State House Republicans agreed yesterday to back House Speaker Calvin Say, a commitment that could break a leadership stalemate that has divided majority Democrats.
Say, the longest-serving speaker since statehood, has been one vote short of keeping control of the 51-member House in a leadership struggle that has played out since the November elections. Say has 25 votes among Democrats, while a dissident faction that prefers state Rep. Roy Takumi (D, Pearl City-Momilani-Pacific Palisades) has 17 votes.
There are eight Republicans and one vacant House seat, to be filled by a Democrat.
Say (D, St. Louis Heights-Palolo Valley-Wilhelmina Rise) said he was "honored" and "grateful" for the Republican endorsement. But after nearly two hours of private discussion with his loyalists yesterday evening, the speaker said his group will continue to negotiate with the dissidents to try to resolve the dispute among Democrats.
"We should work with the Democratic caucus first before we ever venture into the Republican side," he said.
The speaker set a tentative deadline for negotiations to end on Wednesday. He said if the dissidents choose to take their challenge to the opening day of the session on Jan. 19, he believes he now has the votes to prevail.
Dissidents predict that some Democrats will defect from the speaker if it becomes apparent that he is unable to retain control without Republicans. Dissidents also warn that if Republicans do help keep Say in power, they will have leverage over legislation.
"It will be difficult to govern with a bipartisan organization," said state Rep. Scott Saiki (D, Moiliili-McCully-Kaimuki), one of the dissidents.
State House Minority Leader Gene Ward (R, Kalama Valley-Hawaii Kai), said the eight House Republicans did not receive any committee chairmanships or leadership posts in exchange for their support.
Ward said Say, like Republicans, has opposed an increase in the general excise tax and has shown concern for the struggles of small businesses. "The public is fed up," Ward said of the leadership fight.
State Rep. Cynthia Thielen (R, Kailua-Kaneohe Bay) said it is difficult to prepare for session when leadership posts, committee chairmanships and committee assignments are unknown. "It was time to say ‘enough.’ Let’s get it moving," she said.
Say’s group has offered dissidents four committee chairmanships and two leadership posts to end the stalemate. Dissidents, sources say, are preparing to counter with a request for more committee chairmanships.
Dissidents have said they want more collective discussion and planning on public-policy issues and a leadership and committee lineup that better represents the strengths of the caucus. One Democratic House seat is vacant and will likely not be filled by the party and Gov. Neil Abercrombie in time to influence the leadership vote.
If Say — who has been speaker since 1999 — relies on Republicans to keep control of the chamber, he would be under less obligation to assign dissidents plum committee or leadership posts.
A leadership challenge that extends to opening day or beyond — or is broken by the GOP — could be a potential political embarrassment for the party. Democrats hold overwhelming majorities in the House and state Senate and again control Washington Place with Abercrombie.
Abercrombie, who as a state senator was among the Democrats who formed a coalition with Republicans to organize the Senate in 1981, chuckled when told of the GOP’s commitment to Say.
"Oh, wonder of wonders," the governor said. "I’m not going to get involved in internal politics there (in the House).
"But with any kind of a coalition attempt, it depends on what’s expected as the result of that. So you have to get the agreement of both parties. And that’s where the difficulty always comes in."