Hawaii's Longest-Serving State Lawmaker Talks About The True Power Of Legislators - Honolulu Civil Beat

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About the Author

Richard Wiens

Richard Wiens is an editor at large for Civil Beat. You can reach him by email at rwiens@civilbeat.org.

Sen. Les Ihara believes rank-and-file lawmakers could be asserting themselves in committees and on the floor.

Les Ihara has always considered himself a reformer. Now in his 28th year as a senator after eight years in the House, the dean of the Hawaii Legislature has seen efforts to increase transparency and accountability come and go.

In an interview with Civil Beat that has been edited for length and clarity, he said he’s heartened by the latest efforts to bring more “sunshine” to the Capitol.

Senator, you’ve said before that it took some convincing to get you to accept an appointment to the Legislature in 1986. Why was that?

I turned down an appointment, a governor’s appointment to the House three times. I knew what I’d be getting into, and the reason I knew is that I was the Oahu Democratic Party chair from 1982 to 1984. So prior to my even being asked, I was fully engaged in politics and kind of rose through the ranks from going door to door and organizing rallies and mass canvasses and fundraisers.

I thought the Legislature was susceptible to corruption because of what I thought was a “Sophie’s Choice.” A legislator might want to be civic-minded and do good for the community, but in order to get elected, they have to do uncomfortable things like ask lobbyists for (campaign) donations.

It felt like asking contestants to donate to the judges who select the winners.

I already had my dream job running a nonprofit, the Community Workday Program. It was a statewide program of community groups that conducted projects four times a year, and we had lots of participation. That’s how I learned about community empowerment, which became my calling.

So I had my dream job when I was invited to enter what I thought was a poisonous environment. But my father convinced me to accept the appointment, and try to bring community empowerment into the Legislature.

How did that work out for you?

At times, I must have been one of the most disliked legislators around. But now, I feel empowered and comfortable with all the talk about reforms. Years back, I would win some votes, lose some, but mostly lose since I had only a few legislative allies.

Along the way, I learned all about rules, especially Mason’s (Manual of Legislative Procedure). I’ve probably spent more hours studying rules, procedures and internal processes than anyone else.

How has the Legislature changed in terms of openness and accountability, over these 36 years?

Fits and starts. I’ve seen the relationship between top leadership and committee chairs change over the years. This relationship usually falls apart over time.

  • A Special Commentary Project

When committee chairs get so powerful, they tend to act on their own, instead of being responsive to members. That’s when the president or speaker may step in, usually by imposing greater oversight and rules. But when members feel that leadership is overstepping its role, another rebalance can happen.

I’ve seen movements for legislative transparency come from individual members and chairs, and sometimes from the speaker or president. This happens usually during periods of rebalancing power relationships in the chamber. You know, those with less power, like dissidents, are more free to criticize and seek transparency and reforms. They’re more interested in the balance of power and leveling the playing field, sometimes for political reasons.

Many legislators don’t understand the power they actually have, especially if there’s some gaslighting about what’s really going on. New legislators usually learn from those in power. When I was majority leader, we promoted the idea that all legislators have equal power. I’m not sure if the popularity of that idea has grown much.

Senator Les Ihara grills Hawaii Tourism Authority about their $82 million dollar budget and the lack of the directors support of sustaining Hawaii and lack of a plan for sustaining the environment from almost 10 million tourists visiting a year.
Sen. Les Ihara during a 2018 legislative hearing. He’s currently the longest-serving legislator at 36 years, and he’s always had a copy of Mason’s Manual of Legislative Procedures nearby. (Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2018)

In my chamber, we conduct ourselves using Senate rules, Mason’s procedures, and past practice. We’re a rule-based organization, but I’ve seen how claims of past practice can take precedence over the rules.

I used to be — but am no longer — quite judgmental about rules. The constitution says the Legislature is self-organizing, so I accept the majority’s decision when I lose on procedural matters.

Where does this come into play with committees that are run by chairs with seemingly dictatorial powers?

I don’t think chairs have dictatorial powers, at least not by the rules. For example, a Senate rule requires a chair to hear a bill if a majority of committee members request it. And Mason’s allows a chair to defer voting on a bill, by unanimous consent. Last month, I asked to vote on a bill the chair wanted to defer.

It also allows a member to make a motion during decision-making by the committee.

Oh, by the way, the chair does not have to ask for unanimous consent, just have no one object to the chair’s action, because it is presumed that members know the rules.

I’ve been happy about the drumbeat for ethics, campaign finance and other reforms that started last year, because these issues are in my wheelhouse.

Sen. Les Ihara

In practice, don’t committee members tend to not want to challenge the chair?

Yes, not if the member wants help from the chair, like scheduling their bill for a hearing.

Some members don’t know that they could challenge a chair’s action. I’ve found this to be more common in the Senate, especially when most senators chair a committee or have powers in leadership.

When I entered the Senate in 1994, I found a fiefdom system with a culture of “everyone backs the chair,” where the chair was king or queen of their domain. To try to change this, we implemented a co-chair committee system that rewarded collaboration rather than a single chair going it alone. In two years, the major committees returned to single-chair.

