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House dissidents challenge speaker

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With state House Speaker Calvin Say still one vote short of retaining power, dissidents are asking that he work with them to find a leadership compromise that will unify the House.

Say, a Palolo Democrat who has led the House since 1999, is the longest-serving speaker since statehood. He has asked the public to have patience while majority Democrats work out their internal differences. Until the leadership struggle is settled, the roster of influential committee chairmanships is unknown, so citizens and interest groups do not know exactly who to approach about potential legislation for the new session that begins in January.

"I remain confident," Say said yesterday. He has 25 votes to remain as speaker, one short of a majority in the 51-member House. He already has a majority among the 43 Democrats.

In a letter Monday, written on behalf of 18 Democratic lawmakers, the dissidents thank Say for his 34 years of service in the House and his reign as speaker. But they claim Hawaii has entered a new era and contend that the House must be open to change.

The letter does not specifically ask Say to step aside, but the implication is that a compromise speaker is necessary.

State Rep. Sylvia Luke (D, Pacific Heights-Punchbowl-Pauoa), has 15 votes as speaker. Two lawmakers have told Say that they back state Rep. Roy Takumi (D, Pearl City-Momilani- Palisades) as a compromise.

Until the letter, the dissidents had not publicly articulated why they are demanding a change in leadership. Many of the lawmakers have been involved in previous attempts to oust Say over the past several years.

"Recently in the House, there has been little collective discussion or planning to address our most pressing issues, not even a package of priority bills from our Democratic caucus," the dissidents wrote. "Improving public schools, reforming government, protecting our environment and safeguarding civil rights are important to Hawaii’s future, yet many of these initiatives have been stalled or derailed.

"Too often votes are traded for pet projects and positions without regard to a larger policy agenda. We believe that the challenges facing Hawaii are too great to continue this practice. Leadership must focus on resolving the larger challenges, and not just the narrow issues that benefit only a few."

State Rep. Scott Saiki (D, Moiliili-McCully-Kaimuki), one of the dissidents, said the lawmakers wanted to publicly show they support a change. "The other side has attempted to apply a lot of pressure on our group members, but it hasn’t worked," he said.

"So we just wanted to make it crystal clear that we remain united."

One dissident, however, did defect to Say’s side last week. The public release of the letter with all of the dissidents’ names is not only a message to Say, but an attempt to hold the group together.

The state Senate reorganized shortly after the November elections with Shan Tsutsui of Maui as the new Senate president. House lawmakers have been plotting and negotiating privately for the past several weeks. The dissidents have described the situation as an impasse, but Say does not appear rattled or to be in any particular rush.

Say’s staff has prepared a chart showing that several dissidents have been given leadership opportunities over the past several years under the speaker — Luke was vice speaker and chairwoman of the House Judiciary Committee, Saiki was majority leader, and Takumi has been chairman of the House Education Committee.

Say has suggested privately that the dissidents want power, not power-sharing. But the dissidents counter that Say has rewarded lawmakers who are loyal to him with committee chairmanships they do not merit based on effectiveness or subject-matter expertise.

The leadership struggle has yet to cause anything other than inconvenience and uncertainty. Seven House freshmen who have been waiting for the stalemate to end so they can get suitable office space are being assigned temporary offices today.

Veteran observers remember at least one year when a House leadership fight extended past opening day of the session. In 1971, state Rep. Hiroshi Kato’s challenge to Speaker Tadao Beppu dragged on for several days during the session before Beppu prevailed.

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