Hawaii Democrats may have won big in Tuesday’s election, but the big loser may turn out to be Calvin Say.
House Democrats were meeting privately Wednesday at the Capitol to see if the longtime speaker of the state House of Representatives still has the 26 votes needed to be re-elected, a position he has held since 1999. It is the longest any speaker has served in state history.
Several of Say’s allies lost in the primary and general election.
The likely candidate to replace Say is Joe Souki, the emeritus speaker who lost the job to Say.
Souki, the Maui representative, is said to have secured between 22 and 24 votes to be named speaker, while Say has only mustered about 13.
For this story, Civil Beat talked to a number of lawmakers and Democratic Party members involved in the discussions but agreed not to use their names because they were worried about damaging their relationships with whoever might come into power.
Democrats may not make a decision Wednesday.
But change seems imminent. House dissidents have tried to depose Say for years, and they came fairly close two years ago.
A new speaker would mean new committee assignments as the Legislature enters a new session in January, and a potentially dramatic effect on the passage of legislation.
House spokeswoman Georgette Deemer said Wednesday she had no comment on the House reorganization.
A House speaker has tremendous power. Not only does a speaker control who leads committees, he or she has a direct say in what bills get heard — or not.
Say has been said to single-handedly kill bills he and his supporters do not like, usually behind the scenes or through another lawmaker doing his bidding. He also has his own political action committee that backs his supporters in elections.
But Say may have gone too far in the 2012 session with his sponsorship of Senate Bill 755, a measure widely criticized by opponents as granting too may environmental exemptions to spur development projects.
Say strongly defended the bill, but it died in conference committee.
In the primary, Say lieutenant Pono Chong, the majority leader, lost to Jessica Wooley, one of the so-called House dissidents opposed to Say’s leadership. Wooley was helped by the Sierra Club and other groups that campaigned on her behalf.
Say also lost longtime colleague Bob Herkes, who ran unsuccessfully for the state Senate, and vice speaker Joey Manahan, who was elected to the Honolulu City Council. Say’s previous majority leader, Blake Oshiro, resigned in December to become deputy chief of staff to Gov. Neil Abercrombie. And Jerry Chang retired rather than run in a reapportioned district.
Meanwhile, none of the dissidents lost re-election, despite being faced in some cases with reapportioned districts.
Joe Souki brings his own baggage to a potential speakership. He is a strong supporter of legalized gambling and an inter-island ferry system, for example.
He also has a record of conflicts of interests, specifically involving his work as a lobbyist for the American Chemical Council while testifying on legislation supported by the group.
Still, dissidents would prefer Souki over Say.
When Say was re-elected speaker in January 2011, he had the support of the minority party. He may try to strike a bargain with Republicans again, but the GOP was weakened by retirements and election loses. Democrats now have a 44-7 majority, up one from last session.
GOP Reps. Gene Ward, Cynthia Thielen and Aaron Ling Kohanson are returning to office, joined by four newcomers: Richard Fale, Beth Fukumoto, Lauren Cheape and Bob McDermott. McDermott is a former legislator and Fukumoto is a top party official and legislative operative.
Say could have as many as 20 supporters, including: Say, Henry Aquino, Karen Awana, Rida Cabanilla, Isaac Choy, Ty Cullen, Sharon Har, Mark Hashem, Derek Kawakami, Linda Ichiyama, Ken Ito, Jo Jordan, Angus McKelvey, John Mizuno, Marcus Oshiro, Karl Rhoads, Jimmy Tokioka, Clift Tsuji, Ryan Yamane and Kyle Yamashita.
But that number is no longer solid, and some are said to be wavering. He could have as few as 13 backers now.
Souki, who himself supported Say for speaker the last time, appears to be working on a deal with House dissidents and newly elected representatives.
There are the 16 dissidents: Wooley, Della Au Belatti, Tom Brower, Mele Carroll, Denny Coffman, Cindy Evans, Faye Hanohano, Gil Keith-Agaran, Chris Lee, Sylvia Luke, Dee Morikawa, Mark Nakashima, Scott Nishimoto, Scott Saiki, Mark Takai and Roy Takumi.
Some of the seven new Democrats elected this year may be inclined to side with the dissidents. The new members are Gregg Takayama, Romy Cachola, Takashi Ohno, Bert Kobayashi, Kaniela Ing, Nicole Lowen and Richard Onishi.
Calvin Say is crafty at back-room deals, and he may yet be able to pull more supporters his way with plum committee and other leadership assignments.
But with a solid dissident bloc, supporters frustrated with his leadership, a refreshed GOP slate and a bunch of newcomers, the House of Say may be headed for a fall.