Gil Riviere and Brenton Awa live about as far apart as political opponents can get on Oahu.

Riviere, an incumbent Democrat, has a home in Waialua, about 40 miles away from where Awa, a Republican, lives in Kaneohe.

The Senate district they are competing for is the largest on Oahu. It starts at Kaena Point, runs up to Oahu’s North Shore and encompasses communities in Koolauloa before ending around Kaneohe. It also covers military communities near Schofield Barracks and even captures some neighborhoods near Mililani.

Despite their physical distance, Riviere and Awa are fairly close on several issues, expressing support for similar initiatives during a recent appearance on PBS Hawaii’s “Insights” program.

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

Both candidates support term limits for lawmakers, want to control tourism, remedy traffic problems, find solutions to sea level rise that’s threatening their communities, end the practice of building luxury homes on farm land, prioritize stream maintenance to prevent flooding, and block developments that could threaten the rural nature of the district.

It makes sense that they have similar outlooks on certain issues. While Awa is running as a Republican, Riviere used to be one. They’re vying to represent one of the most conservative areas of the state.

No matter the party he’s under, Riviere describes himself as a moderate.

“I don’t really like to fly the flag of one team or another,” Riviere said.

If he wins reelection, Riviere said he wants to push for bills to control unpermitted commercial activities in Kaneohe Bay and others to increase food tax credits for those on low incomes. Meanwhile, Awa said his top priorities would be expanding educational programs and addressing the cost of living.

Targeting Corruption

Awa, a former news anchor, said he decided to run on the GOP ticket because he couldn’t stomach running with the Democrats, a party he believes allowed corruption to fester in government.

He resisted running for office even after being urged by residents.

“I didn’t want to do it. I didn’t even want to cover the Capitol when I was in the news,” Awa, who was an anchor and reporter for KITV, said.

He ultimately decided to run because he thought “no one else in the district can do better.”

Like many Republicans hoping to break into government this year by capitalizing on felony charges levied against Democratic lawmakers, taking on corruption has become a major theme of Awa’s campaign.

Brenton Awa.
Brenton Awa, a former news anchor, wants to target corruption and cost of living issues. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2022

He criticized legislative practices of striking deals behind closed doors and the authority committee chairs have to advance or kill pieces of legislation.

If a committee chair is holding up a bill Awa is pushing, term limits, for example, he said he’ll work to expose them.

“I’m going to be inside doing stories on whoever is holding up what should be right,” Awa said.

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Awa has a broad base of knowledge of government issues picked up during his time as a reporter.

He spoke in detail of the plight of farmers in Waiahole who may face steep rent increases, and of a roundabout in Kahaluu that has the community rattled, and how some in the community feel that state agencies responsible for both have not done enough to really listen to them.

Awa grew up in the community he’s now running to represent. He’s from Kaaawa, grew up in Kahaluu, and went to high school in Kahuku. He now lives in Kaneohe and makes a twice-daily trip to Waialua to drop off and pick up his daughter from school.

Since leaving news, Awa has worked as a substitute teacher at Kahuku High School and spent time walking door to door in the district to talk to residents and drum up support for his campaign.

If he’s elected he said he will introduce a bill to make financial literacy courses mandatory for all public school children through high school. A similar measure never got a hearing this year.

He also said he would support expanding access to agricultural education for all schools. Kahuku High School, where Awa taught, had a garden maintained by students. Awa wants to see opportunities like that expanded in the state with the help of farmers who may be looking for student help.

Awa also wants to target out-of-state homebuyers by increasing sales taxes on properties sold to nonresidents in an effort to keep houses on the market for local families.

A Focus On Conservation

Riviere first served as a Republican in the House in 2010 before losing reelection and returning to politics in 2014 as a Democratic candidate for the Senate seat he currently holds.

He says he switched parties because “I just had a better home.”

“I don’t think I’ve changed so much as the circumstances around me have,” Riviere said. “There’s not much left of the Republican party there was before.”

Still, he votes “no” on bills more often than the 23 other Democrats in the 25-member Senate. Kurt Fevella is the chamber’s only Republican.

Riviere has opposed recent efforts to raise the minimum wage (he was worried about the effect on local businesses) and was the only lawmaker out of 76 to vote against a 2018 measure to raise property taxes for public education. The state Supreme Court ruled that measure unconstitutional before voters resoundingly rejected it at the ballot box in 2018.

Riviere said he voted against that property tax proposal because he believed it would have raised the cost of living for residents, one of the top issues for people living in his district.

Senator Gil Riviere testifies in support of Bill 85 89.
Gil Riviere said his top priority if reelected is addressing cost of living issues. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2019

Riviere is far outside the core of Senate leaders who traditionally shape broad policies affecting the state, but he says he tries to find areas to have an impact. If he wins reelection to his seat in the Legislature, Riviere said he wants to continue introducing bills to lower Hawaii’s cost of living.

He wants to reintroduce a measure that would eliminate state income taxes for anyone earning less than $12,000 a year. He also wants to increase a food tax credit that low-income earners are eligible for.

“Those aren’t magic bullets, but they may help,” Riviere said.

Riviere built his reputation over the years as an environmental activist. He started the nonprofit group Keep The North Shore Country and has opposed the expansion of the Turtle Bay resort. In 2019 he stood with protesters who blocked the construction of giant wind turbines in Kahuku.

He said his office contacts the Honolulu City Council and Department of Planning and Permitting regularly to forward resident complaints of short-term vacation rentals.

This past session, he introduced a bill that became law that required the state Department of Land and Natural Resources to have a management plan for Shark’s Cove and its surrounding conservation district. The idea is to eventually limit the number of visitors to the area to allow coral to heal, according to Riviere.

“It’s important. The bill’s not a big, sexy, expensive one. But it’s important for conservation management,” he said.

As of Aug. 13, Riviere had more than $39,000 in his campaign account. His single largest donation of $4,000 this year came from Henry Matson of Matson Builders in California. Riviere also got $2,000 from Charter Communications, the parent company of Spectrum.

He also got $500 each from Sens. Sharon Moriwaki and Donna Kim and $1,000 from Sen. Roz Baker, who is retiring this year.

On Aug. 2, Riviere reported donations from Paradise Air ($500), North Shore Aircraft Leasing Co. ($200) and Pacific International Skydiving Center ($200). All three companies do business at the Dillingham Airfield, which nearly closed in 2020 before state officials reversed course in 2021. Riviere was an advocate for keeping the airport open.

Riviere raised more than $36,000 this election season and spent about $10,600.

Awa’s campaign had about $6,300 in cash on hand going into the general election. His top donor was Chad Buck, owner of the Hawaii Foodservice Alliance, who gave $4,000. He also got $2,000 from Corey Correa, president of Aloha Freight Forwarders.

Awa raised more than $24,000 this election period and spent more than $17,000 so far.

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