A Conversation With Hawaii’s Newest GOP State Senator - Honolulu Civil Beat


About the Author

Chad Blair

Chad Blair is the politics and opinion editor for Civil Beat. You can reach him by email at cblair@civilbeat.org or follow him on Twitter at @chadblairCB.

Brenton Awa won’t officially be sworn in as a Hawaii state senator until Jan. 18, but — like many state senators and representatives — he’s already on the job and working from an office at the Capitol.

A former news anchor for KITV, he narrowly defeated Democratic incumbent Gil Riviere to win the District 23 seat (Kaneohe, Kahaluu thru Laie, Kahuku to Mokuleia, Schofield Barracks and Kunia Camp) in November.

Awa, 36, is the youngest state senator and one of only two Republicans in the 25-member chamber. This Q&A, which was edited for length and clarity, began with Awa explaining why he decided to run for political office.

The people asked. I didn’t know what I was going to do coming out of the news. But I kept doing stories in my community, my specific community — Kahaluu, Koolauloa. And every time I would go out, people would ask me, “Brenton, why don’t you run?”

And it took me a while to see that being in the news had given me so many gifts that it made sense to run. I wanted to give the people an opportunity, something that growing up we never had. We never paid attention to elections and stuff because there was never really anybody who represented us, who looked or talked or acted like us. And so I think that really showed the way we won it.

Brenton Awa and Gil Riviere signs along Kahekili Highway.
Brenton Awa defeated Gil Riviere to represent the largest Senate district on Oahu. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2022

In Kahuku (public schools) they used to train us. I was a wrestler, right? The first period goes to the most gifted, the one with God-given talents. The second one to who has the best technique. The third period always goes to the person who has the most heart.

And after the third printout came (on election night) I was just like, wow. I looked at the numbers in the breakdown — I’m not sure if you saw it — but Laie through Punaluu is the reason why we got in. They turned out the most they ever turned out before. And it’s all the (Kahuku) Red Raiders.

You say your news background helped you become a politician. Explain a little bit more about what you mean there.

How many kids growing up — you know, locals like me — who go to the public school system get taught the skills the top news anchor gets taught? Not many. I went from the bottom up, so I learned everything — producing, shooting, promos, writing them, all that stuff.

The No. 1 expense for (campaigns) is the mailers. And I believed that we didn’t have to do a single mailer. And we didn’t. That eliminates 90% of the money that I have to raise. And so I hoped that doing a campaign — people like to say (it was) grassroots — I just (did) what is right.

Would you say that you really went door to door in your district, which is huge?

Yeah. Like I said, I was a wrestler in high school, college, and I just outworked the competition. That’s what we do. We get 24 hours in the day. The only thing that separates you and the other person is how you use every single minute, right? That’s how you win, by doing more with those minutes more efficiently.

When I came out of the news, I didn’t know what door was going to open. I knew there would be doors opened, I knew I was valuable and I was helping people doing things. I was helping lawmakers get their stuff right. I was ghostwriting things. People don’t even know all this stuff. But their stuff was making news because of me anyway.

Brenton Awa during his KITV days.
Brenton Awa during his KITV days. Screenshot

I didn’t know what I was going to go. Nothing really seemed right. But this one did. … It was only through the news, getting in college and getting into the local TV station and the years of people training me, my voice, writing. Paula Akana, Robert Kekaula, Keahi Tucker, Jim Mendoza, Brenda Salgado. (KITV cameraman) Bob Guanzon taking me to the Capitol after all of his years of experience covering and teaching me how to cover it.

Next thing you know, I’m in with all these lawmakers and seeing how it works. And next thing you know, I’m out of the news and people are asking me to run. I just was really blessed to be in the position that I was, having lived a life that I did up right up until all those doors opened.

What were people telling you in your district as you walked the streets? And how is that informing your priorities in the Legislature — what were you hearing out there?

No. 1 was housing. I did a story on Laie and everybody was saying, “Well, the housing prices are skyrocketing, property taxes are going up, we can’t afford it. Nobody can buy, we can’t even rent because rents are going up” — all this stuff. And so that was their No. 1 issue. I ran into so many people whose sister and his uncle, brother, mom, grandma, they moved to Utah, Vegas, Oregon, California. There are a lot of different reasons, but cost of living was most of them. We did a big rally in Kahaluu and my first thing was (to talk about) preventing nonresidents from buying our homes. We have a bill to do that.

And I understand you’re also going to be pushing for term limits. Tell me about that.

We have that bill and I’m circulating it right now. Am I getting my support from the Democrats? We’ll see. I am using your Civil Beat candidate questionnaires — question No. 6 was about term limits — to hold (their feet) to the fire, because I’ve already had some — I’m not going to mention names yet — but I’ve had some conversations with them. They came back saying they’re not going to support it.

If I understand looking at your bill correctly, it would be 16 years max for both the state House and state Senate, correct?

