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Editorial | On Politics

From civil unions to taxes, Calvin Say keeps his cool

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With an unassuming, quiet manner, Calvin Say, packing 34 years of legislative experience, shows little until the outcome is obvious.

Using the premise that flashing an agenda too early just makes you a target, Say is most comfortable in the caucus room without the spotlights.

After 11 years as speaker of the House, Say rarely brags, so his new self-assessment is worth noting.

"If people are mad at you, you must be doing something right, you touched a nerve," Say said in an interview last week.

Mad at you, indeed. This year is likely to be Say’s most controversial.

It started with both those advocating and fighting a civil union bill fuming at Say because he refused to allow a recorded vote on a motion to kill the bill.

The action was forgotten by the end of the session when the bill’s supporters were able to get the votes to bring the bill back for consideration and passage.

The "Impeach Calvin Say" Facebook page had already been started.

Meanwhile, more politically potent foes were gathering.

Say has consistently opposed raising the general excise tax, saying it hurts not just consumers, but business as well.

The public worker unions look at a GET increase as a big help. The increased money is needed to stop layoffs, stop furloughs and help pay increased benefits for workers, the unions argue.

Speaking for himself, J.N. Musto, University of Hawaii Professional Assembly executive director, sums up labor’s disenchantment with Say.

"He is particularly harsh on public employees, and he truly believes they are overpaid and over compensated," says Musto.

In the last four years, Say has repeatedly tried to lower public employee benefits as a way to cut the state budget. Unions turned out in force to fight and kill the Say bills.

"He truly believes such bills should pass. After all of that, he then expects the unions to pay tribute. I think it’s time to stop doing that," Musto concludes.

Say claims he doesn’t know "why labor should be upset."

As a reliable helmsman, Say helped steer the union’s own pay settlements through the Legislature, but this year when they wanted assistance with raising taxes, Say refused.

This year, Say appears to have a strong Democratic opponent, Dwight Synan, who, if he doesn’t get an outright labor endorsement, will benefit from labor not endorsing Say.

In the larger view, Say’s re-election is not just about Say, but about changing the direction of the House away from the anti-GET increase stance it has held in past years.

PROGRESSIVE, pro-labor members of the Senate have clamored for a GET increase. Opponents have been able to kill it only because they could argue that "it would never pass the House."

Say frames the campaign and the organization of the House as "If not Calvin, then who?"

This fall, voters in Say’s working class Palolo-St. Louis district will find themselves answering with results that could set state tax policy far into the future.

Richard Borreca writes on politics on Sundays, Tuesdays and Fridays. Reach him at


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