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Meet some of the fresh faces at the Hawaiʻi State Legislature

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Hawaiʻi Public Radio
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Left to right, top to bottom: Rep. Micah Aiu, Rep. Kirstin Kahaloa, Rep. Mahina Poepoe and Sen. Brenton Awa

When the state Legislature opens Wednesday, there will be 16 new members in the House and two new lawmakers in the Senate. It's the largest class of first-term lawmakers in nearly 30 years.

Among many in this year's class of first-term lawmakers are those with ties to former and current legislators.

"My mom is Sen. Donna Mercado Kim, who has been in elective office for the last 40 years, so I grew up in the realm of politics," House District 32 Rep. Micah Aiu said last week.

Aiu, who represents the Moanalua area on Oʻahu, looks up to his mom in a lot of ways, using her actions as guiding principles.

Micah Aiu
Sabrina Bodon
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HPR
Rep. Micah Aiu is a first-term lawmaker in the upcoming 2023 legislative session.

"I think the only way you can really be in public service for 40 years is being responsive to the community and really addressing their needs, and I think that's my No. 1 priority," Aiu said. "I really want the community to be able to depend on me."

Relationships, both within the district and amongst lawmakers, are key as first-year lawmakers enter the state Capitol.

House District 6 Kona Rep. Kirstin Kahaloa sees that collaboration with her peers as a plus.

"As long as we can keep that freshman energy of just excitement, passion, desire to serve, I hope that kind of just spills over into everybody," Kahaloa said.

Kirstin Kahaloa from Kona
Sabrina Bodon
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HPR
Rep. Kirstin Kahaloa of Kona at the Hawaiʻi State Capitol on Jan. 13, 2023.

Kahaloa's seat is new because one seat was reapportioned from Oʻahu to Hawaiʻi Island. Kahaloa says she’s excited to join fellow Big Island lawmakers, and is advocating for greater health care access and agriculture needs not just on Hawaiʻi Island, but throughout the state.

Kahaloa tries to incorporate as much home away from home in Honolulu as possible, which means her office is always brewing Kona coffee.

"For neighbor island legislators, we have to spend our weekdays on Oʻahu, and we're disconnected from our communities, our district, our families, while we're doing this work, so there is some sacrifice of being far away," Kahaloa said. "But what that means is, on weekends, when we're not present in session, we need to be home, we need to be in our districts, we need to be connecting with all of our community."

Rep. Mahina Poepoe advocates for Molokaʻi and some of the most rural parts of Maui. She feels a lot of responsibility to represent her constituents from her office in urban Honolulu.

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Courtesy Mahina Poepoe
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Rep. Mahina Poepoe represents Molokaʻi and some of the most rural parts of Maui.

"Part of what resonated with our communities was the foundational, Aloha ʻĀina elements. That is who I am and that is where I come from," Poepoe said. "Bringing those perspectives and those values, I think is something that I hope will help enhance the legislation that we pass here and the work that we do."

Former television anchor Sen. Brenton Awa doesn’t quite see himself as a first-term lawmaker. He’s been in these halls reporting in the past, and he’s placed himself in the shoes of a lawmaker during his campaign.

The Republican Awa unseated Democrat Gil Riviere to represent District 32, which encompasses the north and east sides of Oʻahu.

He continues to report in a different way. Even last week, Awa used his Instagram platform to publish a story on rents rising in Waiahole.

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Courtesy Brenton Awa
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Sen. Brenton Awa, also the minority floor leader, represents much of the north side of Oʻahu from Kahalu‘u to Mokulē‘ia.

"I'm not just telling the story to the public and then it falls on deaf ears in government. Now, when I put something out, people around here start moving, whether it's (because) they don't want the negative publicity, or whatever it may be," Awa said. "In yesterday's case, it was the fact that they just didn't know that this was happening in Waiahole, so now people are on it."

This is the largest incoming class at the Legislature since the 1994 election when 18 new members joined the House, including then first-term Rep. Scott Saiki, who is now the speaker of the House.

Corrected: January 18, 2023 at 3:38 PM HST
This story incorrectly stated the 2023 incoming class was the largest in 20 years. It has been nearly 30 years since 1994.
Sabrina Bodon is a general assignment reporter at Hawaiʻi Public Radio. Contact her at sbodon@hawaiipublicradio.org or 808-792-8252.
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