House Speaker Scott Saiki has confirmed he is considering running for lieutenant governor, a move that would propel him out front as the highest-profile candidate in what is expected to be a crowded Democratic primary.

If Saiki does run for the second-highest elected office in the state it would also rattle the political foundation of the state House of Representatives, which has been controlled for years through a close alliance between Saiki and House Finance Committee Chairwoman Sylvia Luke.

Saiki, 57, acknowledged in an interview Monday that if he runs, he must find a way to boost his name recognition with Democratic voters who likely will determine who is the next lieutenant governor. And that will require money for advertising.

House Speaker Scott Saiki on the last day of the 2021 legislative session. Saiki said he is considering a run for lieutenant governor but hasn’t made a final decision. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2021

Saiki’s most recent filing with the state Campaign Spending Commission shows his campaign had less than $228,000 on hand at the end of June, which is a fraction of what he will need. By comparison, Lt. Gov. Josh Green spent more than $1 million on his Democratic primary contest in 2018.

Green has made it clear he intends to run for governor next year when Gov. David Ige completes his second consecutive term and is required to leave office.

No one has officially announced yet they are running to replace Green as for lieutenant governor, but it can take a year or more to assemble an organization and raise enough money for a statewide campaign. The deadline to file to run for office is June 7, and the all-mail primary election voting ends on Aug. 13, 2022.

The lieutenant governor’s slot has been a key part of the path to higher office for a parade of Hawaii politicians, including former Govs. George Ariyoshi, John Waihee and Ben Cayetano, and U.S. Sens. Mazie Hirono and Brian Schatz.

Saiki said Monday he has been approached by people — particularly in the past year — asking him to run for higher office.

“The thing that people have told me when they have asked is that they just feel that there needs to be more leadership in our state, and they want people who have been tested to run for higher office — people who have a record, and have been tested, and who will not be afraid to just do what they believe needs to be done,” Saiki said.

“It might be a reaction to how the governor and others have led over the past few years, I’m not sure,” he said.

Saiki has repeatedly criticized the Ige administration for failing to move more quickly and decisively during the pandemic on travel and public health policies. And when Ige announced a new economic initiative in his State of the State speech in January, Saiki worried aloud it would turn out to be “another exercise in analysis paralysis.”

By contrast, Saiki cites lawmakers’ quick action to help establish vaccine hubs at Pier 2 and at the Neal S. Blaisdell Center in January, initiatives the Legislature pushed because he said the administration’s preparation for the vaccine rollout “was very slow.” Saiki estimated a total of 350,000 to 400,000 people were vaccinated at those sites.

Saiki graduated from Hawaii Baptist Academy and went on to the William S. Richardson School of Law, graduating in 1991. His law practice mostly involved disability law and personal injury litigation. He was first elected to the state House in 1994 representing an urban area from Kapahulu to Moiliili.

He and Luke were dissidents in the House for years until they helped unseat former House Speaker Calvin Say in 2013. Saiki was named the Democratic majority leader and went on to become speaker in 2017. The House speaker is one of the most powerful positions in state government.

Saiki has never lost an election, but he also has never before run for higher office. Colin Moore, director of the University of Hawaii at Manoa’s Public Policy Center, said Saiki’s entry in the lieutenant governor’s race would be a bold but logical move.

Saiki struggled through a fierce, close reelection primary challenge from progressive Democrat Kim Coco Iwamoto last year, and Moore said Saiki would probably face a similarly bruising primary next year. Iwamoto lost by 167 votes, coming so close to defeating Saiki that some observers believe she is almost certain to try again.

Representative Della Au Belatti and House Speaker Scott Saiki speak to media after opening day at the legislature.
Rep. Della Au Belatti and Saiki speak to media after opening day at the legislature this year. Saiki’s role as speaker raised his public profile, but may also present some political challenges because his decisions have made some people unhappy. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2021

The race for lieutenant governor is wide open, and Saiki raised his profile during the pandemic to become more recognizable than many legislative leaders, Moore said. “I think he has a decent shot,” he said.

“On the negative side, of course, it can be tough to run a race like this if you’re a leader in the Legislature because you make a lot of enemies that way,” he said.

No House speaker has ever been elected to a statewide office in Hawaii, perhaps because the job of speaker involves making hard decisions that at times infuriate members of the public or the party, Moore said. Any speaker is likely to have a long legislative record that opponents can challenge at election time.

“Scott Saiki is not well liked among progressive Democrats, especially after last session” when lawmakers declined to increase the state minimum wage from the current $10.10 per hour. However, Moore said voting in statewide Democratic primaries is still dominated by more middle-of-the-road party members.

Saiki stressed that he has not yet decided if he will run and is instead focused on doing a “good job as speaker.” He added with a laugh that he will need “a lot of encouragement” to enter the race.

Lawmakers are planning a package for the next session of the Legislature, and Saiki said he also needs to focus on representing his district, which includes McCully, Kakaako and downtown Honolulu.

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