House Speaker Scott Saiki offered a taste of his intentions on the House floor last July as the Legislature dramatically shut down at the height of the pandemic.
“We know that this is the most challenging time that Hawaii has faced since statehood,” said Saiki, standing at the speaker’s rostrum. “It will not be easy to reopen Hawaii incrementally while still assuring public health and safety, but this is when we need to lead.”
True to his word, Saiki has been way out in front during the past year.
He launched the high-profile House Select Committee on COVID-19 Economic and Financial Preparedness that prodded Gov. David Ige to do more to cope with the pandemic, and also helped develop strategies to speed the reopening of the state economy.
He also inserted himself or his surrogates into an array of other issues ranging from the Thirty Meter Telescope and the expedited release of low-risk jail inmates, to Kauai’s requirement that visitors be tested twice for COVID-19.
Saiki, who is one of the most powerful Democrats in state government, suggests this flurry of activity is part of the natural order of things. He declares in his speeches and interviews that “the House is a leader, and the House is the one that’s going to provide leadership for the state.”
“I really want the Legislature to act like a Legislature,” Saiki said in an interview on Friday. “I think we have lost sight of what a Legislature is at a member level. It’s not just about enacting bills, but it’s really about setting a course for the state.”
“In the past sometimes the Legislature has given too much deference to the executive branch, just in terms of ideas, direction, decisions … I want the Legislature to stop doing that, especially now, when you have an executive branch that is not as strong as it should be.”
But Saiki, 56, has sometimes alarmed colleagues and members of the public by pushing hard to move his agenda forward, and by politically clobbering people who displease him.
Civil Beat spoke with lawmakers, business and political leaders for this story, including some who would only speak on condition of anonymity for fear of political repercussions.
They all say Saiki emerged as a much more prominent state leader during the pandemic, a time when the public is paying unusually close attention to the workings of government.
And not all of Saiki’s machinations have been well received.
This year he launched a multi-pronged attack on State Auditor Les Kondo, and also took the rare step of appointing a House special committee to hold public hearings on the drunken driving arrest of House dissident Rep. Sharon Har.
Saiki hand picked the working group tasked with assessing Kondo’s performance, and the committee concluded Kondo has failed to meet his obligations under the provision of the state constitution that created the auditor’s office. Kondo vehemently disputes those findings.
Saiki also introduced bills that seemed designed to punish Kondo, including one to cut the budget of the auditor’s office by more than 50%, and another to give lawmakers control of the auditor’s pay.
Both bills died, and it is unclear what that spat has accomplished. Saiki said in an interview last week his objective during that process has been to get the auditor to improve. “It’s not to get rid of people, it’s to improve,” Saiki said.
Saiki also oversaw some decisions in the House this year that critics see as too accommodating to Hawaii’s business and tourism interests.
Lawmakers have budgeted more than $700 million to bail out local businesses by repaying a huge federal loan on their behalf, and the House under Saiki blocked proposals to increase the state minimum wage and exempt unemployment payments to jobless workers from state taxes.
The minimum wage and unemployment tax relief bills are both bottled up in the House Labor and Tourism Committee. Saiki acknowledges he could have pressured Committee Chairman Richard Onishi to hear the measures, but instead he deferred to Onishi.
Increasing the minimum wage is a priority for the Hawaii Democratic Party and some major players in the state’s union movement, and some observers are troubled by the way the House handled those issues.
Former Gov. John Waihee says that “taking something that obviously benefits the least fortunate of those that have been affected by the pandemic and not doing something about it is, to me, incomprehensible.”
“If you’re afraid of a hearing, you’re afraid that you might not be doing something correctly. That’s the way I look at it,” Waihee said. “If you’re not willing to put it out in the open, the question is, why not?”
Saiki’s style of leadership has also proved to be unpopular with some of his colleagues. One lawmaker who spoke on condition of anonymity said that dissidents who oppose the House leadership are essentially banished to outsider status, known as “Siberia.”
