Rep. Kanani Souza says she’s not willing to give up on the Republican Party, but takes issue with this particular group of lawmakers.

Disillusioned freshman state Rep. Kanani Souza has declined to participate in caucus meetings with her fellow House Republicans since January, and is now describing the GOP caucus in the House as “a cult.”

Officially, Souza is still the minority whip for the six House Republicans, but said in an interview she limits her interactions with the other five almost entirely to mail or text. She said she is now “under investigation” because of a complaint filed against her, but says she has never actually seen the complaint.

“What bothers me is they don’t argue in law and fact. They are arguing based on personal beliefs, based on religious beliefs,” said Souza, who described herself as a moderate conservative.

“It’s just a lot of things where you can’t really say what you want to say because they’re not willing to have an educated discussion,” she said. “It’s non-stop trying to use religion to try to get everybody to be quiet — or me, in particular.”

House Minority Leader Lauren Matsumoto did not respond to a request for comment Friday.

UPDATE: Members of the House GOP caucus issued a statement Monday after this story was published to respond to Souza’s criticisms, and also posted a video on the subject.

Republican Rep. Gene Ward suggested Souza wanted to be the minority leader, and then held a “grudge” because she didn’t get her way.

Matsumoto said in the statement that “it is unclear why (Souza) continues to be a
Republican. She didn’t participate with the republican party during the election, she hasn’t
participated in our caucus meetings or events, and she hasn’t voted with conservative values.”

House GOP Caucus presser Jan 19, 2023
Members of the House Republican caucus at a press conference at at the Capitol Rotunda in January. They are, from left, Reps. David Alcos III, Kanani Souza, Lauren Matsumoto, Elijah Pierick, Diamond Garcia and Gene Ward. (Chad Blair/Civil Beat/2023)

Souza, who is the only lawyer in the caucus, said her conflict with the rest of the Republican caucus began shorty after last year’s election when House GOP members engaged in what Souza believes are “incorrect procedures.”

That included gathering at a Leeward business called Hawaii Truck Parts shortly after the election to assign leadership jobs — which she considered to be an inappropriate venue — and another gathering at an upscale home in Kaneohe for a retreat.

The caucus bill package and committee assignments were to be discussed at the Kaneohe gathering, but Souza said she refused to attend the event, in part because she was unclear who was paying for it. Souza said she believes official business should be done at the State Capitol.

Souza said she was startled by what she sees as unprofessionalism in the way the caucus approaches its business.

She said she also became concerned about having Republican minority research office staff in caucus meetings, which she felt was inappropriate because opinionated staff members seemed to have an outsized influence on the decision making.

She asked that staff be excused at one meeting when she wanted to discuss the firing of a staff member, and Matsumoto told her she wanted the staff to stay.

Later in the same meeting Souza suggested a different staff member should be fired, and Souza believes that prompted one or more caucus members to file the pending complaint against Souza. She believes Matsumoto encouraged staff to file the complaint.

She described caucus meetings as “a free-for-all,” and said she wants nothing to do with the “radical right wing stuff that they’re doing.”

“It was just to the point where it was really affecting me personally, being part of this group of people, and it felt very cult-like, I’m going to be honest, it felt like a cult,” Souza said.

Souza, who is a former deputy city prosecutor and taught business law for years, said that “every time I would speak up about something I was met with religious persecution, that I’m not a humble person. (Republican Rep. Elijah) Pierick told me that I need to honor them, and I need to honor him,” she said.

“They talk about religion, I’m a very strong Catholic but I was feeling persecuted in these meetings,” she said. “Anytime there’s a disagreement, it’s like ‘Well, you should go to church, all the members should go to church and we need to pray about this.’ ”

Rep. Elijah Pierick represents House District 39. (Submitted)

Pierick, an ordained pastor, said in an interview Friday that “I honor Rep. Kanani Souza with the decisions she makes and the direction that she believes she should take her life.”

Pierick said he wants to encourage members of the public to talk to Souza and also talk to other members of the caucus, “and let people discover for themselves what the issues are and what people are saying about the issues.”

When asked if he brought a religious flavor to the caucus meetings, Pierick said: “I think everybody comes from a multitude of backgrounds, and we bring who we are to table of most discussions we have.” He declined to elaborate.

Souza also took issue with a radio show the caucus has been producing that is underwritten by developer Peter Savio. She said she considers that “a clear ethical violation, that’s accepting a gift to push your agenda.”

Souza said she refused to participate because “I felt like it was inappropriate for a developer who has a lot of legislation that he pushes for, a lot of projects going on with all these different entities, to be paying for a radio show where it’s specific to the minority caucus.”

She added that “it feels like they’re pushing his agenda.”

Souza said she raised some of her concerns with House Speaker Scott Saiki — the top House Democrat — who offered to discuss Souza’s frustration with Matsumoto. “Things have just been downhill since then,” Souza said.

Saiki said the House Republican caucus this year is “diverse in terms of philosophy and personality. It’s no different than the House Democratic caucus, and what I’ve informed the Republican members and the Republican leader is that they need to manage themselves.”

The Hawaii Republican Party has struggled for years to gain seats in the heavily Democratic Hawaii Legislature. The GOP now holds just two seats in the 25-member state Senate, and has only six members in the 51-member House,

One reason the party has lost ground in the Legislature has been defections by promising young Republicans such as Beth Fukumoto, who left the party in 2017. But Souza said she is not considering leaving the GOP, and Saiki said he has not discussed any party switch with her.

Souza said she will not consider quitting the party even if her troubles with the other Republicans continue. 

“From my perspective, we need to not just re-brand the party, we need to re-do the party, and we need to start being a voice that people actually listen to because we have credibility, and that’s what the caucus lacks right now is credibility and sophistication,” she said. “That’s been my gripe from day one.”

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