To some, Clayton Hee might be viewed as the loser in the debate over William Aila‘s nomination to run the Hawaii Department of Land and Natural Resources.

Aila, after all, was confirmed 23-0 by the state Senate Thursday (Hee voted “aye” with “strong reservations”). Leading up to the floor vote, senators heaped adulations on Aila, Gov. Neil Abercrombie‘s controversial but popular pick to lead the land board.

But Sen. Hee had his say, too.

In the floor debate, Hee made it clear that he still has reservations about Aila because of decisions he’s already made as acting director and because he failed to disclose a possible conflict.

Hee also succeeded, by delaying the confirmation vote on Aila by a week, in forcing his colleagues to address his concerns directly. Senate Democrats had to convene in closed-door caucus Wednesday to hammer out a solution to the impasse and save face for Sen. Shan Tustsui‘s young presidency.

At the midpoint of the 2011 Hawaii Legislature, Hee, as he often has in the past, holds tremendous sway over Senate business, House legislation and Neil Abercrombie‘s agenda.

It was Hee who was instrumental in the passage of civil unions early in the term, the very first piece of legislation Abercrombie signed into law.

And it is Hee who has yet to schedule a confirmation hearing for the governor’s choice for attorney general, David Louie, and human resources director, Sunshine Topping, even as Abercrombie’s other Cabinet appointments — including Aila until Hee intervened — have been easily confirmed.

Clayton Hee is right where he wants to be: At the center of the state Capitol, his hands in multiple pots, advancing views he believes are important — and stirring trouble.

There is arguably no member of either the Senate or the House whose name and reputation elicits more colorful comment than Clayton Hee.

Some of the words used to describe the senator will not be printed here. Others will: smart, hard-working, persistent, principled and loyal, for example, but also aggressive, intimidating, egotistical, quick to anger and bipolar.

With the possible exception of Senate Vice President Donna Mercado Kim, there is no legislator more feared than Hee, especially when it comes to confirmations.

Physically, Hee is on the tall side, slender and handsome. He looks sharp in a suit and cool in cowboy boots and blue jeans, as he is often dressed.

He often wears sunglasses, too — sometimes in committee hearings — which can add to his off-putting demeanor.

But he also can demonstrate tremendous warmth and back-slapping familiarity, and he has a sense of humor. Hee seems well aware of his own aura and can use it to effect.

For example, in a recent hearing before the committee he chairs, Senate Judiciary and Labor, Hee strode into Conference Room 016 just before 9 a.m. and took his center seat. Sunglasses still on, he looked around at the handful of people in the room, as if curious why there weren’t more people in attendance.

“The hearing starts at 9:15, senator, not 9 a.m.,” someone said.

Hee paused, and then let out an uproarious laugh.

“I thought it was at 9!” he said, breaking into a huge grin.

The tension in Conference Room 016 immediately dissipated.

30 Years at the Ledge

Hee represents Hawaii’s 23rd Senatorial District — Kahuku, Laie, Kaaawa and Kaneohe — and was first elected in 1984. He also represented Molokai, Lanai and West Maui as a House representative from 1982 to 1984.

According to his Capitol bio, Hee, who turns 58 March 14, is married to Lynne Waters and has a son, Kaohukauikalai. He is a Kamehameha Schools graduate and earned a B.A. from the University of Hawaii in 1975 and an M.A. in Pacific Island Studies in 1979.

Waters — a public relations executive just appointed associate vice president for external affairs at UH — is Hee’s second wife. He was previously married to Lyla Berg, the mother of Kaohukauikalai (or Kaohu), and a former House representative who ran unsuccessfully in the Democratic primary for lieutenant governor in 2010.

Project Vote Smart reports that Hee has been an educator, business owner and consultant.

Hee was frequently in the news when he began serving on the board of the Office of Hawaiian Affairs in 1990. His tenure as OHA board chair was often contentious — some would say dysfunctional — but also characterized by a refocused effort to secure payments from the state to OHA for ceded-land revenue.

In 2002, Hee stepped down from OHA to run for lieutenant governor, losing in the Democratic primary to Matt Matsunaga. Hee returned to the state Senate in 2004 and, two years later, ran for the 2nd Congressional District in 2006, where he finished fourth behind Mazie Hirono, Colleen Hanabusa and Matsunaga but ahead of Gary Hooser, Brian Schatz and Nestor Garcia.