Yeah. I wanted it to go shorter, but I understand the other side’s arguments. Both sides have legitimate arguments. I just feel that their argument (that) lobbyists would be able to get their way, well, then we need to elect lawmakers with a stronger backbone who aren’t going to bend off of their foundation. That’s something that we’re pushing over here.

When I came in, there were so many things wrong with the state Capital that I’m not going to go into detail (now). I have a sign on my door that says “No Gifts.” We turn down gifts. Everything. This guy brought in a tree plant. We felt bad, but we turned him down. Everybody seems to believe there’s a $25 rule, that you can accept a $25 lunch. Well, there’s no rule.

I got (office manager) Jesse Rivera over here, a retired firefighter. He’s a musician. He’s the gold standard for ethics. He’s over here making sure that our office runs as the gold standard. Whatever the Ethics Commission would say, that’s what we’re doing. And so he brought that one thing up about 25 bucks. I thought, really? But come to find out he was right, (there’s) no such thing. And so now everybody who comes in, we educate them. You’re not supposed to take anything.

You hired Makua Rothman, right? The surfing champ who ran unsuccessfully for the City Council.

I did. He starts Jan. 3.

And what’s he going to do?

He’s going to be taking care of a lot of my actions. In front of my desk I have a big whiteboard and, once I’ve got bills, the middle section is full of actions — 75% of the board is actions. And I realize that, as a Republican, we’re not going to pass much bills. The bills that we introduce, they are just ideas. And if we could pass them, I believe we could really make a difference. But we’re Republicans, right? A minority. Even my predecessor, Senator Riviere, he passed very minimal bills, resolutions and whatnot.

Interestingly, Gil was formerly a Republican.

Yeah. So he jumped ship and he became the bottom of the barrel for the Democrats.

So if that term limit bill does make it, it actually has to go before voters as a constitutional amendment.

That’s what the bill calls for. It would have to go on to the ballot. That’s what a lot of my bills are about — let the people decide. We’re asking for the Board of Education that the members be up for a vote. From what I’m told in 2010 it became the way it is now — it’s the governor appoints.

But you know, I represent the minority. And during the pandemic, when mask mandates were dropping, the Board of Education never brought it up to the agenda. And I thought, you know, no matter what you feel about mass vaccines and all that stuff … you’re limiting the public from bringing an issue to the table to talk about. Well, that’s just the kind of things we’re here to stop. That would be another kind of question — to see if Hawaii residents would want to elect their Board of Education members.

It looks like you’re on eight committees, including Judiciary. That’s a lot. Of course, there’s only two Republicans on your side, but that’s a big load.

A lot of people asked me, Why the Republican Party? You know, there’s a lot of pluses. So aside from just values and beliefs and whatnot, it’s the black and white stuff, I guess you could say. But getting in, being one of two, well, automatically it’s leadership and comes with a little bit more resources for our office. Being a Democrat, you get in on the bottom of the totem pole and you gotta stand in line, fall in line. I’m very blessed to be in this position. But I do represent the minority.

Everything that I’ve done, I’ve got to the top of.

Going back to the campaign, I had Democrats, former senators — even from my district — who were getting ready to support me. They saw my signs. They knew my family. They go way back with them. And then they decided to support my opponent.

Well, being a Republican was almost like having glasses. I would see who is for people and who is for party. And that was such a blessing because, had a been a Democrat, they would have just helped (me). And I would have not known foundationally where they stand. And our foundation is local people over party every single day. I would never put up with that. It’s not a Republican or Democrat thing.

Makua Rothman, big wave surfer and Honolulu City Council candidate
Makua Rothman is set to start working for Sen. Brenton Awa on Tuesday. HNN/2021

I didn’t answer your question fully. Makua, he’s really taking care of a lot of those actions that I was talking about. So aside from the bills, if I have, say, somebody from Kaaawa calls and they’re like, “I want to open the rec center and we have volunteers to run it for the kids” and all this stuff. I’ll say, “Hey, Makua, go across the road, take these guys’ stuff up, talk to (Honolulu City Councilman) Matt Weyer, see what we can do to get things done.” So he’s going to be our runner, basically.

Driving around the district a couple of weeks ago — I was staying up at Turtle Bay and I pretty much drove from one end to the other — I saw a lot of your campaign signs still up. And I happened to notice you had like a little checkmark in the “w” in Awa. I’m guessing that was intentional.

Yeah. And real quick, we got them all down. I think there might be a handful left. Some people are real passionate. They didn’t want to take them down. They don’t want us to do that. We ran across that in the beginning. So a lot of them stayed up and then we just went last weekend and pulled most. There’s a little bit left.

But the logo — look, again, it’s one of those blessings of being in the news when you’re on promos so often, you just kind of develop that mindset of how you show images, how you tell, how you communicate as photographers, how you communicate visually. My sign says a few things. It says who I am, what I’m running for. It gives the notion, “Hey, check the box for us — it would be a great thing.” But it’s red and black and shows I’m a Red Raider, and my last name, Hawaiian. So it says all of those things.

