When Hawaii’s 25 state senators decide whether to confirm Gov. David Ige’s nomination of Carleton Ching as head of the Department of Land and Natural Resources, the vote will likely be as much about inside politics as personal convictions.
Some may vote against him because he is a lobbyist for Castle & Cooke, a major land developer. Some may vote for him because they believe his diverse background and temperament make him the right person for the job.
But many will probably vote based on what it means for them in terms of maintaining leadership positions, currying favor with the governor, preserving senatorial relationships and getting re-elected.
Like many decisions, this one may come down to factions within the 24-Democrat, one-Republican Senate. Three main groups determine power structures and influence legislative decisions.
They tend to vote together and generally support their members, even though certain high-stakes issues — like the Ching confirmation or raising taxes to fund Honolulu’s rail project — make it harder to stay united.
The full Senate is expected to decide as soon as Wednesday whether Ching is the right person to manage Hawaii’s public lands, water resources and coastal areas.
If the vote was just based on that — considering the strong public opposition — it’d be safe to bet the Senate would not confirm Ching.
It would be a black eye for Ige but he’d heal. The governor would nominate someone else, probably not a development industry lobbyist, and the process would start anew.
But since the legislative decision has so many more layers to it, many expect Ching will be confirmed.
Through that process, the strength of the faction that pushed to keep Donna Mercado Kim as Senate president will be tested and the group that tried to oust her this session stands to strengthen.
The Opihi faction is the biggest with nine members, led by Sen. Michelle Kidani. The group also includes Sens. Donovan Dela Cruz, Brickwood Galuteria, Lorraine Inouye, Gil Kahele, Ron Kouchi, Clarence Nishihara, Maile Shimabukuro and Glenn Wakai.
The Opihi faction takes its name from the notion of sticking together, much like the limpet that clings to rocks in rough surf.
Kidani and her group tried to replace Kim with Kouchi at the beginning of this session but the coup failed when two other factions united, the Chess Club and a smaller one led by Sen. Jill Tokuda.
The Chess Club is an old and evolving faction that until this year had Ige as a longtime member. It currently includes Sens. Roz Baker, Suzanne Chun Oakland, Will Espero, Josh Green, Les Ihara, Russell Ruderman and Laura Thielen. The top three running the group are Ihara, Baker and Chun Oakland.
Two freshmen senators, Gil Riviere and Breene Harimoto, seem aligned with this group at times, but some see them as independent. Sen. Brian Taniguchi, who chaired the Ways and Means Committee before Ige, is considered independent, as is Kim.
Tokuda’s faction only has four members, but it has wielded an oversized influence since the Senate reorganized in January.
Tokuda now chairs Ways and Means, which hears virtually every bill that has a dollar attached to it and many others of significance. Sen. Gil Keith-Agaran heads Judiciary and Labor, arguably the second-most influential committee. Sen. Kalani English became majority leader and Sen. Mike Gabbard chairs the Energy and Environment Committee.
Meanwhile, Opihi leader Kidani went from vice chair of Ways and Means, where she controlled the $2.3 billion capital improvement projects budget last session, to head the Education Committee.
Her fellow faction member Kouchi went from Senate vice president to Kidani’s spot as Ways and Means vice chair, a position likely salvaged by his decision to vote in favor of Kim as president after seeing that she was keeping the job regardless.
His role there, shepherding the politically precious capital improvement money, cannot be overstated. These are the projects that lawmakers can literally point to when their constituents ask them what they’ve done in office — much easier than a new statute or policy. We’re talking a new school versus a new anti-bullying program, for example.
But getting a pet project for a particular district into the budget is one thing. Getting the governor to release the money once it’s approved by the Legislature is another. Which is why lawmakers must also consider their votes in relationship to what Ige wants.
Meanwhile, Sen. Sam Slom, the chamber’s lone Republican, operates as a faction of one.
“Every morning our faction comes out, it’s prepared, we go to all the hearings and we’re always 100 percent in agreement,” Slom said with a laugh. “I feel sorry for my Democrats. Most of them are running around and paranoid that they hear footsteps behind them.”
The faction membership lists, compiled based on interviews with Capitol insiders and others, should be considered fluid, as some members may consider themselves independent despite voting consistently with one group.
It’s difficult to categorize the factions, which meet regularly to discuss positions on issues.
Unlike other states where legislative chambers are more evenly split along party lines, factions here are less ideological than they are about relationships, according to University of Hawaii political science professor emeritus Neal Milner.
“To me, the real story is you don’t know the real story here,” he said.
In general, the Chess Club is considered to be more wonky and focused on policy. The Opihi group has a more development-friendly mindset and the Tokuda faction is diverse, although neighbor-island interests might be more at heart considering half of its members represent Maui.
The Chess Club is also perceived to be more lenient in terms of its members having to vote together, although all the factions have some form of “releasing” a member from pressure to vote with the group.
Factions came into play last week when the Senate Water and Land Committee held a two-day hearing that boiled down to a 5-2 vote recommending the full Senate not confirm Ching as DLNR chief.
Ige, a Chess Club member for decades before he became governor in December, has stood behind Ching ever since the nomination was announced in late January, pointing at his integrity and executive experience.
Even though he’s governor now, those working relationships remain strong. During a KITV debate last July, candidate Ige identified his biggest strength as the relationships that he built with state lawmakers during his 28-year tenure in the Legislature.
Ihara, another longtime lawmaker, became close friends with Ige as Chess Club members, which could explain his decision to vote against Ching last week at the committee level while at the same time announcing his intention to vote for him when the question goes to the full Senate.
This move let Ihara vote in line with the committee chair Thielen and fellow Chess Club member Ruderman. With few exceptions, Senate leadership expects members to vote in line with the committee chair.
But if other Chess Club members buck the committee recommendation in the full Senate vote, it could leave Ruderman and Thielen feeling disrespected and looking for a new faction to join.
It could even leave them factionless. The Opihis have at least one member, Shimabukuro, who opposes Ching and one who supports him, Galuteria. They may be hesitant to take on Ruderman and Thielen — even if the numbers help them install a new president — if it alienates them from the governor.
While Slom and Galuteria spoke up in support of the Ching nomination at the committee hearing, the lack of public support for Ching from other senators suggests the vote in the full Senate will be more about politics than his qualifications.
Milner was blunt about it, saying the only way Ching gets confirmed is with “a bunch of loyalists” falling into line.
Aside from the political pressures of faction-based voting, senators also must consider the record they are creating to campaign on — or what they’ll have to hide from come election season — at least for those whose longterm hold on their posts is uncertain.
Over half the Senate is up for election in 2016. This includes Chun Oakland, Dela Cruz, Espero, Gabbard, Ihara, Keith-Agaran, Kim, Kouchi, Ruderman, Slom, Taniguchi, Thielen and Wakai.
For Kouchi, who many say might lead the Senate someday, a vote in favor of Ching could be subject to attacks next fall if he is challenged in the primary.
There’s been some chatter that Kauai County Councilman Gary Hooser, who’s been active in opposing the Ching nomination, could run against him. Hooser, a former Chess Club member, held Kauai County’s sole Senate until he stepped down in 2010 for an unsuccessful bid to be lieutenant governor.
Only three Opihi members are up for re-election next year, while roughly three-fourths of the Chess Club and Tokuda factions are.
Thielen may be relatively new to the Senate, but not to politics. She went through the same confirmation process as Ching when she became head of DLNR under Gov. Linda Lingle.
It’s all very “House of Cards,” which happens to be a Netflix show about D.C. politics that Thielen loves.