Updated 3:05 p.m., 5/5/2015
Hawaii state Senate factions have realigned to make Ron Kouchi the chamber’s new chief, replacing Senate President Donna Mercado Kim.
The Senate voted 19-6 on a resolution Tuesday that made Kouchi president. Sens. Les Ihara, Gil Riviere, Russell Ruderman, Sam Slom, Laura Thielen and Kim voted no.
“I don’t believe there’s any one issue they can point to other than me trying to do the job, being consistent, being inclusive,” Kim told Civil Beat. “That’s how it goes. You’ve got 13, you can be king. It’s not the end of the world for me.”
The Chess Club is an old and evolving faction that until this year had then-Sen. David Ige as a longtime member. It also included Sens. Roz Baker, Suzanne Chun Oakland, Will Espero, Josh Green, Ihara, Ruderman and Thielen. The top three running the group are Ihara, Baker and Chun Oakland.
Two freshmen senators, Riviere and Breene Harimoto, seem aligned with this group at times but some view them as independent. Sen. Brian Taniguchi, who chaired the Ways and Means Committee before Ige, is also considered independent.
Sen. Jill Tokuda, who chairs the powerful Ways and Means Committee, leads what’s effectively a swing faction of four. The other members are Sen. Gil Keith-Agaran, who heads Judiciary and Labor, arguably the second-most influential committee; Sen. Kalani English, the majority leader; and Sen. Mike Gabbard, who chairs the Energy and Environment Committee.
The nine-member Opihi faction, led by Sen. Michelle Kidani, managed to lure away Tokuda’s faction to reorganize.
The group also includes Sens. Donovan Dela Cruz, Brickwood Galuteria, Lorraine Inouye, Gil Kahele, Clarence Nishihara, Maile Shimabukuro, Glenn Wakai and Kouchi.
Aside from the Opihi and Tokuda factions, Espero, Baker and Taniguchi also signed on to support Kouchi as president.
Espero declined to comment on why he is supporting Kouchi.
“I hadn’t expected this situation to occur at this time in our legislative session,” Espero said Monday night. “I don’t remember the last time we organized during the mid-term. However, anything is possible in the Capitol in this building. I look forward to working with the new leadership.”
Espero will keep his job as vice president of the Senate under the new reorganization.
The Opihi faction gets its name from the notion of sticking together, much like the limpet that clings to rocks in rough surf.
Members of the Chess Club, by contrast, are more policy driven and freer to vote their conscience. Although that doesn’t mean they can’t be overruled, as happened Friday night, the deadline for conference committees to approve bills for the full House and Senate to vote on this week.
Green refused to compromise with the House on a final bone of contention in a bill to establish medical marijuana dispensaries, derailing it until Senate leadership got involved. Exceptions were made to the rules, Espero was made chair of the conference committee instead of Green, and the bill was approved Monday.
In the background was a petition circulated by Dela Cruz that got 16 signatures from senators who wanted the bill to pass, even if it meant accepting the House version. However, the dustup over the medi-pot bill isn’t seen as the impetus to change leadership.
Kim said on Monday she called Kouchi, who she’s worked with for the past 30 years, to ask about the move to reorganize that she was hearing about.
She said Kouchi told her he wasn’t leading the charge but that it was expected to happen during Thursday’s floor session.
Kim said she asked Kouchi for a reason but he told her she’d have to ask the Tokuda faction.
Kouchi and Tokuda did not return messages left Monday.
“I don’t know if people want the power or didn’t appreciate me asking questions,” Kim said.
Kim said she feels a lot was accomplished this session, including bills related to medical marijuana dispensaries and protecting conservation land at Turtle Bay.
“We’ve accomplished quite a bit in a very civil, very respectful manner,” she said.
Kouchi, who served 22 years on the Kauai County Council before being appointed to the Senate by then-Gov. Linda Lingle in 2010, was the chamber’s vice president last year and shepherded the overall state capital improvement projects budget this session.
Talk of reorganizing is common near the end of a session but a change in Senate leadership actually happening during a session is rare. Usually those decisions are made just before a session begins in January.
James Aki was the last Senate president to be ousted, back in 1994. Ethics questions over his ties to a developer were at the root of it. He later got in trouble for gambling.
Kim took the reins from Shan Tsutsui, who stepped down after being appointed lieutenant governor in December 2012. Prior to Tsutsui’s two-year stint as president, Colleen Hanabusa held the job from late 2006 until she was elected to the U.S. Congress in 2010.
The reorganization is also expected to shake up several committees while keeping Tokuda as chair of Ways and Means and Keith-Agaran as head of Judiciary and Labor.
Among the biggest changes would be removing Green as chair of the Health Committee, replacing him with Chun Oakland, and making Nishihara chair of Agriculture, replacing Ruderman.