“They’ll move your office, they’ll move your parking, they’re way more restrictive in approving your allotment of your legislative allowance, especially for trips” to conferences and other events, the lawmaker said.
Saiki’s strongest supporters are a core group of insiders, including House Finance Chairwoman Sylvia Luke and Democratic Majority Leader Della Au Belatti, who were with Saiki in 2012 when his coalition unseated former House Speaker Calvin Say.
Saiki’s faction joined forces with Rep. Joe Souki and House Republicans that year to overthrow former Speaker Calvin Say. Souki then became speaker, and held the job until Saiki displaced him in 2017.
Members of the original group who were with Saiki from the start wield extra influence, and long-serving members of the House “have these grudges that are … toxic, and it plays out in the caucus,” one lawmaker said.
“That’s the simmering undercurrent of the House that really pervades everything.”
In one memorable moment on the House floor in 2018, then-Rep. Isaac Choy described Saiki’s leadership as a “reign of terror” after Saiki removed Rep. Ken Ito as chairman of the House committee dealing with veterans and military affairs.
Ito’s offense was that he admitted signing a resolution that would have removed Saiki as speaker during a failed attempt to reorganize the House. Saiki declared Choy’s comments to be a violation of House rules, and had them stricken from the House journal.
Kauai Rep. Jimmy Tokioka, who was an ally of Say and has challenged Saiki’s leadership, said he is convinced Saiki appointed a committee to hold public hearings on Har’s drunken driving arrest this year because she was also a Say supporter nearly a decade ago.
Saiki disputes that, saying he was required to appoint the committee to address complaints from the public that Har had violated the House Code of Conduct. The committee is supposed to consider the matter and make recommendations on how to proceed, but is now on hold until Har’s criminal case is resolved in court.
For his part, Tokioka led the aborted attempt to overthrow Saiki in 2018, and said he is now essentially shunned by Saiki. Saiki assigns less senior House members to lead the committees where much of the work is done, and Tokioka has no leadership role in Saiki’s House.
“He’s not had a conversation with me about anything, I’ve sent him emails about stuff, he hasn’t responded. I just don’t think that’s becoming of a speaker, or a leader,” Tokioka said. “I think I’ve earned, in the 15 years that I’ve been there, at least the courtesy of a reply, but I haven’t gotten that on many occasions.”
When asked about Tokioka’s concerns, Saiki said in an interview that 47 of the 51 House members are Democrats, “and not everybody in the caucus supports my leadership. That’s their choice, that’s their decision to make. If anyone feels they want to be a part of the leadership team, then they should let me know, and I will work with them.”
Tokioka isn’t the only one who feels they’ve been shut out by the speaker after getting crosswise with him. Kondo also complained about a lack of communication from the speaker, saying in an April 7 letter to House and Senate lawmakers that Saiki never approached Kondo to raise concerns about his management or the work being produced by the auditor’s office.
“If he truly had concerns, I would expect that Speaker Saiki would have discussed them with me before forming a working group,” Kondo wrote.
But some regard Saiki’s behavior as the maneuvering of a strong speaker who is firmly in control, and knows how to exercise power.
Retired Intermediate Court of Appeals Judge Daniel Foley said he has known Saiki for decades, and remembers him as one of a handful of House members who voted against a proposed constitutional amendment in 1997 to authorize the Legislature to ban same-sex marriages.
Foley and Saiki agreed on that issue, but Saiki strongly opposed Foley’s work last spring as a court-appointed special master who worked to speed the release of low-risk jail inmates to prevent the spread of COVID-19 inside correctional facilities.
Foley said Saiki’s disagreement “was never personal, it was always on the issue.”
When asked about complaints that Saiki is heavy handed, Foley replied he has heard that, but “You know, so is Nancy Pelosi,” the speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives. “The point being, he has at least 26 (state House members) supporting him, right?”
“There’s different styles of leadership,” Foley said. “A lot of people criticize our governor because he’s not heavy handed enough, and then they turn around and criticize Scott because he’s too heavy handed.”
