Editor’s note: For Hawaii’s Aug. 13 Primary Election, Civil Beat asked candidates to answer some questions about where they stand on various issues and what their priorities will be if elected.

The following came from BJ Penn, Republican candidate for governor. The other Republican candidates are Duke Aiona, Gary Cordery, George Hawat, Keline Kahau, Lynn Mariano, Paul Morgan, Moses Paskowitz, Heidi Tsuneyoshi and Walter Woods.

Go to Civil Beat’s Election Guide for general information, and check out other candidates on the Primary Election Ballot.

Candidate for Governor

BJ Penn
Party Republican
Age 43
Occupation Businessman, farmer, retired MMA fighter
Residence Oahu


Community organizations/prior offices held

Founder, Penn Hawaii Youth Foundation, nonprofit since 2005; martial arts programs and training for at-risk youth; Youth Challenge on Oahu and Big Island; mentor, correctional facility on Oahu.

1. What is the biggest issue facing Hawaii, and what would you do about it?

There are many problems Hawaii is facing. Currently, gas prices, food prices and housing costs are all at an all-time high. Crime is on the rise and health care costs are increasing, while access to quality care continues to be a challenge in rural communities.

Additionally, homelessness, inadequate mental health services, vulnerability to foreign aggressors, overdevelopment on sacred land, energy supply, tourists disrespecting our aina, generations leaving the islands, residual effects of covid shutdowns, reliability on one sole industry for economic growth, Native Hawaiians not getting the wealth of land ownership, the value of the dollar decreasing, interest rates soaring, corrupt government officials, ineffective government programs or one-party rule for 60 plus years, and the leadership in public schools failing our keiki and limiting parent involvement, are all problems we are experiencing.

If I had to pick one, I would pick all of the above.

Everything listed can be boiled down to one thing: a system of government that has been mismanaged and corrupted to the point that no solutions for long-term success are being implemented. We must rebuild our government and enhance every branch to effectively serve the people, not the other way around. If we don’t fix the government nothing will change.

2. Many people have talked about diversifying the local economy for many years now, and yet Hawaii is still heavily reliant on tourism. What, if anything, should be done differently about tourism and the economy?

Hawaii must become more independent. My administration will base its economic policy on one overriding goal; to make Hawaii 100% self-reliant. Our economy must be strong and prosperous enough to support all generations of our ohana. To do this, we must develop industries outside of tourism that will allow us the freedom to live happy, successful lives regardless of what is going on in the rest of the world.

My administration will promote the development of sustainable farming that will provide all the food necessary to feed our people rather than being reliant on imports. We will also encourage and support energy independence. Although Hawaii cannot produce oil and natural gas, my administration will promote the development of geothermal, wave and other energy sources to reduce our dependence on outside sources as much as possible. Being self-reliant is critical for many reasons, and we can see right now what our dependence is costing us. Prices are rising out of control, and there is absolutely nothing we can do about it.

Economic diversification will be a priority for my government, and we will focus first on industries that will help Hawaii become a self-reliant state.

3. The Legislature this session approved spending $600 million for the Department of Hawaiian Home Lands plus another $300 million for other housing programs. What specifically would you try to do to create more housing for middle- and low-income residents?

While I will be a hands-on governor on every issue, this issue will get my particular attention. When money like this gets into the system, the opportunity for waste, fraud and abuse is very real. I am currently leading a small team of attorneys and housing experts who are looking at the legislation, evaluating the powers of the DHHL and assessing other resources the governor’s office controls to determine how we can use this money for maximum impact in the most fiscally responsible and eco-conscious way. My administration’s priority will be to use this money not only to give Hawaiians a chance at home ownership, but more importantly, to build true wealth.

Although $600 million sounds like a lot, when you realize that it will only address housing for about 3,000 Hawaiians on the waiting list, a list that is over 28,000 long, it is not enough. As a business owner myself and having grown up around experts in real estate and other industries, I know that this money could be used to have a far greater effect if leveraged appropriately. We are obligated to address all 28,000 on the list. That will be my priority.

4. An estimated 60% of Hawaii residents are struggling to get by, a problem that reaches far beyond low income and into the middle class, which is disappearing. What ideas do you have to help the middle class and working families who are finding it hard to continue to live here?

We need to address this critical problem both in the short term for immediate relief and in the long term so we don’t keep doing the same things that got us where we are today.

As a father of young children, I understand how important it is for future generations to have every opportunity to thrive in their communities, without feeling like the only way to have a quality of life is to relocate. As governor, my vision for Hawaii is that we grow our economic base through a concerted effort to become more self-reliant and self-sustaining.

The economic opportunities that exist outside our traditional base of tourism are vast. There is so much advancement going on in the world, and we need a leader that understands that through economic growth our next generation will find plenty of opportunities for prosperity and personal fulfillment. This is the only sustainable way. Government cannot subsidize the people into prosperity.

We must identify solutions to reduce the burden of taxes and regulations for every individual and small business in the state. This will allow residents to take care of their daily needs with more ease while creating stability for long-term prosperity.

5. The pandemic was particularly difficult for Hawaii’s public schools. Should there be a change in the way schools are administered? Would you support more local control including breaking the single school district into subregions?

The teachers, kids and many families suffered through the pandemic due to the lack of infrastructure, choices and the overall response from state officials and leadership at the Board of Education. The pandemic, although challenging, also helped to highlight areas where improvement and restructuring are needed in the public school system.

