House Speaker Scott Saiki has a reputation for tightly controlling which bills win final approval in the 51-member chamber and for wielding what some describe as a “take-it-or-leave-it” approach to lawmaking.

That has at times infuriated advocates in the liberal wing of the Democratic Party. Now Saiki faces a challenge from the left in Saturday’s winner-take-all primary race to represent House District 26, which includes McCully, Kakaako and downtown Honolulu.

His Democratic opponent, Kim Coco Iwamoto, blames Saiki for blocking bills in recent years to increase the state minimum wage and to mandate paid family leave. She says that whatever his original intentions were when he took power, he has become too cozy with the corporate interests that operate in Hawaii.

Saiki defended his record, pointing to passage of landmark progressive legislation on his watch that included legalizing same-sex marriage in Hawaii in 2013, and requiring Hawaii’s utilities to generate 100% of their electricity sales from renewable energy sources by 2045. Both of those bills passed and became law while Saiki was House majority leader.

Lt Gov Candidate Kim Coco Iwamoto speaks during her press conference announcing the support of Local 5 endorsing her candidacy at their headquarters.
Kim Coco Iwamoto is challenging House Speaker Scott Saiki in the Democratic primary. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

Iwamoto is staging the first primary election challenge to Saiki since 2012, and has already spent more than $58,000 on the campaign. Saiki has responded by spending more than $121,700 so far in what is likely to be one of the most expensive state House primary contests of the year.

Still, Iwamoto’s attempt is generally regarded as a long-shot effort. She has been a groundbreaking political figure, becoming the first openly transgender candidate to win election to the state Board of Education in 2006, where she served until 2011. However, she made unsuccessful runs for the state Senate in 2016 and for lieutenant governor in 2018.

Iwamoto, an attorney who has practiced public interest law on behalf of low-income clients and the homeless, said she has encountered thousands of people in the district during the campaign who say they have not had any personal contact with Saiki in years.

“The bottom line is, they don’t feel heard and they’re hungry to be heard,” she said.

She cited poll data from 2018 — while Saiki was House speaker — that showed Hawaii voters gave President Donald Trump a higher approval rating than the Hawaii Legislature.

Iwamoto, 52, was born on Kauai and raised on Oahu where she graduated from St. Louis High School. She graduated from law school at the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque, and went to work at Volunteer Legal Services Hawaii.

She went on to launch a business fixing up units in a small apartment building in the Ala Moana area, which she rents out to mostly low-income tenants, including some families who were formerly homeless. She also formed a company called Enlightened Energy, which invests in renewable energy projects.

Iwamoto said she entered the House race because of what she called “the final straw,” which was an announcement by the House and Senate at the start of session this year that lawmakers planned to increase the state minimum wage from the current $10.10 an hour to $13 an hour by 2024.

Some advocates for working families felt that increase was too little, too late. Even Senate Labor, Culture and the Arts Committee Chairman Brian Taniguchi acknowledged some might consider the minimum wage boost to be “a little modest.”

The state Democratic Party platform calls for increasing the minimum wage to $15, and only a year earlier Gov. David Ige and most lawmakers were in favor of an increase to $15. The Senate passed a bill in 2019 to do that, but the measure died in negotiations with the House in the final days of session last year.

Iwamoto alleges Saiki brokered a “backroom deal” before session this year with the Chamber of Commerce and corporations “so that these corporations can continue to pay poverty wages.”

“All the people who have been working to lift up working families, none of us were invited to those negotiations. It was just Scott Saiki, leadership, and the corporations and their representatives, and their lobbyists. It wasn’t working people at all,” she said. “The process under his leadership has been flawed, and the end result has been negligent in terms of working people, and that has got to change.”

Senate President Ron Kouchi and Ige told reporters in January that business groups and nonprofits were involved in developing the proposals in the House and Senate package. Norm Baker, chief operating officer of Aloha United Way, said the proposals showed “what can happen when the community comes together” to find solutions for working families.

