State House Speaker Calvin Say yesterday overcame a leadership challenge that had divided majority Democrats for two months, but he agreed to give dissidents a greater share of leadership posts and committee chairmanships.
The brinkmanship spilled over into opening day of the new session, causing U.S. Sen. Daniel Inouye, the state’s top Democrat, to snub the traditional House ceremony in the morning and pushing Say close to accepting a Republican offer to break the stalemate by the afternoon.
But Say and the dissidents, meeting privately throughout the day, reached a compromise that leaves the speaker and many of his loyalists in power but gives dissidents more voice.
The final lineup is expected to be made public today, but Say said allies such as state House Majority Leader Blake Oshiro (D, Aiea-Halawa Valley-Aiea Heights) will remain at his post and state Rep. Marcus Oshiro (D, Wahiawa) will continue as chairman of the influential House Finance Committee. Dissidents, who held one leadership post and four committee chairmanships last session, could now have two leadership posts and seven committee chairmanships, including the powerful House Judiciary Committee.
Say, who has been speaker since 1999, the longest serving House leader since statehood, looked to history to explain the leadership fight. After thanking his colleagues for their voice vote to re-elect him, Say read from President Abraham Lincoln’s second inaugural address in 1865, where Lincoln sought to heal the wounds of the Civil War.
Say, speaking later to reporters, noted that it had been 40 years since a House leadership struggle had extended into opening day.
"You have to go through this type of process because that’s how you get to learn about individual character, individual values," he said, adding, however, that it was highly stressful and that he hoped Democrats would not go through it again in 2012.
State Rep. Sylvia Luke (D, Pacific Heights-Pauoa-Punchbowl), who has sought to remove Say for several years, described the leadership agreement as a workable solution that would bring new ideas forward. "It bridges both sides together," she said. "Now we can work together and put some of our differences aside. This is a big step forward."
Rep. Roy Takumi (D, Pearl City-Momilani-Pacific Palisades), who had offered himself as a compromise speaker, said he believed majority Democrats needed to be united.
"The only way to accomplish that is to have a lineup that reflects the individual talents and abilities of the members, irrespective of where they were on supporting or not supporting leadership," said Takumi, who was involved in the final deliberations with Say.
Say acknowledged that House Republicans, who committed to Say earlier this month, gave him leverage and helped push Democrats to work together. Inouye and other top party leaders had urged Say and the dissidents to resolve their differences internally.
Democrats hold a 43-8 advantage in the House, so most of the philosophical and policy debates that determine what legislation advances are within the majority party. Dissidents had called for more collaboration and planning and a more equitable committee lineup.
Gov. Neil Abercrombie stayed clear of the leadership struggle. The governor announced he appointed Georgette "Jo" Jordan, a Waianae Coast Neighborhood Board member, to fill a vacant Democratic House seat only after the leadership agreement was reached. With Say one vote short of retaining power for the past several weeks, some had thought the governor could use the vacancy to tip the scales.
"We need to be united. We need to act in a pono way, to do the right thing with and for one another," the governor said of the new 60-day session.
Uncertainty about control of the House overshadowed an opening day that returned to its traditional festive atmosphere of food, flowers and music. Last year, House and Senate leaders curtailed the celebrations, fearful of sending the wrong message during a recession.
A projected budget deficit remains, but House and Senate leaders spoke more optimistically yesterday about the potential for the state’s economy to recover.
Senate President Shan Tsutsui (D, Kahului) said better days are ahead.
"Together we have weathered the worst of an economic storm that has battered us, not only locally, but globally," he said. "While our state continues to suffer from a sagging real estate market and high unemployment rates, we also see signs that we may be on the slow and arduous path to recovery."
Tsutsui said the Senate should invest in infrastructure, including repair and maintenance at public schools, and food and energy security so the state does not have to be as dependent on imports. He said senators would work to ensure that students spend more time in the classroom with highly qualified teachers. He also said senators should not forget the state’s commitment to native Hawaiians and move toward a ceded lands settlement.
Senate Minority Leader Sam Slom (R, Kahala-Hawaii Kai), outnumbered by Democrats 24-1, donned a black cowboy hat, used a toy stick pony and likened himself to the "Lone Ranger."
Slom said senators should use the economic downturn as a chance to "right-size" state government and contain rising public workers’ retirement and health care costs. He said the "era of government free spending is over."
In the House, Oshiro, the majority leader, referred to the Arizona shootings earlier this month and urged lawmakers to put aside vitriol and strive to become statesmen.
Oshiro called a civil unions bill the "elephant in the room" and asked for an honest debate guided by justice. "At the end of the day, what we must do is allow ourselves to have an honest and open debate on this topic, to avoid labels and rhetoric, to define — ultimately — what is just and not just let justice become subjugated by economics," he said. "We can do both, and so we shall do both."
House Minority Leader Gene Ward (R, Kalama Valley-Queen’s Gate-Hawaii Kai), said Republicans would oppose tax increases — particularly a hike in the general excise tax — and press for greater fiscal discipline.
Ward said he believed the House would put the leadership fight aside and have a productive session.
"It’s going to be very busy. It’s going to be very intense," he said. "But I’m very, very confident it’s going to be positive, it’s going to be productive, and it’s going to work out."
Governor fills vacant House seat
Gov. Neil Abercrombie appointed Georgette "Jo" Jordan to represent the state House District 45 seat vacated by Maile Shimabukuro, whom he appointed to the state Senate.
The district runs from Waianae to Makua.
"Now that the House has organized and the official start of the legislative session has begun, it is imperative that District 45 have representation," Abercrombie said. "Jo Jordan has spent much of her life working on making improvements on the Waianae Coast and will continue to be a great public servant."
Jordan, 48, has been active with the Waianae Coast Neighborhood Board, where she has been a member since 1999.
House clerk blocks TV broadcast
The clerk of the state House of Representatives yesterday barred live television coverage of an afternoon session at which the speaker was elected after a two-month struggle among Democrats.
Clerk Pat Mau-Shimizu told the Associated Press she decided there would be no ‘Olelo Community Media broadcast of the session — which originally was to start about 3 p.m. — because she expected it would contain little, if any, public debate.
As it turned out, House Democrats met privately until about 4:45 p.m. Then the House reconvened and unanimously re-elected Rep. Calvin Say (D, St. Louis Heights-Wilhelmina Rise) as speaker.