Twelve days after the death of state Sen. Breene Harimoto, the House Judiciary Committee proposed a change in state election law that would make committee member Rep. Gregg Takayama eligible to run to serve out the last two years of Harimoto’s term.
Lawmakers say Takayama (D, Pearl City-Waimalu- Pacific Palisades) has privately expressed interest in moving up to the Senate, but under current law is prohibited from seeking Harimoto’s Senate seat because he already filed to run for reelection to the House seat he now holds.
But late last month House Judiciary Committee Chairman Chris Lee inserted language into Senate Bill 2139 to allow candidates to pull out of a race after the normal deadline to withdraw and then run to fill an unexpected midterm vacancy such as the one for Harimoto’s seat.
Under the current law, candidates who file for office have just 24 hours after the June 2 filing deadline to withdraw unless they have a documented medical reason for pulling out of a race. Candidates are prohibited from running for more than one office at a time.
Lee acknowledged he discussed the bill with Takayama, who is a member of the Judiciary Committee, but Lee stressed there was no mention of Takayama’s political aspirations during that exchange. Lee also pointed out that other candidates may be able to take advantage of the new language in the bill, either this year or in the future.
State Rep. Sam Satoru Kong (D, Halawa-Aiea- Newtown) also lives in Harimoto’s Senate district and also filed for reelection, but Kong said in an interview he is not interested in moving to the Senate.
The state House unanimously approved SB 2139 on Monday with the new language as proposed by the Judiciary Committee, and the Senate is poised to give final approval to the bill today.
Harimoto (D, Pearl Harbor-Pearl City-Aiea) died June 18 after a long illness. If SB 2139 is approved, it would take effect retroactively on June 17, the day before Harimoto died.
The House maneuvering on the bill was roundly criticized by Common Cause Hawaii Executive Director Sandy Ma, who said the public had no advance notice the new language would be inserted into the bill June 30.
“If there were a proposed (draft made public in advance), there could have been testimony, people could have gotten notice, there could have been transparency and accountability about this change,” she said.
Instead, lawmakers are making the change at the last minute in a unique session in which the state Capitol is closed to the public because of the new coronavirus, and ordinary citizens are therefore not allowed in the building to lobby or testify in person on bills.
There was only one piece of written testimony submitted on the bill when it was heard by the House Judiciary Committee on June 29, and that testimony didn’t deal with the proposed change in eligibility for vacant legislative seats “because no one knew,” Ma said.
“I’m just floored. This is what people complain about with Hawaii politics, that it’s just insider dealing,” she said. “It just looks so bad. There was clearly a lack of transparency, clearly a lack of notice to the public. Why now?”
Takayama said in an interview that he hasn’t decided whether to submit his name as a potential candidate for the Senate seat, but “I will consider it.” He said it is “far too speculative” to say yet whether he plans to run for Harimoto’s Senate seat, in part because he isn’t eligible since he already filed to run for the House. As for reports he is interested in moving to the Senate, Takayama replied that “I have only said that I will do whatever would best serve our district.”
Gov. David Ige on Friday appointed Bennette Misalucha to fill Harimoto’s seat until the Nov. 3 general election. District voters will decide who will fill out the remaining two years of Harimoto’s term in a special election to be held in conjunction with the general election.
The candidates in the special election will be selected by the parties, which each naming one person to run. That means that even if SB 2139 passes, Takayama would still need to convince party officials to nominate him to run.
But Takayama might have a significant advantage on that score because he is politically well connected. He campaigned hard for Ige’s reelection in 2018, and Takayama is married to Ige’s Chief of Staff Linda Chu Takayama.
Apart from voting for SB 2139 as a member of the Judiciary Committee, Takayama said his only involvement in the bill came when Oahu County Democratic Party Committee Chairwoman Lorna Strand called Takayama several weeks ago to express concern that people who had already filed for office were not eligible under state law to run in the special election.
“And so I passed that concern on to … Chris Lee, and he said he was already working on it,” Takayama said. “That was it.”
Lee said, “As a voter, you want to be able to elect the best person possible and not be arbitrarily restricted simply because the timing was off.” He said having the bill before his committee now was “a perfect opportunity” to fix the law.