Political Gamesmanship In The Senate Illustrates Hawaii's Desperate Need For Ethical Leadership - Honolulu Civil Beat

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About the Author

The Sunshine Editorial Board

The members of Civil Beat’s editorial board focused on ‘Let The Sunshine In’ are Patti Epler, Chad Blair and Richard Wiens.

Sunshine bills and rule changes are not enough if powerful legislators are allowed to rule over fiefdoms at the Capitol.

Hawaii State Senate President Ron Kouchi stood behind the podium and offered up a visceral reminder of an unfortunate truth.

All the recent efforts to bring more transparency and accountability to the Legislature can be hamstrung by the lack of one essential ingredient: Ethical leadership at the highest levels.

Kouchi was providing none of it Wednesday as he made his first public statements since his chamber blew up with allegations of blatant bullying by senators looking to torpedo a well-qualified department head nominee to settle a political score.

That Donovan Dela Cruz was in the middle of the firestorm was not surprising. The chairman of the Ways and Means Committee is well known for using his powerful post to intimidate fellow legislators and other state officials.

What was surprising was that this time another senator had the guts to call out Dela Cruz and his close ally, Senate Vice President Michelle Kidani.

Water and Land Committee Chair Lorraine Inouye went on the record Monday with allegations of bullying and intimidation that many of her colleagues would only whisper anonymously.

After two days of ignoring media questions about the controversy roiling the chamber he’s supposed to lead, there was President Kouchi lamenting that the nomination of Scott Glenn to head the Office of Planning and Sustainable Development had “become a large issue in the press.”

Unbelievably, Kouchi defended the accused and attacked the accuser.

Senate President Ron Kouchi calls out the accuser and defends the accused Wednesday. (David Croxford/Civil Beat/2023)

Not a single senator, he said, “has come forward to tell me that they felt coerced in any way by Sen. Dela Cruz or Sen. Kidani on how to cast a vote, but they did feel some pressure from the Water Land chair.”

Have you learned your lesson about speaking out of turn, Sen. Inouye?

Her committee had approved Glenn’s nomination in a 4-1 vote March 8. She was startled to learn later that two of those “yes” votes would likely turn into “no” votes on the Senate floor.

Inouye went public with her concerns that Dela Cruz and Kidani were coercing senators to oppose the nomination. That was confirmed by several other legislators and administration officials who insisted on anonymity. Given Kouchi’s response, it looks like they were smart to ask for that kind of protection.

Glenn apparently made enemies in his former role as director of the Hawaii State Energy Office when he spurned a request from Dela Cruz and Sen. Glenn Wakai to endorse Hu Honua, a proposed Big Island wood-burning power plant, due to concerns about costs and greenhouse gas emissions.

Dela Cruz, Wakai and Kidani had introduced legislation to help Hu Honua, and had benefited from an upscale fundraiser hosted by its lobbyist.

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On Friday, Glenn’s nomination was rejected in a 12-12 vote, and it wasn’t the only one to run into trouble in the Senate this session. In fact the very next vote on the floor was to reject the nomination of Chris Sadayasu to lead the Department of Business, Economic Development and Tourism. Earlier this year, Dela Cruz played a key role in opposing the nomination of Ikaika Anderson, who withdrew his name to lead the Department of Hawaiian Home Lands.

The widespread smackdown is unusual for nominees of a new governor, and Gov. Josh Green said earlier this month he’s disappointed in the “old politics” at play.

Frankly, the governor will need to grow more strident in calling out misbehavior at the top levels of state government if he really wants to do something about the “old politics.”

House Speaker Scott Saiki needs to start speaking up, too. His chamber has outpaced the Senate in pushing for reform, and his leadership position allows him to shine more light on how the Legislature operates.

It was Saiki who proposed creation of the Commission to Improve Standards of Conduct after two former legislators were convicted of accepting bribes. And the speaker has kept his promise that every measure proposed by the commission would receive a public hearing. Now he needs to start speaking out when he sees internal politics corrupting the public process and throwing his own chamber’s initiatives into question.

For his part, Green has been taking accountability and transparency to heart. He has said he would sign any of the commission’s measures that reach his desk. Some are already starting to land there.

As we’ve already argued, simple rule changes could help a lot in the House and Senate by limiting the draconian power of committee chairs to kill bills single-handedly and withhold written testimony from even their fellow committee members.

Sen. Lorraine Inouye set a refreshing example when she called attention to the behind-the-scenes arm-twisting at the Capitol. (David Croxford/Civil Beat/2023)

But make no mistake, no bill and no rule change is more important than a commitment by our state’s leaders to make sure that the people’s business is conducted for the sake of the people, not well-appointed politicians adept at arm-twisting.

At this point it’s difficult to hold out much hope that Kouchi will become a force for positive change, although we would love to be pleasantly surprised. But there are a lot of new faces in the Legislature, and many of them campaigned on reform issues.

Lorraine Inouye has set a refreshing example for her fellow state lawmakers. Rather than give in to coercive threats behind closed doors, if they see something they should say something. Out loud and in public.

All the sunshine legislation in the world won’t be enough unless it’s watched over and carried out by ethical leaders who believe good behavior should be rewarded and bad behavior punished, not the other way around.

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About the Author

The Sunshine Editorial Board

The members of Civil Beat’s editorial board focused on ‘Let The Sunshine In’ are Patti Epler, Chad Blair and Richard Wiens.

Latest Comments (0)

I doubt Hawaii is alone in its state political quagmire, but what is different here is our social courtesy. Everyone knows each other and the circle is small in Honolulu, so just like with many other things, no one wants to make waves, or insult anyone else. Unlike in the rest of the US, where there is straight up infighting, insults and intra political attacks within the ranks.What's better a quiet status quo political hierarchy, or open infighting where politicians clamor to lead the electorate? IMO its something right in the middle, where you can openly call someone out particularly when they are out of line. I appreciate Inouye and hope there are other like her to not only alert the public to what's happening behind closed doors, but to allow us to form an opinion and hopefully shape a better political system of governance. We need this in order to vote the bad apples out of office.

wailani1961 · 8 months ago

Ethical leadership has been a struggle for the entire country recently.Is this a reflection of who we are as a people or an indication of poorly we are managing our governments (elections and voting, contact with representatives, etc.) I fear they are telling us in their electoral campaigns, and we simply are not listening. It is simply easier to simply vote for the incumbents - and they know it.

lhittner · 8 months ago

Can Senator Kouchi be recalled? Sanctioned by the Commission to Improve Standards of Conduct? Or will someone please file a complaint with the State Ethics Commission to investigate his behavior in this matter?

MsW · 8 months ago

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