Newly elected House Speaker Scott Saiki unveiled his leadership team Thursday — a bigger, younger and more diverse group than his 84-year-old predecessor Joe Souki had in place during his tenure.
Saiki, 52, who took control of the House in early May as the 2017 legislative session drew to a close, said he wanted to give more opportunities for the younger members to be involved.
For the first time, he said, there are two policy leaders: Reps. Kaniela Ing of Maui and Jarrett Keohokalole of Oahu. Both are Native Hawaiian millennials whom Saiki described as “progressive” and “good thinkers.”
They replace Rep. Marcus Oshiro, who resigned his post as majority policy leader in protest to the change in speakership.
The leadership team also now includes five majority whips in the overwhelmingly Democratic chamber. There are just five Republicans in the 51-member House and one independent, Rep. Beth Fukumoto, who left the Republican Party and is awaiting permission to join the Democrats.
Reps. Henry Aquino, Aaron Ling Johanson, Chris Lee, Mark Nakashima and Justin Woodson will serve as whips. They represent parts of Maui, Big Island and Oahu. There was just one majority whip prior to the change, Rep. Ken Ito of Oahu.
Saiki said he expects them to help count votes, monitor the committees, have a pulse on the caucus and keep the lines of communication open with leadership. There were 20 committees last session, which Saiki said will likely stay mostly intact. The leadership team will be working on committee lineups next month.
Johanson, who was a Republican until he switched parties two years ago, was given a leadership role because of his proven track record as a Democrat, Saiki said.
“He has already shown that he can contribute to the Democratic caucus in a substantive manner,” he said.
Saiki’s top lieutenants are all female. Rep. Della Au Belatti, who chairs the Health Committee, will serve as vice speaker, replacing Rep. John Mizuno.
“Della is intelligent, she’s hard working, she has a vision,” Saiki said. “She will help to lead our caucus.”
Belatti, a young attorney from Oahu, also has stamina. She withstood an onslaught of criticism from proponents of medical aid in dying after deciding to shelve the measure last session when it was before her in the Health Committee.
The move spared her colleagues from having to vote on it, allowing most to keep their position on the issue private or at least vague.
Rep. Dee Morikawa of Kauai was promoted to majority floor leader and Rep. Cindy Evans, who represents part of the Big Island, was promoted to majority leader, Saiki’s previous position.
Rep. Roy Takumi, who had served as assistant majority leader, will no longer have a leadership role. Saiki said it was a mutual decision with Takumi, Mizuno and Ito — all veteran lawmakers — to no longer serve on the leadership team.
There are now 11 leadership positions in the majority caucus, up from eight under Souki. The team is decidedly younger and there is one more female than before.
The new leadership positions are filled with members who have been loyal to the faction led by Saiki and Rep. Sylvia Luke, who chairs the Finance Committee.
Their faction helped usher in Souki in 2013 with support from Republicans, ending Calvin Say’s 14-year reign as speaker. Now the Saiki-Luke faction has sufficient numbers and no longer need support from the Republicans or fear the increasingly marginalized faction led by Say, which includes Oshiro and Ito.
“This leadership team is the face of Hawaii,” Saiki said. “It also represents the change in demographics in the state. That’s why it’s important especially with the younger members to give them an opportunity to lead.”
In a press conference May 4, the day the House voted 39-9 to name him speaker (Souki, Democrat Linda Ichiyama and Republican Gene Ward were excused), Saiki was asked if age was a factor in removing Souki from the speakership.
Saiki said age was not a factor, but he said there had been a demographic change in House membership in recent years. He described his caucus as 45 Democrats plus Fukumoto, reflecting a diversity of ages, experiences and backgrounds.
He also said neighbor island representatives wanted to have “a stronger voice” — although Souki was from Maui and two of the other six members on his team were from the outer islands.
Saiki said at the May 4 press conference that the reorganization happened at that time so that the House could spend the summer preparing for the next session. To that end, he said the House would be restructured over the summer and then priorities for 2018 would be developed.
Chad Blair contributed to this report.
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