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Loyalists, Dissidents, the Fab Four and the Three Amigos.
These four factions, and others within the 51-member Hawaii House of Representatives, form alliances that determine leadership structures, influence what bills become law and affect who wins elections.
It’s about political power at the Capitol. But these allegiances also can have dramatic effects on constituents back home. The ruling faction’s leaders decide who serves as committee chairs — the gatekeepers of legislation — and what projects receive funding, whether that’s a new school, prison or hospital.
As lawmakers scramble to approve measures before the current legislative session ends May 5, there’s an undercurrent of tension fixated on the future leadership of the House and the inevitable changes that lie ahead, particularly with the primary election in little more than three months.
Speaker Joe Souki, who turned 83 on Monday, has privately told colleagues that he plans to seek another two-year term representing Wailuku and northwest Maui. He’s built a coalition strong enough to retain his position as speaker for the time being, but it’s unclear how long that will last and who ultimately will succeed him.
In 2013, Souki’s faction aligned with a group of Democrats and a handful of Republicans to end Calvin Say’s 14-year reign as the chamber’s highest ranking official. Souki had served as speaker for six years until Say took over in 1999.
The shift rocked the House. The Dissidents who ushered in Souki, led by Reps. Sylvia Luke and Scott Saiki, have set a more progressive policy direction and taken control over budget decisions. Their names top the list of likely successors.
After installing Souki, Luke became the Finance Committee chair and Saiki the majority leader. Their faction has pushed through bills to legalize gay marriage, create medical marijuana dispensaries, provide emergency contraceptives to rape victims and repeal the Public Land Development Corporation.
The Dissidents and Souki have sufficient numbers now to no longer need to rely on support from Republicans. Souki’s core supporters include Reps. Angus McKelvey and Romy Cachola.
Between Souki’s group and the Dissidents, now considered by some to be one unit, there are at least 23 Democrats united in the ruling coalition, according to interviews with lawmakers and political observers who agreed to speak only if their names weren’t used due to the subject’s sensitive nature. Civil Beat agreed to that condition because it was the only way to tell the story of how important political factions are in the public process.
Subtracting out the seven House Republicans, that’s a solid enough plurality to maintain the status quo.
The Republicans are divided into two factions. Reps. Gene Ward, Bob McDermott and Andria Tupola comprise the far-right, conservative wing; Reps. Beth Fukumoto Chang, the current minority leader, Cynthia Thielen, Lauren Matsumoto and Feki Pouha are more progressive.
The Dissidents have worked well with the moderate Republicans of late, particularly on women’s rights issues, industrial hemp and other measures.
The coming elections bring uncertainty; all 51 seats will be on the ballot this fall. And there are doubts over the allegiances of several lawmakers, particularly some of the members elected in 2014 who are still figuring out their place while various factions court them.
The numbers are fluid, as are the loyalties among members. Some groups are bound by friendship, shared beliefs or similar backgrounds. Others seek opportunity where they can get it.
Today’s factions may not be tomorrow’s, and that’s the lens lawmakers look through when considering what moves to make — and when.
The 64-year-old Say and several of his Loyalists have been sidelined since Souki took over.
Rep. Marcus Oshiro, the former Finance Committee chair and one-time heir apparent to the speakership, has struggled to get so much as a toothless resolution passed. Only a few of the 219 bills for which he was the primary sponsor have passed since 2015, or stand a chance of passing this year.
Stripped of committee memberships and leadership positions, Oshiro and Say were quiet the first year after Souki became speaker. But they have started to regain their footing and now sit on a few committees, though not as chairs.
In a relatively rare move, Say spoke up during a floor session last month to call out Rep. Kaniela Ing — a Souki supporter — for not attending a hearing on a contentious measure before the Ocean, Marine Resources and Hawaiian Affairs Committee, which Ing chairs.
Say never used Ing’s name, just his title. But he said he was “infuriated” by the chair’s absence and walked out of the hearing on the resolution, which was to encourage Kamehameha Schools to consider swapping land in Hawaii Kai with the Department of Hawaiian Home Lands.
Meanwhile, Oshiro has made enough noise over the fate of Wahiawa General Hospital to likely bring an infusion of cash to save the financially strapped institution in his district. He was the lead introducer of a resolution calling on the Legislature and Gov. David Ige to provide emergency assistance, and he organized hospital workers to rally at the Capitol last month to pressure lawmakers.
Luke killed the measure by not giving it a hearing in the Finance Committee. But Sen. Donovan Dela Cruz, whose district includes Wahiawa, unveiled a plan earlier this month that involves the state budgeting $5 million to buy the land under the hospital’s parking lots so it can be leased back to the hospital at a nominal rate as a way to give the facility sufficient funding to stay afloat.