Doesn’t the chair, though, have the power to single-handedly defer a bill, even if a hearing is held?

Yes, but only if there are no objections.

But a committee member could object and force a vote on that too?

Yes. In the ’90s I did it often until the chairs stopped doing it. They started checking with members first.

But the chair does have a fairly absolute power as far as when written testimony gets turned over to the rest of the committee and to the public, right?

When we started posting testimonies online and receiving them by email, I recall leadership expecting that testimonies be posted before the hearing is gaveled in.

I prefer that committees adopt their own rules on these matters. Because without rules, chairs have discretion of how early testimony gets posted online, as well as time limits on testifiers.

So, once again, it’s by practice?

You got it. There’s wide discretion given to chairs, more than the public might want. But I think chair discretion is necessary because committees craft the legislation that gets passed. I prefer that discretionary power include civic practices. I’m learning to infuse civic values, such as caring and fair play, into my political actions.

The Hawaii Senate does follow its rules but also pays attention to past practices, the longtime senator says. (Blaze Lovell/Civil Beat/2023)

For example, when Sam Slom was the only Republican senator, he wanted to make a floor motion, and someone called him out of order. The president said, “You need a second.” I called a point of order and noted that Mason’s does not require someone to second a motion. Every senator represents a separate constituency and should be represented.

That’s when “past practice” was used to require a second, even though this was the first time we had only one Republican senator.

I could have appealed the ruling, but knew I would have lost. So I told Sam, “I will always second your motion.” That’s how I resolved that dispute.

Would you agree that we could have a more transparent and open Legislature if there was the will, without even necessarily having to change the rules?

Right. The Legislature can be more transparent without having to change the rules. We could start now, in whatever ways that work. Sometimes rules are used to thwart openness by applying strict interpretations to justify closed practices.

Since you’ve served in both, what’s the biggest difference between the House and the Senate?

I entered the House with a large freshman class amid lots of political change at all levels. And elections every two years made us want to connect and deepen our ties with the community. The sentiment there is more like being the people’s house that’s more responsive to the community and popular causes.

To me, the Senate is more of a power-based organization because of their four-year terms.

The Senate is also in a closer position to the executive and judicial branches, because we approve their top leaders in the advise and consent process.

But sometimes its power relationships get insular, imbalanced and disconnected from the community. When this happens, the politics can be more transactional and calculating, like in a chit system.

You rose to the ranks of majority leader and floor leader, until the last big power shakeup in the Senate in 2015, when Ron Kouchi replaced Donna Mercado Kim as president. That was a big turning point for you, right?

When Donna Kim was president, I was her key advisor on rules, procedures and ethics. I believe she tried to be fair and consistent by using rules and procedures to manage the Senate’s flow of business. But her actions were seen as intruding on the power of chairs and committees. That’s when the chairs revolted and Donna was removed as president.

At that point, I decided to leave the pole position of the political reform movement. I decided to study politics as practiced throughout history. By then, I felt like I had done all I could as a legislator, and needed to find a way to engage the general public in political affairs.

I’ve been happy about the drumbeat for ethics, campaign finance and other reforms that started last year, because these issues are in my wheelhouse. This session, I’ve told people that I’ve concluded my democracy research project, and now I’m back.

What do you mean when you say, “I’m back”?

I realized about 10 years ago that I was missing a piece of strategy. I’ve been on the Kettering Foundation board, a national organization focused on making democracy work. I’ve gotten to know many civic leaders nationally and helped organize a collaborative legislators network. 

So I’m back to share my perspective on how politics can be used for good, and I believe political leaders want to use their powers for good. I’ve found a way to be healthy as a civic leader inside of an energetically poisonous environment.

I’ve learned to be a bicultural leader, because to me that’s what legislative politics are about. I’m learning to be a politician who uses civic practices to empower collective actions that advance democracy.

I am back to promote the use of civic values and civic practices in the political arena.

How do you feel about what the Foley Commission — the Commission to Improve Standards of Conduct — did last year. Do you think their recommendations help?

Yes, certainly. I like not only its recommendations, but the mindful process they used to develop the proposals.

My interest in their bills is to have public discussion, which I feel is really needed. I like that their political reform proposals have engaged a broader audience, beyond just activists.

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About the Author

Richard Wiens

Richard Wiens is an editor at large for Civil Beat. You can reach him by email at rwiens@civilbeat.org.

Latest Comments (0)

Senator Ihara - delighted to hear from you, and this article certainly sheds a positive light. Would never have known if it weren't for Civil Beat. You've been my Senator for all 28 years of your service and I believe I hear from you once a year - a 2-4 page generic newsletter. I never see you, or hear you speak out, or ANYTHING. If the contents of this interview are correct, I hope we're going to hear more from you in the future.

HonoluluVal · 7 months ago

Problem #1: Problem #2:

Help.Hawaii · 7 months ago

I've always been impressed by Senator Les Ihara. I'm glad that you are featuring him. He is a good role model. Ihara is without pretense and an authentic public servant. He is principled and has no ulterior motives except to try to respect the rules, procedures, and ethics.

ChoonJamesHI · 7 months ago

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