Freshman lawmakers aim to rebuild Hawaii's GOP

Jan. 25—Freshman state Sen. Brenton Awa—who is embroiled in a stalemate with the Senate's only other Republican over who will lead their two-member caucus—wants to reinvigorate and rebrand Hawaii's Republican Party by helping disenfranchised, working-class families in his rural district on the Windward side of Oahu.

Freshman state Sen. Brenton Awa—who is embroiled in a stalemate with the Senate's only other Republican over who will lead their two-member caucus—wants to reinvigorate and rebrand Hawaii's Republican Party by helping disenfranchised, working-class families in his rural district on the Windward side of Oahu.

Awa—the youngest senator at age 36, who represents Kaneohe, Laie and Mokuleia—has found an ally in freshman state Rep. Diamond Garcia, 25, who also wants to reinvent the state's GOP by helping constituents on the Leeward side of Oahu. Garcia represents Ewa and Kapolei.

Both districts have Native Hawaiian constituents who are conservative, religious and often neglected by government, Awa and Garcia told the Honolulu Star-­Advertiser in separate interviews Tuesday in their Capitol offices.

Awa estimates that his district is split between Democratic-and Republican-leaning residents. Former President Donald Trump carried Garcia's district in 2020.

Both Awa and Garcia are descended from Native Hawaiians, grew up in conservative, religious households and are frustrated that friends, family and constituents continue to struggle after decades of Democratic control. Both also maintain that they don't embrace the old Republican stereotype of coddling the wealthy, having disdain for unions and uncritically supporting big money donors.

"Out in the country, I grew up in a very conservative area, " Awa said. "My area votes red. And, as Hawaiians, resistance is part of our culture, too. ... We never liked government because they would always take away what we had and make it more difficult for what we do. We've just been this way generation upon generation. A lot of our family never vote. That's how far removed we are from any political system."

Both took circuitous paths to their first legislative session.

Awa was a Kahuku High School Red Raiders wrestler who went on to wrestle at Clarion University in western Pennsylvania, thanks to a Kamehameha Schools grant. He worked as a reporter and anchor at KITV until he was fired in July 2021 after punching a newsroom door in frustration over what he said were orders to ignore fundamental journalism ethics. Awa is suing the station over his firing.

Awa then considered working the docks as a member of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union while raising $12, 000 through a GoFundMe campaign to buy professional video and lightning equipment that he now uses to produce one-person stories about his district, which he posts on his Instagram account.

Two stories focused on residents and farmers in Waiahole Valley who 18 months ago faced a sixfold increase in state lease fees. Among those who saw Awa's Instagram report was Nani Medeiros, Gov. Josh Green's Cabinet nominee to serve in a new position as the state's chief housing officer. Medeiros reached out to Awa and is now involved in trying to resolve the situation.

Garcia, the youngest of five children, grew up in Section 8 housing in Waipahu and Makaha. For about eight months, when he was a teen, Garcia and his parents couch-surfed among friends and family and even lived on the streets in the family's Honda Accord after they were evicted because his older siblings had damaged property and violated other Section 8 rules, Garcia said.

The experience of his childhood imprinted Garcia with the belief that government handouts can keep low-income residents in a cycle of poverty as their rents increase and their government aid decreases when they find jobs to earn a paycheck.

Garcia then joined a youth ministry and traveled the world telling his story before returning home as a minister.

"I was told growing up that the Democrats help poor people and the GOP is for the rich corporations and don't care for us, " Garcia said. "They're still living on food stamps and welfare. Nothing's changed. ... I told myself, 'I never want to see myself in that kind of situation again. I will work hard and do whatever I can to be successful and get out of this lifestyle.'"

Growing up, Garcia said, "We hated government, and we were taught they're corrupt, they're crooked and bad and we were taught to hate cops. When they showed up we just ran."

Neither Awa nor Garcia was politically active until they ran for the Legislature as Republicans. Garcia said he was the first in his family to ever vote.

Now both said they're committed to helping rural Oahu constituents and, especially, struggling Native Hawaiian families.

In general, they agree with Green's plans to increase affordable housing, provide more homeless housing, help low-income and middle-­class families, add additional mental health services and address climate change challenges. But, like both Democratic and Republican legislators, they want many more specifics.

Garcia served as chief of staff for Rep. Gene Ward (R, Hawaii Kai-Kalama Valley ) and as vice chair of the Republican Party of Hawaii and appears more culturally strident than Awa.

Referring to Democrats in Hawaii and in Washington, D.C., as "crazy liberals, " Garcia said he wants to ban a children's sex-education book carried by state libraries called "Let's Talk About It, " which has become a rallying point for Republicans in some communities on the mainland. If the book is not banned statewide by the end of the legislative session, Garcia said that he intends to file criminal charges against Hawaii's state librarian for allegedly promoting child pornography.

On a book stand in his Capitol office sits a red "Make America Great Again " ball cap. And the back side of Garcia's Capitol business card reads, "Make Hawaii Great Again " above his signature.

Garcia has set a goal of seeing Republicans gain control of the 51-member House and 25-member Senate in 10 years—when he will be 35 years old.

It begins with creating more public-private partnerships and involving churches, nonprofit groups and communities to solve Hawaii's most challenging problems, Garcia said.

Absent such involvement, he said, "whenever the state or government takes control, they mess up badly."