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Hawaii Senate President Donna Mercado Kim passed the gavel to Ron Kouchi on Tuesday after a “bloodless coup” that changed leadership just two days before the 2015 session is set to end.
The 19-6 vote followed a two-hour floor session in which the Senate gave final approval to dozens of bills. Sens. Les Ihara, Gil Riviere, Russell Ruderman, Sam Slom, Laura Thielen and Kim voted against the resolution that makes Kouchi president and keeps Will Espero as vice president.
“I’ve been asked to lead in a different way and we’ll see if that works better than the one that has,” Kouchi told reporters after the vote.
Kouchi, who served 22 years on the Kauai County Council before being appointed to the Senate in 2010 by then-Gov. Linda Lingle, described his leadership style as collaborative.
“Our goal is to try to take advantage of people’s interests and talents,” he said, noting that no one in a leadership role will also serve as a committee chair.
Kouchi was able to take power after Senate factions realigned.
“I did not want to take on a presidency where I would just be in the background and be a rubber stamp.” — Former Senate President Donna Mercado Kim
A hui of four senators led by Jill Tokuda had helped Kim become president just prior to the start of the 2013 session by forming an alliance with a policy-driven faction called the Chess Club.
But for still uncertain reasons, Tokuda’s group joined forces with the nine-member Opihi faction to support Kouchi.
What is clear now is the Opihi and Tokuda factions had agreed to support Kouchi last week.
A petition attached to the resolution shows that Sens. Roz Baker, Donovan Dela Cruz, Kalani English, Mike Gabbard, Brickwood Galuteria, Lorraine Inouye, Gil Keith-Agaran, Gil Kahele, Michelle Kidani, Clarence Nishihara, Maile Shimabukuro, Glenn Wakai, Tokuda and Kouchi signed on April 28.
Sens. Brian Taniguchi and Espero signed the petition Monday. Sen. Suzanne Chun Oakland didn’t sign it but voted in favor of the resolution with reservations.
In separate interviews, neither Kouchi nor Tokuda would say what really motivated the change in leadership.
“It’s not necessarily one particular thing,” Tokuda told reporters after the floor session. “It really was about a majority of senators coming together and about looking at what really was in the best interest of the Senate so that we could really do the work of the people.”
When Kouchi was asked the same question, he said, “I’m not here to look back and comment on any of that.”
Senators said privately that Kim’s very hands-on leadership style irked certain committee chairs and that they believe Kouchi will offer a different approach.
“It’s probably one of the most difficult positions you can have in this building and she’s definitely taken us through some very difficult times.” — Sen. Jill Tokuda
“I’ve been true to myself,” Kim told reporters after the vote. “It was a struggle because I knew it might upset some people if I went into their committee and yet I felt that that was just the responsibility. I did not want to take on a presidency where I would just be in the background and be a rubber stamp and not really speak out for the people.”
Kouchi said there are many different ways to engage with the committee chairs and members. He rejected the notion that his approach would be hands-off though.
“Hands-off implies you’re not there and you’re not doing anything,” he said. “I certainly intend to be in conversations with each of the committee chairs.”
Sam Slom, the Senate’s lone Republican, said he found Kim to be a strong woman.
“I know that a lot of people had their feathers ruffled because of her dogged determination to ask questions during committees,” he said. “I would hope that process would continue because I think that we’ve been derelict in our duty in oversight of specific programs and expenditures of public money. We need to ask more questions. More importantly, we need to get answers.”
Tokuda praised Kim’s leadership the past three years but said it’s time for a “new direction.”
“It’s never easy to step into a high leadership role like Senate president,” Tokuda said. “It’s probably one of the most difficult positions you can have in this building and she’s definitely taken us through some very difficult times and some very challenging measures and bills.”
It’s not necessarily about making radical shifts and top-down changes, Tokuda said, but making a few changes that make a critical difference.
The committee lineup is still being worked out but a few significant changes are expected, according to sources at the Capitol who spoke on the condition of anonymity because the discussions are ongoing.
Basically, the senators who supported the change in president will have at worst a soft landing or at best a big increase in power.
Ruderman, who opposed the change, is expected to be replaced by Nishihara as chair of the Agriculture Committee, which is a fundamental shift in direction. Nishihara has for years backed the interests of big biotech companies like Monsanto and Syngenta while Ruderman is a liberal environmentalist.
Thielen is not expected to continue serving as chair of the Water and Land Committee. That job is expected to go to Gabbard.
Earlier this session, Thielen held a contentious two-day hearing on Gov. David Ige’s appointment of Carlton Ching to head the Department of Land and Natural Resources. Ige ultimately withdrew the nomination after the committee rejected it in a 5-2 vote and support faltered in the full Senate amid public opposition over Ching’s work as a lobbyist for Castle & Cooke, a major land developer.
Ige has a close relationship with Kouchi, as do their families. When Ige was a state senator chairing Ways and Means, he moved his office next to Kouchi’s and they worked together on the budget.
“We spent many hours when he chaired the Ways and Means Committee and I served as Senate vice president and a member of Ways and Means talking about the various issues and policy decisions that go into Ways and Means decisions,” Kouchi said.
Kouchi called Ige Tuesday morning to let him know of the pending leadership change and set an appointment for next week to talk more about how they might work together.
“I would like to see him succeed and the best way is by the two of us working together in a cooperative effort,” Kouchi said.
Green, an emergency room physician, may be out as chair of the Health Committee, replaced by Chun Oakland. But it looks like he’d keep his spot as majority floor leader and serve as vice chair of the Health Committee.
He refused to compromise with the House on 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 of the medi-pot debate was a petition being circulated by Dela Cruz that got 16 signatures from senators who wanted the bill to pass, even if it meant accepting the House version. Dela Cruz is expected to become vice chair of Ways and Means, a position traditionally tasked with shepherding the massive capital improvement projects budget.
Tokuda is to remain chair of Ways and Means under the reorganization plan. Keith-Agaran is expected to continue leading the Judiciary and Labor Committee. Baker will likely stay chair of Consumer Protection and Kidani will keep Education.
The new leadership is looking to give Kim the Public Safety Committee, which Espero chaired. But since he’s vice president and can’t do both under the new policy, the seat would be vacant.
As far as other leadership roles go, English will be majority leader. Other positions are still being determined.
Kouchi becomes the 14th president of the Senate. 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.
When asked how stable the new leadership seems, Kouchi said, “It’s as stable as it’s always been.”
Kim, who’s been a lawmaker for the past three decades, said she never really wanted to be Senate president but was tapped to do so and considered it a privilege.
“I thought I did a good job over the past three years shepherding the Senate and you have to know sometimes when it’s time to step down and let other people take over,” she said.
Slom said he looks forward to working with the new president and closed the Senate floor session by saying, “God bless bloodless coups.”