When Say and Oshiro ran the House, they relied on support from the Fab Four and the Three Amigos.
The former — which actually can be four, six or seven people — is a group led by Rep. Kyle Yamashita that includes Reps. Mark Hashem, Linda Ichiyama and Gregg Takayama. Reps. Jo Jordan and Clift Tsuji are also said to be part of this faction, and some put Rep. Isaac Choy with this group too, if not with Say and Oshiro.
The Three Amigos — Reps. Ryan Yamane, Ty Cullen and Henry Aquino — also supported Say. They’re known to stick together, which amplifies their voice.
The vote in 2013 on Senate Bill 1, the same-sex marriage measure, illustrates the factional alignments and key splits. There were 19 votes against it, nearly all of whom were either Republican or in the Say camp.
Yamashita’s group went with Souki and the Dissidents, while the Three Amigos voted against it with Oshiro and Say supporters.
Yamashita and Yamane are both considered possible candidates to replace Souki as speaker, especially if Luke and Saiki are unable to install either of themselves in the top post without relying on another faction’s support. Some interviewed said Saiki is not interested in the top post, preferring to stay with his policy work as majority leader; and that Luke is the natural successor.
Say’s group is down to Oshiro and Reps. Sharon Har, Jimmy Tokioka, Ken Ito and Derek Kawakami. But Kawakami will soon be gone, too; he announced earlier this month that he is running for Kauai County Council and leaving his seat up for grabs.
It’s one of several races that’s being closely watched.
The elections can make or break ruling coalitions.
Luke and Saiki have been channeling their campaign money to certain colleagues by holding fundraisers for them and buying pricey tickets.
They’ve given their fellow lawmakers more than $40,000 over the past three years alone, including to freshmen Reps. Matt LoPresti, Jarrett Keohokalole, Joy San Buenaventura and Lynn DeCoite. All four are considered question marks as far as what faction they support.
It was the 2012 elections that really did in Say and Oshiro. Most of the seven Democrats elected that year are now considered supporters of Souki and the Dissidents, including Reps. Romy Cachola, Takashi Ohno, Bert Kobayashi, Kaniela Ing, Nicole Lowen and Richard Onishi.
And in 2014, LoPresti defeated incumbent Rep. Rida Cabanilla, a Say supporter.
A coup is unlikely to happen at the end of this legislative session, as it did last year in the Senate when factions realigned to install Ron Kouchi as president instead of Donna Mercado Kim.
The soonest some predict a change in leadership is December, after the November election results reveal who will be in office when the next session starts in January. But many see another two years of Souki as speaker, possibly with some new committee assignments.
That could change, though, if Oshiro and Say are able to unite with the Fab Four and Three Amigos and lure the newer members to their side along with a few others.
House and Senate lawmakers are holding a flurry of meetings this week, desperately trying to negotiate agreements on bills by Friday in time for final floor votes the following week.
Many bills will die. Some will morph into almost unrecognizable versions of what was first introduced in January. Others will manage to pass and head to the governor’s desk.
Underneath this organized chaos is political and factional tension.
Legislation is important in its own right: a new community center, a program for the elderly, expanded services for the poor — whatever it may be.
But it’s also about staying in office. These new programs, services or projects give members something to hold up when they go back to their districts to campaign.
Luke wields incredible power in this regard, deciding, as chair of the money committee, what fiscal bills and budget items are approved. This can add pressure on lawmakers to fall in line with her faction.
Some issues present internal struggles that make it hard to follow a particular faction.
Keohokalole, for instance, is said to be torn between following Souki’s lead or standing up for Native Hawaiians when it comes to the Maui water-rights issue.
Alexander & Baldwin agreed to restore some streams for taro farms last week, and an agreement was reached days later between the House and Senate on a bill to let the company continue diverting water from East Maui to Central Maui.
Keohokalole voted in favor of the bill, but with reservations.
Creagan, a medical doctor on the Big Island, is another example of disagreement with a faction. The Dissidents have decided to support a bill expanding prescription authority to psychologists. He not only opposed the measure in his vote, but spoke out against it despite pressure from lawmakers.
Such discontent presents an opportunity for factions to pluck away a member from a rival group.
The House is a place full of longstanding loyalties and history. But as one lawmaker said, it often comes down to, “What have you done for me lately?”
Rep. Karl Rhoads supported Say as speaker until Souki took over and appointed Rhoads as chair of the Judiciary Committee, a choice position that shepherds hundreds of important bills each year ranging from election reform to criminal justice issues.
This kind of move has prompted some to put him in a group called the Predictables, with Reps. John Mizuno and Cindy Evans, because they will go wherever suits them best, generally after honoring past commitments though.
Others view Rhoads as more of a lone wolf, but one who’s cognizant of the need to join a pack to survive.