Rep. Calvin Say, who’s served in the Legislature since 1976, is considering a run for Honolulu City Council.

The former House speaker has yet to formally announce his bid for the seat currently held by the term-limited Ann Kobayashi. But Say told Civil Beat that he’s thinking about forgoing another two-year term in the House for a shot to represent Manoa, Palolo, Kaimuki, St. Louis Heights, Moiliili and McCully on the council.

“I’m really considering it,” Say said by phone Monday. “The reason why? It’s an open seat.”

Rep Calvin Say during session. 25 april 2016.
Rep. Calvin Say, seen here in 2016, is considering a run for Honolulu City Council. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

The speaker emeritus has yet to file candidate paperwork for the District 5 seat with the state Office of Elections. Candidates have until June 2 to file with the elections office.

His campaign account has a negative balance of $8,724 due to $44,000 worth of loans to himself in 2015, according to his most recent campaign finance reports. Candidates for state and county elections are allowed to use their campaign funds for either races, but they cannot use them for federal races.

Say’s probable exodus from the seat he has held for decades means one extra seat that’s up for grabs by the powerful supermajority in control of the House. It could also mean a shift in balance for the City Council, with five seats opening up due to term-limited council members.

Just two have filed so far to run for the District 5 seat. They are Dave Watase, a Palolo resident who organized opposition to the $345 million Ala Wai flood control project, and Phil Lee, an attorney and staffer to former Councilman Tom Berg.

Meanwhile, Say’s anticipated departure has already attracted at least four candidates for his House seat, all of whom are relatively new to Hawaii politics.

Say, a Democrat, has not faced a significant challenge to his seat since at least 1992. Even after losing his position as House speaker in 2012, Say still had no formidable opponents.

Say led a small group of loyalists in the 51-member House, whose numbers and power have slowly dwindled since he lost control of the chamber eight years ago. His former top lieutenant, Rep. Marcus Oshiro, has also since left the House.

It’s not clear yet who House leaders might throw their weight behind, if any candidate. Their support, while not overt, could be reflected in future campaign donations. 

While prohibited from giving directly to another candidate, many legislators, including leaders in the House like Speaker Scott Saiki and Rep. Sylvia Luke, have gotten around the rule by buying pricey tickets to candidate’s fundraisers.

Legislature Opening day 2020 with a wide view of the House of Representatives.
Say’s probable departure from the 51-member House opens up a seat for House leaders to strengthen their grip. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2020

None of the candidates running for Say’s seat have so far reported those kinds of donations. Among the pack, Becky Gardner, a state employee in the Office of Language Access, is regarded as one of the stronger candidates. 

Her campaign reported $3,532 in contributions, which includes about $1,400 in out-of-pocket expenses, $525 from Will Caron, her campaign chair, and $400 from Nate Hix, founder of Living Wage Hawaii, which has pushed for raising the minimum wage to $17 an hour.

Last year, Say even gave Gardner advice on running for office. Reached by phone Monday, she said she approached him after hearing he might retire from the House. Say recommended attending every neighborhood board meeting and talking with folks door-to-door.

“I’ve been learning as much as I can, and going around and paying attention and talking to stakeholders,” Gardner, who is an elected member of the Kaimuki Neighborhood Board, said.

While not regarded as progressive, Say is considered a politician who has managed to stay plugged into the neighborhoods he represents after all these years.

He’s said to be staying neutral in the race for House District 20, the seat he now occupies, and has already informed the candidates in the race of his intent to retire from the House.

The other candidates to watch include Derek Turbin, a Honolulu lawyer, Jackson Sayama, a research analyst at Island Holdings, and Jay Ishibashi, a program specialist in the state Department of Labor and Industrial Relations.

Turbin, son of trial lawyer Richard Turbin, is an attorney at Gilson Daub. His campaign did not report any contributions between July and December.

The next round of campaign donation reports is due April 30 and covers the period from Jan. 1 to April 25.

Sayama, a member of the Diamond Head, Kapahulu, St. Louis Heights Neighborhood Board and former intern to U.S. Sen Brian Schatz, plans to prioritize the cost of living, helping the homeless, improving public education, kupuna care and climate change, according to his campaign website.

Sayama reported $2,500 in campaign contributions from Mike Sayama and Cyd Miryashiro, a vice president at American Savings Bank.

Ishibashi, whose campaign reported $3,000 in contributions, says he would work with city officials to tackle infrastructure and crime if he’s elected.

Asked about Say, Ishibashi said he’s weighed retirement before. 

“But this time, kind of early on he was thinking of retiring,” Ishibashi said. “I hoped to run at an earlier time, but hey … if the opportunity arises.”

The primary election is Aug. 8 followed by the general election Nov. 3.

Register to attend our next Civil Cafe: Legislative Update. Panelists include House Speaker Scott Saiki, Senate Majority Leader J. Kalani English, and Civil Beat public health reporter Eleni Gill. It’s at noon, Wednesday, March 4, in Room 329 at the Hawaii State Capitol.

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