“He’s very decisive, he’s not shy about taking a position, making decisions, and it’s fair to criticize him for decisions he makes if you disagree with the position. That’s just the nature of the beast,” Foley said.
Gary Hooser, a former Senate majority leader and an outspoken advocate for left-leaning causes, said Saiki “certainly has asserted himself,” but Hooser is one who strongly disagrees with the directions the speaker has taken.
For example, Saiki this year called for removing the University of Hawaii from management of Mauna Kea as part of a revamp of oversight of the mountain. The House then passed a resolution to assemble a committee to consider the issue, but Hooser called that initiative “crazy.”
“It has no power, it’s just a committee he formed, and it doesn’t have a consensus among the stakeholders, and it’s a waste of time,” Hooser said.
Mauna Kea has been the site of huge, passionate protests by Hawaiians against plans to build the $2.4 billion Thirty Meter Telescope, and Saiki is a longtime supporter of that project.
Saiki said that Mauna Kea represents “the intersection of cultural, environmental and economic conflict,” and addressing the issues on the mountain will help to address similar conflicts across the state.
“I’m not afraid to take on the hard issues, and I think sometimes that will make people feel uncomfortable, it will make them feel like I have an agenda, or like I’m being heavy handed,” Saiki said. “But I just feel like we’re at a point now where we have to take on some of these issues if we want Hawaii to advance, and I’m not afraid to do that.”
Hooser, who represented Kauai in the Senate, also took issue with Saiki’s push this year to force Kauai County to drop its extra requirement for a brief quarantine and a second COVID-19 test for arriving passengers from the mainland.
Saiki and tourism industry officials argued Hawaii needed a uniform, statewide travel policy to re-start the local economy, but Saiki’s proposal was fiercely opposed by many Kauai residents. Maui Rep. Tina Wildberger described it as an example of “State of Oahu overreach.”
“Not one medical professional — not one — would say that was a good idea,” Hooser said of Saiki’s proposal.
That issue was finally resolved earlier this month after Kauai Mayor Derek Kawakami dropped the requirement for a second test and aligned Kauai’s testing requirements with the rest of the state. Saiki dropped his proposal days later.
Raymond Vara Jr., chief executive officer for Hawaii Pacific Health, said Saiki has “stood out as a leader” since the beginning of the pandemic, and pursued a balanced agenda aimed at protecting public health and re-starting the economy.
Saiki’s well-publicized House select committee on COVID-19 brought the right people together and raised the right issues for policy makers, including the governor and mayors, Vara said.
For example, Saiki was “instrumental” in pressing ahead with the pre-travel testing program, and advocated for data-driven tier systems for re-opening the economy, Vara said.
“I think what he has really done — the speaker himself — is help highlight what the critical policy issues are, and make sure that they’re on the radar so we can advance those things in a timely manner,” Vara said.
Vara also praised Saiki for stepping in to help Hawaii Pacific Health navigate the state bureaucracy to establish a mass vaccination site at Pier 2. “I don’t think that would have happened without his intervening,” Vara said.
Saiki often says his three priorities this year have been stabilizing the state budget, protecting public health, and reopening the state economy. With vaccinations well under way, tourism traffic picking up and the state budget back on track, he arguably made good on that agenda.
At the same time, Saiki seems to have adopted a more hard-nosed leadership style during the pandemic, or perhaps he just became more comfortable putting his approach on display for the public.
He offered a particularly memorable summary of his leadership philosophy on Jan. 25, after Gov. David Ige gave his seventh State of the State speech. Despite the array of problems presented by the pandemic, Ige’s speech was light on specific plans or proposals, and Saiki was dismissive.
“We all know that the governor by nature is risk averse, and his State of the State address reflected that style. It was a risk-averse speech,” Saiki told reporters that day. “We need to think differently in order to get out of this pandemic.”
“I have asked him publicly to stop governing by consensus, because there is a point in time now where we just need to make decisions, we need to make hard decisions and we need to make quick decisions,” Saiki said. “We will never gain consensus on the major issues that face our state.”
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