UPDATED 8 p.m.

Members of the Hawaii House of Representatives won’t officially elect a speaker until the 2013 session begins Jan. 16.

But on Wednesday, Maui Rep. Joe Souki, the speaker emeritus, announced that he had 28 firm commitments to give him back the job that Speaker Calvin Say took from him 13 years ago.

To get the necessary 26 votes in the 51-member chamber, Souki cut a deal with the seven House Republicans. In return, the GOP will be given three vice chair positions, including one on the important Finance Committee, which may now get two vice chairs.

Under a Speaker Souki, Marcus Oshiro, a Say loyalist, is likely out as Finance chairman. Word around town is that he may resign and go to work for a former colleague, Kirk Caldwell, as the Honolulu mayor-elect builds a Cabinet. Others may jump ship, too.

The battle over House speaker is not pau, however, and Say technically still holds the job. Indeed, if three of Souki’s supporters change their minds (see the full list of Say and Souki supporters at the end of this article), Say — who Civil Beat could not reach Wednesday — could still return to the speakership.

Asked about the possible leadership change, Gov. Neil Abercrombie said the executive branch would stay out of the internal affairs of the legislative branch. But he also said he was longtime friends with both Say and Souki, and that he was confident he would be able to advance his agenda in cooperation with whoever runs the House.

For now, Souki is moving ahead to work out committee assignments and other leadership positions. A legislative package must also be assembled, office assignments worked out and new hires made — something that was hampered two years ago when the House did not settle on a speaker until opening day of the Legislature.

Civil Beat takes a look at what a House of Souki might look like, and what it might mean for Hawaii.

A More Progressive Body?

The Say coup has been spearheaded by a group of so-called House dissidents, more than a dozen Democrats who have differences of opinion concerning the direction of legislation.

Before Souki met with reporters Wednesday, he huddled in his office with lead dissidents Chris Lee and Sylvia Luke and new minority leader Aaron Ling Johanson.

Broadly speaking, the dissidents — a word that may no longer be necessary, should they become the majority — believe Say has not advocated for progress, change and reform. That includes legislation that favors the environment rather than developers, taxpayers instead of big business interests, transparency over back-room deals, disclosure versus obfuscation, ethics instead of ethics exemption.

A measure like Senate Bill 755, which Say said would help developers expedite certain projects but environmentalists said would bypass fundamental reviews, would likely not get far in a Souki-led House. A repeal of the Public Land Development Corporation would get a full hearing. And, just maybe, the curtain on the mysterious process known as conference committee — where lawmakers retool bills in the last days of session without public input — might be lifted a bit.

Civil Beat analyses has shown that Say supporters have had much more success in getting bills passed and directing capital improvement project monies into their districts. That could change, too.

Souki said the House will not consider a hike in the general excise tax, and, though he will continue to support gambling proposals, he doubted that his colleagues would join him.

What Souki seems to want most is a reinstatement of his reputation. But there are hints that he might be open to the progressive change that many of his supporters seek. Asked by a reporter whether he would relinquish his lobbying gig with the American Chemistry Council, he said he probably would.

Whoever becomes speaker, the Hawaii House of Representatives is still pretty much comprised of the same people as the past two years. A new regime could become just as inflexible and domineering as the previous one.

That said, there are a lot of new faces in the House from a variety of backgrounds. A lot of them are young, too; four of the seven Republicans, including Johanson, are under the age of 32. (Joe Souki will turn 80 in April.)

Last Friday, the Hawaii Senate appointed its lone Republican, Sam Slom, to a vice chair position, though it did not have to in order to settle a leadership struggle. They did so because they respected his knowledge and wanted to hear what he had to say.

Souki and Johanson, who stood with Souki as he spoke to reporters, both said they wanted to see a more-inclusive chamber that recognizes there are 51 people representing many different constituencies. In their view, the House re-organization is a step in that direction.

It would also be historic. While the Senate Democrats have allowed some Republicans in leadership positions over the past three decades, Souki, who has been in the House for the same period of time, said he could not remember the GOP in House leadership.

The Current Tally


As of Wednesday, this is how the votes break down among Say and Souki supporters, according to the Souki bloc, with the caveat that some Say votes may be in flux and could shift to Souki as early as this week.

The Say supporters are said to include 19 that backed him last time for speaker and newcomer Gregg Takayama.

Joe Souki’s Supporters

Democrats (21): Joe Souki, Sylvia Luke, Chris Lee, Scott Saiki, Gil Keith-Agaran, Mark Nakashima, Scott Nishimoto, Mark Takai, Dee Morikawa, Roy Takumi, Jessica Wooley, Cindy Evans, Tom Brower, Faye Hanohano, Della Au Belatti, Angus McKelvey, Romy Cachola, Nicole Lowen, Bert Kobayashi, Richard Onishi, Kaniela Ing.

Republicans (7): Gene Ward, Cynthia Thielen, Bob McDermott, Aaron Ling Johanson, Beth Fukumoto, Lauren Cheape, Richard Fale.

Calvin Say’s Supporters

Democrats (20): Calvin Say, Henry Aquino, Karen Awana, Rida Cabanilla, Isaac Choy, Ty Cullen, Sharon Har, Mark Hashem, Derek Kawakami, Linda Ichiyama, Ken Ito, Jo Jordan, John Mizuno, Marcus Oshiro, Karl Rhoads, Jimmy Tokioka, Clift Tsuji, Ryan Yamane, Kyle Yamashita, Gregg Takeyama.1

That adds up to 48 of the 51 representatives.

It’s not clear who Mele Carroll and Denny Coffman, Democrats previously associated with the dissidents, support. Takashi Ohno, just elected to office, is uncommitted.

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