Updated 10:45 a.m., 5/18/2015
After 11 terms on the Kauai County Council and five years in the Legislature, Ron Kouchi is hardly new to politics.
And yet his ascension last week to the state Senate presidency caught many off guard.
The rare in-session coup to oust Donna Mercado Kim was surprising in and of itself, but more so for elevating to power a relatively unknown politician from a quiet neighbor island. Even some of Kouchi’s colleagues don’t know how to pronounce his name. (It’s “KOH-chee.”)
That’s partly due to his style. Kouchi operates behind the scenes, an expert dealmaker focused more on getting things done than grabbing headlines, according to lawmakers and others who have worked closely with him.
“He’s a very competent leader as far as looking at the contributions of all of the individuals,” said Jay Furfaro, who served on the Kauai County Council with Kouchi until he was appointed to the Senate in 2010 by then-Gov. Linda Lingle.
“Some thought he was a little too tough but he had to hold people’s feet to the fire and he never misrepresented himself,” said Furfaro, now the administrator of the county boards and commissions.
Tim Bynum, who served on the Kauai County Council with Kouchi for two years, said he is “very thoughtful and calculated.”
“Even though we disagreed on a lot of policy issues, he always was respectful and appropriate in all his dealings with me and other council members,” Bynum said.
The session has adjourned, but the reorganization continues, and some legislators probably would agree with the assessment that Kouchi can be “too tough.”
Kouchi was unenthusiastic about speaking to the media May 5 after the Senate voted to make him president, but appreciated the necessity of the press conference to communicate to the public about what had just happened.
He was more comfortable at his next news conference two days later when the session adjourned, surrounded by key leaders in the new power structure. The group presentation reflected his practice of putting the point person on the spot for each question, simultaneously empowering lawmakers and holding them accountable.
Kouchi did not hesitate to push Majority Leader Kalani English, Vice President Will Espero and Ways and Means Chair Jill Tokuda in front of the cameras to field questions he felt they were better suited to answer.
“It’s important if the committee chair is the one that has done the hard work that they should be in front of the microphone and telling the story,” Kouchi said.
It was the same approach he used for 12 years as chair of the Kauai County Council. Kouchi said it may have seemed at times like he was making deals in back rooms because he didn’t speak a lot during the public meetings, but that was because he wanted whoever had the lead on the bill to be at the forefront.
“He was quite skillful in complex situations,” Furfaro said.
Update Kouchi may elicit similar sentiments after the Senate finalizes its reorganization — now expected Wednesday — and he has an opportunity to demonstrate his leadership next session, which begins in January.
But as of Thursday, with a few committee chairmanships still unsettled, there was some grumbling at the Capitol.
Although 24 of 25 senators are Democrats, the Senate is split into factions.
The change in leadership was made possible by Tokuda and the rest of her four-member faction lending their support to the nine-member Opihi group, led by Sen. Michelle Kidani, who wanted Kim out. Lawmakers won’t go on the record to explain the real reasons for the shakeup; some suggested it was Kim’s meddling in the business of committee chairs while others say it’s more ideological and about control.
Members of the Tokuda and Kidani factions received the premium leadership positions and committee chairmanships. Others who signed on to support Kouchi landed softly, albeit in seats with considerably less power.
The holdouts from the Chess Club faction that had made Kim president for the past three sessions with the help of Tokuda’s faction have been mostly sidelined. But that wasn’t necessarily Kouchi’s intention.
The plan heading into the reorganization was to find positions of power for as many people as possible, be it a leadership role or committee chairmanship. That fell apart when senators on the outs rallied to negotiate for different positions and were left with nothing.
It’s been messy but telling.
Kouchi and the leaders of the factions who supported him tapped Sen. Mike Gabbard to chair the newly merged Water, Land and Agriculture Committee.
The decision was about having a chair whom people on all sides of an issue could feel comfortable approaching.
When it comes to proposed bills to label food containing genetically modified organisms, for instance, the previous two chairs of the Agriculture Committee are polar opposites.
Sen. Russell Ruderman thinks labeling is a no-brainer and wants to strengthen restrictions for spraying pesticides on GMO crops. His predecessor, Sen. Clarence Nishihara, supports big biotech companies like Monsanto and Syngenta.
“We need to find a way to have our community come back together and heal,” Kouchi said Thursday. “We aren’t always going to agree with each other but we need to be able to have civil conversations.”
Ruderman was assigned the Health Committee chairmanship, a position the Big Island grocer felt he was less qualified to fill. It’s unclear if that offer is still on the table.
