background. But Kia'aina said she hopes voters would see her experience as an asset and be impressed by her accomplishments. Those include helping Akaka shepherd the Native Hawaiian apology resolution through Congress.
She said working as a staffer is an excellent training ground for future service in public office.
"You're able to learn how to maneuver through both chambers of Congress, and then work it out with the administration," she said.
Kia'aina said jobs and the economy would be her campaign's top issues, especially supporting small businesses by looking for ways to improve outreach and services offered by federal agencies like the Small Business Administration.
"I think small business is still the backbone of our economy," she said.
She also said the military would continue to be an important economic driver for Hawaii, and that she would look for ways to encourage defense agencies to partner with local institutions like the University of Hawaii system to hire more residents for civilian jobs.
Kia'aina said another top issue would be Native Hawaiian rights.
"Federal recognition would still be a top priority for me," she said.
Even with its champion leaving office, she said she still has hope for the Akaka Bill to become a reality, but a lot depends on the outcome of the next election.
If President Barack Obama is not elected, that would be a "setback" for the bill's chances, she said.
Within Congress, she said she would work to educate lawmakers about the bill and what it would accomplish. A major challenge for the bill is that because "a few" Republicans have threatened to block it, 60 votes are required for it to pass in the Senate.
"I think I have the experience and the wherewithal" to increase support for the bill, she said.
Apart from the legislation, Kia'aina said she would also work with the U.S. Department of the Interior to advance the process of reconciliation with the Hawaiian people. That could mean appointing a special representative assigned to work with the community in preparation for the establishment of a Native Hawaiian government, she said.
On national issues, Kia'aina said she was especially concerned about attacks on women's reproductive rights, calling herself a "warrioress" who could not ignore the issue.
"I will be at the forefront to fight for women's rights, as well as for our LGBT community," she said, referring to the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community.
While Kia'aina acknowledged that there is a strong public perception of partisan "gridlock" in Congress, she said the reality is that it's just a handful of high-profile issues that get stuck in extreme partisan fights.
Most of the day-to-day work of a lawmaker, including advocating for constituents and pushing local projects and issues through Congress, doesn't get bogged down by party politics, she said.
"There are ways to get it done," she said.
Having the experience and skills to accomplish that is something Kia'aina said she hopes will give her an edge in the increasingly crowded 2nd Congressional District race.
"I think it's not enough in this day and age to simply have name recognition," she said. "I think the people of Hawaii deserve better."