If its campaign contributions and endorsements are any indication, Hawaii’s second-biggest public employee union seems intent on pushing for new leadership in the state House.
United Public Workers gave twice as much money to candidates this election compared to the prior one, but that money did not go to the coalition led by Speaker Joe Souki, Finance Chair Sylvia Luke and Majority Leader Scott Saiki that has controlled the chamber since 2012.
Instead, UPW, which represents roughly 11,000 blue-collar employees and institutional, health and correctional workers, has intensified its allegiance to the old guard that was led by Rep. Calvin Say, speaker emeritus, and Rep. Marcus Oshiro, who headed the money committee.
The union also contributed to candidates who were challenging incumbents loyal to Souki and to newer members less entrenched in a particular group, according to the Campaign Spending Commission records.
“I’ve had some differences with UPW so I can understand why they’re doing it,” Souki said Wednesday.
The disagreement goes back at least two years to when UPW endorsed and contributed money to Republican Kelly Valenzuela’s unsuccessful bid to unseat Democratic Rep. Nicole Lowen, who’s part of Souki’s group. Valenzuela was one of six Republican candidates seeking House seats in 2014 that UPW endorsed.
Souki recalled meeting with UPW officials and seeing “Republican paraphernalia” in the offices of the union, which like other public worker unions traditionally supports Democrats.
“I chided them on it,” Souki said. “It was a personal battle with them.”
UPW leaders did not respond to messages seeking comment about its campaign spending decisions. Saiki and Oshiro declined to comment for this report, and Luke could not be reached.
Much like in the state Senate, factions in the 51-member House form alliances that determine leadership structures, shape what bills become law and affect state budget decisions. The groups have a degree of fluidity, with some members changing who they support and a handful trying to go it alone, but they are generally stable.
The faction known as the Dissidents that dethroned Say four years ago has been gaining strength and now has at least 23 Democrats united behind Souki, Saiki and Luke. They initially partnered with Republicans to accomplish the leadership change, but are no longer dependent on GOP support.
(The House will be down to six Republicans after this election, and they are split into two equal groups, which further erodes their influence.)
The so-called Say Loyalists include five or so members, while the so-called Fab Four led by Rep. Kyle Yamashita has grown to about seven. Those two factions had worked together in the past, along with the group known as the Three Amigos — Reps. Ryan Yamane, Ty Cullen and Henry Aquino.
And in 2015, lawmakers passed a bill authorizing the privatization of public hospitals, which employ hundreds of UPW workers as well as members of the state’s largest union, the Hawaii Government Employees Association.
UPW sued the state earlier this year after Kaiser Permanente took over three hospitals in Maui County. The union settled the lawsuit in August when the Legislature provided a severance package for affected workers, — which required overturning Gov. David Ige’s veto of the bill. But the matter is back in court over its uncertain effect on pension benefits and legal questions.
Say said he doesn’t think UPW has supported him and members loyal to him because they prefer how business was conducted when he was speaker. Instead, he said he feels UPW has backed him because his district, which includes Kaimuki and Palolo, is mostly blue-collar workers, such as janitors and landscapers.
Whether it’s the hospital privatization effort, which may spread to the Big Island next, the more progressive nature of the dissident faction under Souki, a personal vendetta with the current speaker or something else, UPW is clearly investing more in House lawmakers who prefer the prior leadership.
With few exceptions, the $31,200 that the union donated to 26 House candidates this election went to help Say Loyalists keep their seats and to candidates who were challenging Souki supporters.
UPW gave $2,000, for instance, to Oshiro, who chaired the Finance Committee under Say. He was sidelined when Souki took the reins beginning with the 2013 session and installed Luke as head of the money committee. Say had been speaker the previous 13 years.
The union donated the maximum allowable to Oshiro even though he was unopposed in the Democratic primary and had an easy race in the general election. He won 76 percent of the vote against Republican Scott Noltie. UPW has given Oshiro $5,500 since 2008.
UPW also gave $2,000 apiece to Reps. James Tokioka and Ken Ito, two other Say Loyalists who have similarly sat on the sidelines since Souki has been in control.
Ito chaired the Education and Water, Land and Ocean Resources committees when Say was speaker. Now he chairs the less influential Veterans, Military and International Affairs and Culture and the Arts Committee, with Tokioka as his vice chair.
The union also bet against candidates who were opposing incumbents loyal to Souki.
UPW gave $1,000 each to Democrats David Tarnas and Deidre Tegarden in their campaigns to unseat Reps. Cindy Evans and Kaniela Ing, respectively.
And UPW gave campaign cash to the newer House members who may not have formed an allegiance yet with any faction.
The union gave $2,000 to Rep. Lynn DeCoite, who was elected to her second term last week, and $2,000 to Daniel Holt, who won the race to fill Rep. Karl Rhoads’ open seat. Rhoads, who chaired the influential Judiciary Committee under Souki’s speakership, stepped down from his House seat for a successful Senate run.
For the first time in at least a decade, UPW’s PAC donated more money to candidates than HGEA, which spent less this election than it has in the past.
HGEA spent $18,182 on direct contributions to candidates in House races in 2015 and 2016, which is just under half as much as UPW spent.
It’s a reversal of the previous two-year election cycle, which saw HGEA contribute $37,835 to House candidates compared to UPW’s $14,200, according to campaign finance reports.
UPW has increased its financial involvement in House races over the past 10 years, going from $3,425 in the 2006-08 cycle to $31,200 in 2014-16. HGEA had been on a similar course until this past election.
In a flier UPW sent out to notify members of its endorsements, members were advised to take the list of endorsed candidates to the ballot with them, and told how they should vote — or not vote — in certain races.
The difference between the 2014 election and 2016, however, is that in 2014 the union supported virtually all the Democrats in office, regardless of faction. UPW endorsed Souki, Saiki, Luke as well as Say, Oshiro and a suite of others.
But in 2016, the union did not endorse Saiki, Souki, Luke and others in the ruling faction and even went a step farther and told its members to not vote in those races.
Even in Hawaii, one of the most unionized states, there are limits to the political influence of labor groups.
HGEA, which represents more than 42,000 state and county workers, endorsed the winners in most races in the August primary. But a closer look at the results revealed the union had far greater success keeping incumbents in power — which constituted the vast majority of the 74 endorsements it announced in June — than in its rare attempts to remove a Democrat from office or influence who should fill an empty seat.
“I’m happy with the way we’re moving. We’re getting stronger every day.” — House Speaker Joe Souki
UPW had similar results. Nearly all of the incumbents it endorsed won another term while attempts to unseat someone in office largely failed.
Exceptions included UPW’s efforts to keep Republican Feki Pouha in office (he lost to Democrat Sean Quinlan) and unseat GOP Rep. Beth Fukumoto Chang, the minority leader who some criticize for working too closely with Democratic House leaders (she easily beat Democrat Marilyn Lee).
Heading into the 2017 legislative session, which starts in January, House leaders announced Monday that two Say Loyalists would have roles in leadership. Ito will continue as majority whip and Oshiro will be majority policy leader, a new position.
Souki will continue as speaker, Rep. John Mizuno as vice speaker, Saiki as majority leader and Evans as majority floor leader. Reps. Roy Takumi, Chris Lee and Dee Morikawa will serve as assistant majority leaders — they are all faithful Souki/Luke/Saiki supporters.
The House is expected to announce its committee lineups for next session soon, but few changes are expected.
“I’m happy with the way we’re moving,” Souki said. “We’re getting stronger every day.”