The Freshman From The Coast

Dan Boylan
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Wednesday - February 28, 2007

Rep. Karen Awana
Rep. Karen Awana

New faces abound in the Hawaii state House of Representatives: More than a fifth of the House are freshmen - most from the Neighbor Islands where retirements left a number of seats vacant.

First-year legislators face a steep learning curve. They must learn legislative ways - the complex process of law-making. Within 60 working days - and a lot of nights - they must also master the substantive issues of their committees, understand the state budget and its limits, and deal with the constant din of lobbyists’ and constituents’ pleading.

Worse, perhaps, they will confront the often vicious internal politics of a legislative body made up of veterans of 10 or 20 years of in-fighting.

All for a take-home pay of approximately $2,000 per month. So why do they do it?

“I’m a fourth-generation resident of the Waianae Coast,” says Karen Awana, the newly-elected Republican representative from the 44th District (Honokai Hale, Nanakuli and Lualualei), “but my parents valued education and sent me to private schools in town.

“My friends there were a little more affluent. They lived in places like Hawaii Kai and Kailua. Where they lived, they had street lights and sidewalks. I found myself asking why we didn’t have those things on the Coast.”

It took Awana three tries to unseat Democratic incumbent Mike Kahikina. In 2002 she lost to him by 315 votes, in 2004 by 46. Last November Awana finally got her victory - by a margin of 222 votes.

Education and transportation stand at the top of Awana’s legislative priorities. Following her election, she met with the principal of every public school in her district save one - and she talked with him by phone.

“I asked them all for a wish list,” she says. “They need air-conditioning for their classrooms, books for their students, repair of their buildings. I found most of their concerns to be justified.”

The Waianae Coast knows one road in - and one road out. When a portion of that road is blocked - for any reason - Coast drivers sit.

“We have to seriously look at an alternative road out of the Waianae Coast,” says Awana. “I don’t think opening up Kolekole Pass will be enough. That’s only a two-lane road.”

Like many of her fellow first-year legislators, Awana arrives with legislative experience. She is a veteran of her local neighborhood board and served as a legislative aide to Honolulu City Councilman Todd Apo.

In moving from Apo’s office to Room 319 of the Capitol, Awana is taking a pay cut “of one-third or more.” That’s not easy for a 41-year-old single mother of two teenage daughters, but Awana is philosophical: “I live on Hawaiian Homestead land; that helps. And sometimes you have to sacrifice for the betterment of the whole.”

Pay isn’t Awana’s only problem.

She is the minority whip of a very small minority; Republicans number only eight in the 51-member House. That means the Democrats, as they have done so often over the past half-century, can ignore Republicans with impunity.

Awana seems unworried.

“I think I’m able to work with the majority members on commonalities, on concerns we share. All of us recognize the state’s transportation problems, our need to create a sustainable future, the threats to our oceans, the disrepair of our schools, the growth in our homeless population.”

Awana seems willing to wait, learn and listen. She’s described by a Republican legislative veteran as “quiet” and difficult “to read yet.”

“I’ve found coming to the House like attending a new school,” says Awana. “You’re in a new building, learning new routines, making new friends.”

Awana seems to have a capacity for friendship. Time will tell how fast she learns.

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