State Sen. Ron Kouchi of Kauai became Senate president Tuesday, unseating Sen. Donna Mercado Kim in a rare reorganization of leadership while the Legislature is still in session.
The reorganization marks only the second time in more than 35 years that a neighbor island lawmaker has emerged as Senate president.
The Senate voted 19-6 to oust Kim and elevate Kouchi.
Kim defended her tenure as president, saying she never really wanted the job because she knew someday someone would try to unseat her.
She cited accomplishments by the Senate under her leadership including the purchase of land at Turtle Bay for preservation purposes and a bill to establish medical marijuana dispensaries.
"So, we had some major, major successes, and I felt that we facilitated that smoothly and calmly," she said. "I think I’ve done a good job over the last three years in shepherding the Senate, and you have to know sometimes when it’s time to step down and let other people take over."
Kim, (D, Kalihi Valley-Moanalua-Halawa) was selected as Senate president in 2012, and presided over the body until being removed Tuesday in the last week of this year’s 60-day session.
"Certainly we’re all still part of this organization, and I will continue to speak up and ask questions and represent my constituents," she said. "I never really wanted to be Senate president."
Neither Kouchi (D, Kauai-Hiihau) nor several of his colleagues wanted to discuss the specific reasons for Kim’s ouster, which Sen. Sam Slom, the chamber’s lone Republican, jokingly described as a "bloodless coup."
Moments after the vote, Slom alluded to his colleagues getting their "feathers ruffled" under Kim’s leadership for her "dogged determination to ask questions in committee."
After Tuesday’s session Kouchi said, "we are looking at what we feel is the best leadership that will take the Senate forward."
Kouchi was appointed to the Senate in 2010 by former Gov. Linda Lingle, and since then has served in the roles of Senate vice president and majority caucus leader. This year he also controlled the construction budget in the Senate, a key role that carries major political clout.
"Time will be the test. I’m not here to say I’m better, I’m worse, I’ve been asked to lead in a different way, and we’ll see if that works better than the one that has," he said.
Kouchi served 22 years on Kauai County Council, including a dozen years as council chairman.
Apart from the replacement of Kim with Kouchi, most of the other top power positions in the senate likely will remain the same, according to a senator who asked not to be identified.
Sen. Jill Tokuda, who is being described as an architect of the shake-up, will remain as chair of the powerful Senate Ways and Means Committee, while Senate Judiciary and Labor Chair Gil Keith-Agaran is also expected to retain his post.
Senate Commerce and Consumer Protection Chair Roselyn Baker is also expected to continue in that position.
Lawmakers who are expected to lose influence in the shake-up are Senate Health Committee Chairman Josh Green, Water and Land Chairwoman Laura Thielen, and Agriculture Chairman Russell Ruderman.
Those three lawmakers were not part of the initial reorganization push, which means they are at risk for removal in favor of other lawmakers who assisted with the effort early on, according to senators who asked not to be identified.
Star-Advertiser reporters Marcel Honoré and Richard Borreca contributed to this report.