The #MeToo movement has finally washed up on Hawaii’s shores — and in shocking fashion.
Joe Souki, who has represented Maui in the state House of Representatives for nearly four decades — including two stints as speaker — will step down March 30 after admitting to a pattern of sexual harassment.
If anyone in Hawaii thinks that we are still a “special place” that is somehow different from mainland states, the Souki affair demonstrates all too tragically that sexual misconduct is prevalent everywhere.
The speaker emeritus is now back-pedaling on the allegations, which mostly remain anonymous. He now says he doesn’t remember behaving inappropriately to women.
Rachael Wong, who said she experienced inappropriate behavior by Souki while heading the Department of Human Services, has also been vague on what transpired between them. Serious charges must be supported by concrete examples.
Rep. Joseph Souki during a recent House floor session.
Cory Lum/Civil Beat
But Souki’s behavior over the years has been described by many as an open secret at the Capitol. Yet, our culture has inhibited women from coming forth.
We urge Speaker Scott Saiki to immediately follow through on his commitment this week to review the House’s workplace policies. He said his chamber has increased training for representatives and their staff, and he has pledged to ensure “that the House is able to receive, investigate and adjudicate complaints in a timely and vigilant manner.”
Sadly, it’s long past due. One of the most disturbing aspects of the allegations is that any complaints about leadership in the House would have to be handled by none other than the speaker. Wong and others had no recourse but to take their concerns to the Hawaii State Ethics Commission.
The public also needs to hear the same assurances from the state Senate, which has said nothing about Souki — even though the story has dominated headlines for the past 72 hours. In fact, only a handful of lawmakers have spoken out, perhaps cowed by possible political retribution.
Late Thursday, the Hawaii Women’s Legislative Caucus released this statement:
We do not condone any form of sexual harassment. We should have safeguards in place so women and men are able to report their complaints without the fear of retaliation. The members of the Women’s Legislative Caucus will work with their respective leadership teams to improve our internal policies and procedures.
That is commendable, and we look forward to learning about the results of their efforts. But the caucus — all the women, Democrat and Republican, who currently serve in the Legislature — said nothing more.
There has been little response from county mayors and councils on the need to make their workplaces harassment free. Maui leaders, for example, lamented Souki’s downfall but mostly heaped a lot of praise on his overall career. And only a few candidates for Congress and governor bothered to weigh in on what is a landmark moment in Hawaii history.
A notable exception was Gov. David Ige, who publicly thanked the Ethics Commission for “a fair and thorough investigation” and commended Wong “for her courage and leadership in giving a voice to harassment victims and increasing awareness across the state.”
“Together, let’s work to ensure respectful, safe and harassment-free work environments for all,” said Ige. “There must be zero tolerance for harassment of any kind in the workplace.”
Souki’s empty desk during the House floor session Wednesday.
Cory Lum/Civil Beat
The Souki case strongly suggests that other women may feel empowered to come forward. The Associated Press reported in December that four Hawaii lawmakers were the subject of sexual harassment or sexual misconduct complaints since 2008.
State law prevented the names of the legislators from being released, and none lost their office because of the complaints.
Now, there needs to be a new conversation about whether cases like these should be aired more openly. The public should be allowed to know more about how their elected officials are behaving toward others, and how officials are handling these cases.
The #MeToo movement has not crested. In the past week alone it has ensnared a world-famous conductor and architect and several CEOs.
It’s time for Hawaii’s elected leaders to recognize the obvious and work together — with the public — to address it.
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The members of Civil Beat’s editorial board are Pierre Omidyar, Patti Epler, Jim Simon, Richard Wiens, Chad Blair, Jessica Terrell and Landess Kearns. Opinions expressed by the editorial board reflect the group’s consensus view. Chad Blair, the Politics and Opinion Editor, can be reached at email@example.com.