Hee has seen former colleagues like Hirono, Hanabusa, Abercrombie and Ben Cayetano advance to greater prominence while he is still in the same job he has held for nearly 30 years.

When his old friend, Abercrombie, was elected governor last year, Hee’s name was among those mentioned as likely Cabinet members, ideally running the same department that William Aila now runs. But Hee is still in the Senate.

Reining in a Wild Horse

After Hee returned to the Senate in 2004, he would serve as chair of judiciary, arguably the most powerful committee after Senate Ways and Means.

It was a roller-coaster chairmanship. Hee ran hearings that sometimes exceeded 10 hours.

They were also brutal experiences for two of then-Gov. Linda Lingle‘s judicial nominations, Ted Hong and Randal Lee. Hee grilled both men over their records, and both were ultimately rejected by the Senate.

Supporters of Hee say the senator was correct in questioning the judicial temperament of the nominees, but others say both nominations were victims of pure politics.

Hee also notoriously used the F-word — several times — in another hearing that was broadcast live on community television. Hee was speaking in context and trying to make a point related to the subject matter before the committee. But his public use of profanity was seen by some as boorish behavior.

And, Hee once had a verbal floor fight with Republican Fred Hemmings, a longtime kamaaina haole. Hee, as he reminded Hemmings while speaking in Hawaiian, has the koko or native blood. Some said Hee was being racist, but others said he was demonstrating ethnic pride.

In 2008, Hanabusa shifted Hee to chair Water, Land, Agriculture and Hawaiian Affairs, and Hee was less controversial and more productive. Notably, he was widely praised for legislation helping to make Hawaii the first U.S. state to make it illegal to possess, sell or distribute shark fins.

Hee’s success in moving the bill was in part due to the fact that he is a Hawaiian — Hawaiians consider sharks to be aumakua, a family god or ancestor — and Chinese, given that Chinese restaurants serve shark fin soup.

Back On Judiciary

When Hanabusa was elected to Congress and state senators voted on new leadership, Hee was given the judiciary chair again, which now is combined with labor, and also serves on Hawaiian Affairs.

Hee also moved into a large office on the fourth floor of the Capitol, near President Tsutsui’s. All other senators have offices on the second floor.

While most senators are members of various factions, Hee is a faction all his own.

This time around, Hee effectively moved civil unions through the Legislature and to the governor’s desk, after hijacking the issue. The governor had planned to make civil unions legislation part of his administration’s package, and he had crafted a bill with the input of lawmakers and attorneys. But Hee ended up scheduling a hearing for a different civil unions bill, the one that ultimately passed.

Hee also led the confirmation process for Sabrina McKenna as associate justice of the Hawaii Supreme Court.

Hee spoke eloquently about both civil unions as a matter of human justice and the nomination of McKenna, a lesbian, as a matter of elevating a highly qualified individual regardless of sexual orientation.

But when it came to the nomination of William Aila, the old Clayton Hee emerged.

Hee had his reasons.

As he explained during the Thursday floor vote, he had serious concerns about Aila’s background as a commercial fisherman — DLNR controls the state’s waters — and actions Aila had made as interim DLNR chair regarding a giant telescope on Mauna Kea (a sacred site for Hawaiians). He also criticized a decision about burial remains of Hawaiians on lands to be used for Honolulu rail (na iwi, or bones, are believed to hold a person’s mana, or spirit).

For Hee, it was once again a matter of principle. He noted that Aila said Native Hawaiians are often held to “a higher standard,” and he argued that Aila had failed to meet that standard.

In many ways, it was Hee at his best — raising legitimate concerns, concerns which his colleagues agreed they would follow up on.

But it was also Hee at his worst.

He asked whether Aila as DLNR director would be a stallion or a proud-cut gelding, and he decided he would be the latter — that is, someone lacking in testicular fortitude.

(Hee is a member of the Hawaii Professional Rodeo Association.)

Another Hawaiian senator with a love for all things equine, Malama Solomon, responded that she took great offense at Hee’s characterization. But Solomon acknowledged that Hee’s other concerns were legitimate.

Hee repeated this phrase several times: “The longer you live, the more life repeats itself.”

What did he mean? That people are creatures of habit? That Aila would do a terrible job at DLNR? That Hawaiians still face deadly threats from mismanagement of their land?

Or was Clayton Hee describing himself?

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