Having a debate about district size or regions and subregions creates distractions from the work that needs to be done. There is substantial research on the topic of district size and its effects on student outcomes. There has also been a lot of research on the effects of consolidation and deconsolidation. Findings verify, neither district size nor deconsolidation has any correlation to student outcomes. Districts that are hyper-focused on teacher training and support, and do everything in their power to put great teachers in front of every student, have the best outcomes in student achievement.

I am going to ensure that Hawaii’s school board will do everything needed to put great teachers in every classroom. Research confirms, other than the parent or guardian, the number one factor that determines the success of a child in school is the quality of the teacher in the classroom.

6. Hawaii has recently experienced a number of prominent corruption scandals, prompting the state House of Representatives to appoint a commission tasked with improving government transparency through ethics and lobbying reforms. What will you do to ensure accountability at the Legislature? Are you open to ideas such as requiring the Sunshine Law and open records laws to apply to the Legislature?

When I find corruption in the executive branch, it will be dealt with immediately and with total transparency. People in my administration will all be held to the highest standards and know there are severe consequences for betraying the public’s trust.

Regarding the Legislature, I think the people of Hawaii will have more to say about corruption in their government this November. I will presume that any newly elected individuals will be selected by voters because they are honest and can be trusted, versus those who are dishonest and have been unable to bring the changes needed to the people of Hawaii.

The Legislature will be responsible for an array of internal housekeeping, with a clear and cohesive understanding that it is the job of the executive branch to be held accountable to the fullest extent of the law. I can assure you that public trust will be the top priority. Anyone in public office is here to serve the people.

7. Recently a house on the North Shore of Oahu fell into the ocean. Climate change is real and will force us to make tough decisions. What is the first thing Hawaii should do to get in front of climate change rather than just reacting to it?

We must separate the issue of damage mitigation from long-term energy policy. Globally we are embroiled in a fierce debate about how to convert the world from fossil fuels to clean energy. We can’t let these things distract us from the fact that if our islands are impacted negatively by any natural or man-made changes, we must have a plan to adapt to whatever the reality may be. We can’t be so engrossed in arguing over the cause that we fail to prepare for the consequences.

My administration will be focused on ensuring that every island has what they need to survive through any challenges climate change might present.

I am very focused on promoting the development of alternative energy sources like geothermal, wave, solar, wind and many others, because I think it is critical that Hawaii become as energy independent as possible, so we will not be at the mercy of the mainland, or foreign nations, for that which we need to survive. This focus will have the added benefit of bringing large amounts of capital investment, eco-conscious jobs, and economic opportunity to our people and islands.

8. Hawaii has seen a growing division when it comes to politics, development, health mandates and other issues. A governor represents all the people of the state. What would you do to bridge those gaps and bring people together in spite of their differences?

I believe that I am the only candidate who resonates with the people of Hawaii far beyond a political party. I am confident in my ability to bring Republicans, Democrats and independents together.

Sure, there will be some who may not support me or my vision for leading Hawaii as governor, but when I am on the campaign trail, I hear from individuals from every party, even from residents who do not consider themselves to be political. Everyone wants change. In national politics, ideology may be very divisive, but at the state level, I don’t believe it has to be.

I will be working for a self-reliant Hawaii every single day. Some solutions will appeal to conservatives, and some will appeal more to liberals. Ultimately, every decision will be about making our state work for everyone by putting the people and future of Hawaii first.

At the state level, we have a unique opportunity to explore new ideas and innovative solutions and determine if they are effective or ineffective. For change to occur, everyone must respectfully put differences aside and work together to focus on the bigger picture.

9. Historically, governors and lieutenant governors have sometimes publicly clashed. How do you envision the relationship between the state’s top elected officials?

People who decide to run for public office often do so because they have a vision for what they want to see happen in our state, or have become frustrated enough to take a stand for change. The election process in Hawaii makes it possible for people with different visions to be on the same ticket for governor and lieutenant governor. As the gubernatorial candidate, I am carefully listening to the lieutenant governor candidates. Their areas of focus and potential alignment with my agenda will better determine the extent to which they will play a role in my administration.

I welcome innovative ideas and solutions, and have a deep appreciation and respect for our state’s history and constitutional freedoms. I am confident in the lieutenant governor candidates running as Republicans and my ability to work alongside this position with the understanding that the people, aina and the future of Hawaii are always the most important considerations in every decision made.

10. The coronavirus pandemic has exposed numerous flaws in Hawaii’s structure and systems, from outdated technology to economic disparity. If you could take this moment to reinvent Hawaii, to build on what we’ve learned and create a better state, a better way of doing things, what would you do? Please share One Big Idea you have for Hawaii. Be innovative, but be specific.

The way the people, businesses, keiki and state of Hawaii were mismanaged throughout the pandemic by the current administrators, is what inspired me most to run for governor. The essence of my campaign is, “huli the system” because it’s time for change throughout the state.

We must have leadership in place committed to helping reduce the tax burden on our people, small businesses and farmers. I will support the development of new and beneficial industries that will increase economic activity.

Quality education and employment opportunities not only provide infrastructure, but they allow individuals to be less reliant on government while having a more abundant life with more independence without barriers.

Hawaii’s dependence on others for the very things we need to survive must end. I want to build a strong, prosperous, and self-reliant Hawaii — with aloha.

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