When freshman Rep. Greggor Ilagan was assigned to the House Finance Committee in his first year at the state Legislature, he was out of his element. He had wrestled with budgets before as a member of the Hawaii County Council, but the state budget was much larger and far more complex.

Ilagan’s mentor has been Finance Chairwoman Sylvia Luke, one of the top two leaders in the House. Colleagues say Luke has been a benefactor to new House members for years, often displaying a light personal touch for less experienced colleagues in what can be an unforgiving political realm.

On Sunday, Luke announced she is planning to run for lieutenant governor next year, which means she will abandon one of the most powerful positions in state government to launch her first statewide campaign.

But Luke is a critical player in the House leadership, and her decision has triggered speculation that dramatic changes could be in the works for the faction that controls the House, including House Speaker Scott Saiki.

Representative Sylvia Luke in support of early learning measure on crossover day at the Legislature.
House Finance Chairwoman Sylvia Luke has been a powerful political partner of House Speaker Scott Saiki for years, and Luke’s announcement that she is running for lieutenant governor will shake up the House leadership. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2020

Luke and Saiki have been close allies for decades, both as dissidents who resisted the leadership of former Speaker Calvin Say years ago, and later as the top two House leaders themselves after taking control.

Luke, who has been Finance chairwoman since 2013, invested time and effort into learning the intricacies of the state budget, which made her a helpful friend to some, and a formidable political opponent to others. At times she has been a scathing critic of Gov. David Ige.

“Sylvia took care of everything in the Finance Committee, which gave her the ability to help people who were on their team, in their leadership group,” said Rep. James Tokioka, a Democratic House dissident who has been opposed to the Saiki-Luke leadership slate for years.

In fact, Luke stepped in for Ilagan when Ige’s administration this year proposed closing the Hawaii National Guard’s Youth Challenge Academy in Hilo for at-risk teenagers. Ilagan wanted the academy to stay open, and also needed money for an initiative to help the ornamental plant farmers in Puna.

Luke assured him the money he needed for both Youth Challenge and the farmers would be included in the state budget, and it was. That was just one of many kindnesses she bestowed on favored colleagues over the years.

“When it comes to anything that’s attached to money, she ultimately has control,” Ilagan said. “After getting to know her, what I really like about her is that once she tells you that she’s going to do something, she does follow through with it.”

Luke’s favors for her friends in the House helped to stabilize the internal organization politically. It may also bode well for her future: Ilagan is now such an enthusiastic supporter that he plans to campaign for Luke for lieutenant governor in his home district in Puna.

But Luke’s departure next year will be a “huge blow” to Saiki and the House leadership, Tokioka said, adding that Saiki has “lost his main general.” And things have been unusually unsettled in the House recently, in part because of the state reapportionment process playing out.

Rep. James Tokioka, who is at odds with the House leadership under House Speaker Scott Saiki, said “we’ll have to see” if Luke’s departure could lead to a House reorganization. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2015

Saiki appointed two members of the reapportionment commission and is well positioned to influence the new district boundaries, but the preliminary maps of the new districts would place 10 of the 47 Democrats in the House in districts with other incumbents.

That means the lawmakers in those districts will face primary races unless one of them moves, runs for another office or steps down. Those maps may change, but the first drafts have made a sizable number of House Democrats unhappy, Tokioka said.

When asked if Luke’s departure might lead to a reorganization of the House, Tokioka replied: “We’ll just have to see what happens when we go through session. There’s certainly opportunities there, but we’ll just have to see what happens.”

Saiki did not respond to a request for an interview Monday, but House Democratic Majority Leader Della Au Belatti — who is a Saiki ally — said the House leadership team is focused on the issues it must cope with during the next legislative session that begins in January, including the Covid-19 pandemic.

She agreed there is a political partnership between Luke and Saiki that goes back to the many years they have been allies. “But I think one of the important things to remember is, this is a leadership team comprised of leadership, but also our (committee) chairs,” she added.

“No one can legislate and govern by themselves,” Belatti said. “One of the things I like about working in the House with this leadership team is that we pull in all of our different strengths, and that’s how we can get things done.”

Others such as Colin Moore, director of the Public Policy Center at the University of Hawaii at Manoa, predicted that Luke’s announcement “is really going to shake things up.”

Luke said in a statement Monday that her experience as House Finance Committee chair has given her “insight into the wide-ranging needs of the state.”

“As Lieutenant Governor, I will partner with the next Governor to implement the laws I helped pass to increase our stock of affordable housing, ensure all 3-4 years old have access to preschool, increase broadband capacity, and use unused school lands for teacher housing,” she added. “I am ready for this challenge and look forward to formally launching my campaign in the coming weeks.”

Luke’s close relationship with Saiki has helped Saiki to exercise an extra degree of control over the House Democratic caucus, Moore said. “I mean, no one wants to be on the wrong side of the House Finance chair,” he said.

In fact, Luke has amassed so much authority that her departure may make the House leadership more vulnerable than it has been in many years, he said.

“I always thought of her an an essential part of that coalition,” and her departure could create a power vacuum and an opportunity for a reorganization, he said. “Who knows what that would look like, but this is a moment when something like that would happen, absolutely.”

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