At another point, sources familiar with the reorganization said Ruderman was offered the Human Services chairmanship, but the offer was quickly rescinded when he said he was going to talk it over with his cohorts. The post ultimately went to Sen. Suzanne Chun Oakland, who had chaired that committee when it was combined with Housing.
Sen. Josh Green, an emergency room physician on the Big Island, had chaired the Health Committee, but he has been relegated to majority floor leader, a minor concession to the Chess Club member.
Sen. Laura Thielen, the previous chair of the Water and Land Committee, was initially assigned to chair the newly created Health and the Environment Committee. At another point she was offered Environment and Ocean Resources.
She accepted the position of Health Committee chair, but then changed her mind after getting a bad feeling about the reorganization.
“My na’au clearly said this was the wrong decision,” she wrote in a blog post on her website Sunday.
“I mentally searched for the reason why, but couldn’t find it,” she said. “I still can’t articulate it. But the feeling was strong, I decided to follow it, and I withdrew my acceptance.”
Senate leaders are expected to make an announcement Wednesday about the reorganization.
Lawmakers and others have said privately that the real significance of the reorganization isn’t that Kouchi is president instead of Kim. It’s that members of the Chess Club who stood for greater government transparency and fair play, like Majority Policy Leader Les Ihara, have been booted for not adhering to the “good-ol’ boy” way of doing business.
They pointed at the Carleton Ching episode as an example. Gov. David Ige nominated Ching, a lobbyist for Castle & Cooke, a major land developer, to head the Department of Land and Natural Resources.
Thielen held a two-day public hearing on the nomination, which led to a groundswell of public opposition and eventually the governor withdrawing the appointment. It was rough at times, but open.
That would more than likely not have happened with the new power structure in place. Members of the Opihi faction supported Ching and generally favor development interests. It’s more of a culture where things are decided privately and then announced publicly.
Kouchi got into politics in his 20s after graduating in 1982 from Drake University in Iowa and not seeing any opportunities for himself or his friends upon moving back on Kauai. Many his age were moving to the mainland or extending their time in the military.
He decided to at least go down swinging before moving in search of a better future. Single and 25 years old, he ran for the County Council and won.
“When I was younger, in trying to create that economy, I was more favorable to development projects,” Kouchi said.
But after getting married and having two kids, he said his views have evolved. Creating jobs is still a top priority, but it’s important for him to do so with sound planning that protects the environment.
Kouchi, who chaired the council for 12 of the 22 years he served on it, lists his co-sponsorship of a charter amendment to create the Open Space Commission among his accomplishments.
Kauai voters approved the amendment in 2002, requiring the county to put a half-percent of its property tax revenues into a fund dedicated to protecting public access, open spaces and natural resource preservation.
“In my leadership style, what I’ve found over the years is the most important skill is listening.” — Senate President Ron Kouchi
Kouchi remains a self-described fiscal conservative. His campaign contributions include thousands of dollars from major land developers and the seed industry, one of the biggest employers on the west side of Kauai where he grew up.
Update However, Kouchi decided to stop accepting campaign contributions from GMO companies three years ago. He also stopped accepting contributions from John Radcliffe, a lobbyist for Monsanto. Kouchi said he doesn’t want his votes, should they be in the interest of GMO companies, to have the appearance of being bought.
His campaign finance records also reveal his support for fellow senators.
Kouchi donated thousands of dollars during the last election cycle to Sens. Clarence Nishihara, Maile Shimabukuro, Lorraine Inouye, Brickwood Galuteria, Roz Baker, Jill Tokuda, and Rep. Jimmy Tokioka.
He gave $2,000 last march to Lt. Gov. Shan Tsutsui for a fundraiser, plus another $1,000 in June.
Before the August primary, Kouchi gave $500 to former Gov. Neil Abercrombie and $550 to Ige. When Ige became the Democratic nominee, Kouchi gave him another $4,000.
Spreading his campaign cash around certainly doesn’t hurt those relationships but it’s not Kouchi’s primary method of lobbying lawmakers. That would be food, which he said helps facilitate a positive environment to talk story. It’s not so much fancy dinners, though, as much as bringing local grinds to meetings or keeping the refrigerator stocked with Diet Coke when the governor visits.
“In my leadership style, what I’ve found over the years is the most important skill is listening,” he said.
He likened his style to that of a point guard in basketball. He tries to put people in the right positions and then gets them the ball.
“When you understand what people are trying to do you can find areas where there’s agreement and bring people together,” Kouchi said.