Chad Blair: Is Scott Saiki The De Facto Governor Of Hawaii? - Honolulu Civil Beat

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About the Author

Chad Blair

Chad Blair is the politics and opinion editor for Civil Beat. You can reach him by email at cblair@civilbeat.org or follow him on Twitter at @chadblairCB.


Let’s break the news right here: Scott Saiki does not want to be governor. That’s what he told me himself Friday.

Still, Saiki, the speaker of the state House of Representatives since Joe Souki was ousted in May 2017, has emerged in the last few years as a major leader, and not just by virtue of his official title.

Since COVID-19 transformed Hawaii and the world beginning nearly a year ago, Saiki’s voice has become one of the more pronounced, persistent and thoughtful in trying to lead us out of the twinned crises of the novel coronavirus and the economic collapse it caused.

Saiki elevated that profile even higher on Tuesday, when he delivered a speech in the House chamber titled “One State.”

“I know that many of you, like me, have mixed feelings about this legislative session,” he began. “It’s a reflection of what the public is feeling and asking: When will this end? What will happen to us? Where is Hawaii headed?”

His response was that everyone must work together rather than against each other: “The state versus the counties. County versus county. Democrats versus Republicans. Liberals versus conservatives. Progressives versus moderates. Business versus workers.”

The speaker, who will never be described as a dynamic orator, spoke softly, as is his style. And he managed to avoid cliches such as “we are all in this canoe together” and must paddle in unison to the shore.

But Saiki then proceeded to highlight his ideas for the state, including:

  • to wrest control of Mauna Kea’s lease from the University of Hawaii (in part because the construction of the Thirty Meter Telescope is on indefinite hold);
  • to carefully scrutinize which state operations are not working (for example, the Agribusiness Development Corporation) and which can be consolidated or reorganized (for example, move the Land Use Commission to the Office of Planning and rename it to integrate sustainability);
  • to restore funding to programs that aid vulnerable people (for example, the Sex Abuse Treatment Center)
  • to open the state to tourism with a unified travel and testing policy for all counties (for example, the Garden Island shouldn’t have a different protocol than the Big Island);
  • to take care of the public’s health (how about a statewide mask mandate?);
  • and to squeeze more revenue out of visitors and nonresidents who live here (for example, tax them more to protect our precious aina).
Masked House Speaker Scott Saiki before giving his short speech at the Capitol. February 2, 2021
House Speaker Scott Saiki gave his “One State” speech at the Capitol on Tuesday. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2021

Not all of these ideas are original. Some — like a uniform travel policy — are sure to rankle county leaders who believe they know what’s best for their islands. UH President David Lassner was less than pleased with the proposal for the mauna. And there are still too many among us who believe that wearing a mask amounts to tyranny.

But Saiki’s call for unity had the feeling of a state of the state address. It was, in fact, his legislative opening day remarks delayed from Jan. 20 due to potential unrest at the Hawaii State Capitol.

And it stood in marked contrast to Gov. David Ige’s graceful yet empty speech Jan. 5. The actual state of the state address left a lot of viewers, including Saiki, again frustrated that Ige is simply not the leader Hawaii needs right now.

Why did Saiki decide to say what he said when he said it?

“It’s the pandemic,” he told me. “And I’ve always felt that there is some foundational challenges that the state needs to address such as the conflict between the economy, culture and the environment.”

Asked for examples, he cited large initiatives like the TMT that provoke cultural and environmental concerns, “or military projects that seriously delay or derail projects. I also said if we can’t fix things in this pandemic, we never will — we have to take challenges head-on.”

That means upsetting the status quo. Saiki repeatedly has criticized Ige for being “risk averse” and desiring consensus.

“I want the opposite,” Saiki said. “We can’t make everybody happy.”

Representative Della Au Belatti and House Speaker Scott Saiki speak to media after opening day at the legislature.
Rep. Della Au Belatti and House Speaker Scott Saiki speak to media after opening day at the Legislature Jan. 20. Speeches were canceled due to the warnings of unrest at the Capitol. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

But unhappy people will fight back. Some already are, like Les Kondo, the state auditor who is under fire from Saiki. The speaker has been critical of the state Judiciary, too.

And some folks are nervous about House Majority Leader Della Au Belatti’s bill to set up a new Office of Public Accountability to “assume oversight and administrative responsibility” for the offices of the auditor, ombudsman and the Office of Information Practices as well as the commissions on state ethics and campaign spending.

Bellati says the government reorganization is not a power grab but rather about greater transparency and cost savings. We’ll see. But these vital watchdogs must continue to have independence to watch the dogs.

To advance his agenda, Saiki will need the support of Ige, who has ruled with broad emergency powers for the better part of a year, and the Senate, which considers itself the upper chamber and has ambitious leaders of its own.

“The Senate consists of very independent-minded members who also see the reality facing our state, and I know that they want to also help solve problems like House members do,” he said. “So I anticipate that the Senate and House will be able to work together on these areas.”

But Saiki also feels that House members have a greater “pulse” on their communities because they serve two rather than four-year terms and their districts are smaller.

Leadership Class

Saiki, 56, was first elected to the state House in 1994, before many of his current caucus members were even born.

It was just three years after he graduated from the William S. Richardson School of Law along with the likes of new Hawaii Associate Justice Todd Eddins, Associate Judge of the Intermediate Court of Appeals Katherine Leonard, Lea Hong of the Trust for Public Land and Carlito Caliboso, former chair of the state Public Utilities Commission.

For nearly half of his career at the Legislature, along with Rep. Sylvia Luke, another UH law grad who today is the Finance Committee chair, Saiki (he represents McCully, Kaheka, Kakaako and Downtown) was among a group of dissidents who chafed against leadership and policy direction.

“We can’t make everybody happy.” — Speaker Scott Saiki

Saiki and Luke in 2013 were instrumental in removing longtime Speaker Calvin Say and replacing him with Souki, who himself preceded Say. Given the pattern, how solid is Saiki’s caucus?

“The House is solid,” Saiki responded.

Until it isn’t. It’s not easy to keep 51 members (including four Republicans) in line, however. The speaker is quick to share credit, including naming by name more than a dozen of his colleagues in his Feb. 2 speech and letting Belatti (another UH law grad) deliver her own remarks in the chamber.

“Mr. Speaker, now is the time to work collaboratively to find solutions in providing hardworking families with the support they most definitely deserve,” she said. “Your House stands ready to work, thank you.”

Hawaii can next watch Saiki in action Monday morning, when the House special committee on COVID-19 continues its work. The agenda includes updates on the progress of the economy and development, public health and vaccinations, and disaster preparedness.

Saiki will be leading the discussion, almost like he’s governor.


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About the Author

Chad Blair

Chad Blair is the politics and opinion editor for Civil Beat. You can reach him by email at cblair@civilbeat.org or follow him on Twitter at @chadblairCB.


Latest Comments (0)

Climate change will disrupt Hawaii's economy in ways more damaging and lasting than the virus.

Fred_Garvin · 9 months ago

Huey Long?I do heart it when folk point disparaging fingers at career politicians as if they had elected themselves.

Limuman · 9 months ago

Saiki has become a time weathered and worn out fixture at the legislature.  He would best serve the Public and the Public interest by leaving office at the end of his term.Time for new blood and new "leadership" which, under Hawaii Democrat one party control, really amounts to no leadership.  It is more than a gang of "insiders" serving themselves and their pals.

CitizenV · 9 months ago

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