Saiki said the Democratic caucuses in the House and Senate each develop their own majority packages every year, and the bills that make up those packages receive hearings where the public can comment on each proposal and propose amendments.

This year’s minimum wage bill was part of that package, and the measures introduced by the House and Senate at the beginning of the session included both the increase in the minimum wage to $13 and a proposed refundable earned income tax credit that would have provided extra financial help to working families, he said.

In the end, both the earned income tax credit and the minimum wage increase proposals were scrapped — along with most of the other proposals in the House and Senate packages — when the Legislature shut down in March in the early stages of the pandemic.

Iwamoto said the state also continues to struggle with a teacher shortage, and she contends lawmakers should raise money to increase teacher pay by eliminating the state tax deduction for dividends that are paid out by real estate investment trusts to their shareholders.

She also believes the state should have increased state taxes on Hawaii’s wealthiest residents to offset the windfall they enjoyed from the federal Tax Cuts and Jobs Act of 2017.

“This whole idea of taxing at dysfunctionally low rates hurts businesses as well, because when they’re waiting for permits to be processed, when they’re waiting for government action to happen so they can start making money, that’s all because we kept government so small that we don’t have bodies to actually process things that businesses need for them to proceed more quickly,” she said.

Speaker Scott Saiki during post House crossover presser..
House Speaker Scott Saiki faces his first primary challenger since 2012. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

Saiki grew up in Kailua and graduated from Hawaii Baptist Academy. He graduated from William S. Richardson School of Law in 1991, and has mostly practiced disability law and personal injury litigation.

He was first elected to a House seat representing an urban district that extended from Kapahulu to Moiliili in 1994, and moved to Kakaako to run in House District 26 after the district lines were redrawn during reapportionment before the 2012 election. He has been House speaker since 2017, one of the most powerful positions in state government.

“The campaign boils down to a choice between a candidate who has a record and results, versus a candidate who makes a lot promises and demands, and in that situation, it’s ultimately up to the voters to decide,” said Saiki, 56.

He introduced the bill that established Hawaii’s new system of all-mail voting, and Saiki ranks the overhaul of the Hawaii Community Development Authority in 2014 as one of his most important accomplishments for his district. The story of how that bill passed illustrates his ability to use raw political muscle in the legislative process to accomplish his goals.

Saiki said he was determined to address community concerns about development in Kakaako by changing the composition of the HCDA board to dilute the control the governor had to appoint the board members, and to set a new 418-foot height limit for any new towers HCDA might approve.

Saiki was majority leader at the time, and said he pressured former Gov. Neil Abercrombie to approve the HCDA measure by taking an unrelated bill as a “hostage.” Abercrombie was up for re-election, and Saiki said he blocked passage of a bill to finance the purchase of conservation easements on 665 acres at Turtle Bay until Abercrombie signed the Kakaako measure.

Abercrombie signed, and both measures eventually passed.

Looking ahead, Saiki said “the entire focus will be on reopening Hawaii while maintaining public health and safety.” He has led the House Select Committee on COVID-19 Economic and Financial Preparedness, which held a series of hearings in the spring and summer on the state of the Hawaii economy and plans for recovery from the pandemic.

Saiki said he believes Hawaii is ready for a travel corridor or a “travel bubble” with Japan to restart tourism, but said tourism cannot be at the same level that it was prior to the pandemic.

“I don’t think it was healthy for our environment to have 9 million or 10 million visitors a year,” he said. “It takes a toll on residents and the infrastructure and the natural resources in our state. It was too much, so we do have to be more strategic with tourism management.”

But Saiki said he is unsure how many tourists would be appropriate, and suggested there needs to be a new assessment of the toll that the industry takes on the state. That might be something similar to an environmental impact statement for tourism to help plan the path forward, he said.

Iwamoto agreed that mass tourism in Hawaii has become “an imbalance that impacts our environment, our resources, and it’s really not the healthiest way to go.”

The state should focus on high-quality experiences for smaller numbers of tourists who spend more per person, she said. “So, we bring in money, but we lessen the impact on our waste stream, on everything,” she said.

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