And I got flak for this by even some of the Democrats who are currently in here who wanted us to win. They were like, “Brenton, you got to change your sign and your font. That doesn’t work. You know, this is not how we do it. You got to make it this way and you got to shave your beard, cut your hair,” all this stuff that I was just like, “Look at me and look at my constituents. This is us, who we are.” So that’s what that sign says: “This is this is the North Shore. This is the East Side.”

Speaking of the beard, when did you make that decision? I mean, you went from a clean cut TV guy to someone who wants to keep the country country, I guess.

Well, I am the country! I was born and raised this. This was me before I got into the news. It just so happens that not many people knew it. Literally, the day after the last day that I walked out in the news, I never shaved. I’ve trimmed it but I’ve never shaved since.

Brenton Awa.
Brenton Awa, a former news anchor, plans to address corruption and cost of living issues in the Legislature. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2022

You’re going to stay that way.

I want to stay this way, yeah — and why? This just feels me, you know? This is for the Kahuku Red Raiders. This is for the kids out there. The kids call it a rugby cut. You see a lot of the football kids wearing this cut. It’s kind of like a mullet. But this is for them.

I had Art Hannemann in the primary — Mufi’s cousin. And Art was real tied to the community out there. And he was my primary opponent from Laie and saw the kids. We had a lot of kids who said they voted. In short, my hair is basically my way of saying, “I appreciate you guys.” So that’s the reason why it is, because they pushed me through the primary.

I was checking your campaign website out. You got that video up and I’m just going to quote from it: “I’m no politician and I don’t plan to make a career out of this, but I am ready to sacrifice and serve.” You know, I’ve heard a lot of people say that, they’re not a politician, and then once they get in, then they become a politician. They tend to kind of like their job. It becomes a career. How is that going to be different for you?

Here’s my philosophy on that. I hope that I inspire the next person in my community, Democrat or Republican, independent, whatever it may be, but just a solid person who’s for local people, who’s going to do the right thing, never let people influence, never let the local lobbyist get you, not let the politicians get you. Just got to stand on your ground.

I hope that what we did, showing that it’s possible to win without of fear of the cost, without raising (money). And I hope there’s somebody in my community, whether it be Makua, whether it be Jesse over here, whether it be somebody who I don’t know yet who’s inspiring and is working right now because they want to step up and they want to be in this seat or they want to be in the House or a City Council seat. I hope somebody wants to replace me. I’ll help them. My job is not to make a career out of this.

I’m very blessed to be in this position. But I do represent the minority.

Everything that I’ve done, I’ve got to the top of. I was the top news anchor at KITV in record time. I got to the top of our state champs in wrestling. I went to D1 (division) in college for wrestling. Everything I do, I get to the top of it.

So if I can set something here that somebody can take over for this office, District 23, for success, and somebody can come in here and see the work that we’re doing and agree. “Yeah, we want to save farmers in Waiahole. Yeah, we want to take care of our road in Kaaawa and Hauula. Yeah, we want to get financial literacy taught, whether it’s a pilot, in Kaaawa Elementary as well.” All these things we want to do. I just need somebody to take it over.

I think we get something like $72,000. It’s not as much as I was making in the private sector. This is a sacrifice, but I’m sacrificing literally. I could make a lot more money, I could have a way better lifestyle. But I’m sacrificing. I’ve starved, I’ve missed meal after meal. I lost more than 20 pounds doing this damn thing.

I hope somebody wants to replace me, but until then, ain’t nobody going to work harder than us. Because I know that I am setting an example for my community. And if I’m going to get anybody to step up, I have to win those 24 hours every single day.


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About the Author

Chad Blair

Chad Blair is the politics and opinion editor for Civil Beat. You can reach him by email at cblair@civilbeat.org or follow him on Twitter at @chadblairCB.


Latest Comments (0)

Don't forget us in Kahalu'u.

koolauside · 3 weeks ago

Not impressed at all. Thought he would be smarter but hiring Makua Rothman, who was not supported by local voters and has a lot of baggage was a big mistake

Concernedtaxpayer · 3 weeks ago

Reading Brendon's mana'o on this new adventure for him made me realize what a true leader he is. Leading by following the will of the people and not lobbyists. Your priorities today is what the people have been calling for years with deaf ears. Politics is a no win situation and it too bad; being a Republican, you are the minority and will have a hard getting your goodness thru the Democrat majority. But you will prevail. The people of Hawaii will be supporting you regardless of their political party. You picked the right man to stand with you, Makua (the backbone/spine). Together, you both will be riding on the crest of the biggest political wave. Catch and enjoy each wave in the political ocean as you both are representing all the people of Hawaii. When you are confronted with any pilikia situations, be sure to call upon your Aumakua for kokua. Aloha no.

kealoha1938 · 3 weeks ago

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