Maui state House Rep. Joe Souki fended off one last challenge by his state House opponents to become speaker again on Wednesday’s opening day of the state Legislature on Oahu.
“We expected that,” said Souki of the challenge, noting that he had secured enough votes for the speakership before Wednesday. “And they wanted to save face.”
In a last-ditch legislative maneuver, Souki’s predecessor Calvin Say – who had said last month that he would not run for the post because he did not have enough votes – offered a floor amendment to give state House members a chance to vote for his chosen successor, Rep. Marcus Oshiro.
Say’s amendment failed, but before the vote, the former speaker noted that he and 17 other representatives, including Maui Rep. Kyle Yamashita, supported the floor amendment that would name Oshiro as speaker.
Souki did not expect his rise to state House speaker to affect the rest of the session, adding that he has made peace with opponents. Members of Say’s camp came over to him after the opening session, and “now they are willing to work with me,” Souki told The Maui News on Wednesday evening.
“I don’t think there will be a problem at all,” the new speaker said.
Yamashita and Oshiro could not be immediately reached for comment Wednesday.
Oahu Rep. Sharon Har spoke out against the resolution that would make Souki speaker, citing revenge, retribution, vengeance, vindictiveness and punishment by the new leadership. She urged her colleagues to vote down the resolution in comments during the opening session.
In a phone interview after the opening session, Har said that she and other representatives had concerns about Souki’s leadership and appointments and did not want to vote on the resolutions on opening day of the Legislature.
Souki “outright refused” to put off the vote on resolutions making him speaker and on committee assignments, she said.
Har apologized for her public objections, but said she had no choice but to speak up at the ceremonial opening session.
She said she believed that Souki had been harboring a lot of anger since he lost his speakership to Say 14 years ago. She did not see the election of Souki as “change.” Electing an 80-year-old speaker who served in the post in the past did not constitute change, she said.
“That’s moving backward; that’s not moving forward,” Har said.
Souki responded by saying that Har is “taking it (the change) very hard.” He noted that she and other Say supporters might be having a difficult time with the shift in leadership and power.
The new speaker also denied Har’s account of not being open to further discussions on leadership changes and that he was not directly involved in the negotiations on those issues.
“We were very inclusive,” Souki added.
Even those from Say’s camp were given leadership positions. He said his decision to challenge Say for the speakership was not personal.
“I have nothing but aloha for Calvin Say,” he said. “It’s unfortunate it had to come this way.”
After Wednesday’s session, Maui Rep. Angus McKelvey said via phone from Oahu that he disagreed with Har’s remarks. He said there was no revenge or vindictiveness from Souki or the new House leadership.
McKelvey noted that Say supporters held on to leadership positions and some retained powerful positions as well, such as Yamashita remaining in charge of the capital improvement project budget in the powerful state House Finance Committee.
For him, McKelvey said the power struggle in the state House was like “my uncle and pops being at odds with each other” with Say being his “uncle” and Souki as “pops.” Mc-Kelvey said that in the end he needed to stand by Souki, although he called Say very qualified for the job as well.
The West Maui lawmaker added that “we’ve got to move on” and that he was working to reach out to Say supporters to get work done in the Legislature.
“It’s truly a team effort now,” he said.
At the Wednesday opening session, Rep. Scott Saiki, the House majority leader under Souki, stood in support of the resolution making Souki speaker. He said that while change can sometimes be difficult, he viewed this leadership change as a positive.
“We will usher in a new generation with new perspectives,” he said.
After electing the speaker, the House resumed its usual course of opening day festivities with music and speeches at the state Capitol.
Retired U.S. Sen. Daniel K. Akaka was recognized with a standing ovation. Before Souki proceeded into the speaking part of the program, he said: “Danny, this is for you,” a tribute to the late U.S. Sen. Daniel K. Inouye, who died on Dec. 17. There was song and recognition of Inouye in the program, including Maui’s Willie K singing “Danny Boy.”
The state Senate held its opening festivities concurrently with the state House. The state Senate elected its leadership with Oahu Sen. Donna Mercado Kim chosen as president. She replaces former Maui state Sen. Shan Tsutsui, who is currently lieutenant governor.
Also officially sworn in was former Kahului House Rep. Gil Keith-Agaran, who took over the state Senate District 5 seat left by Tsutsui, who was appointed lieutenant governor Dec. 27 in a domino-effect of appointments and vacancies in the wake of the death of Inouye.
On Tuesday, Kahului small-business owner and former legislative analyst and clerk Justin Woodson was appointed to Keith-Agaran’s seat.
The freshman lawmaker said Wednesday evening that he felt the first day went well. He said people were welcoming and he was reconnecting with familiar folks from his days in the Legislature.
Even though the meeting started off with some contention, Woodson said that in the end, “people no matter what side they are on want to get things done.”
Other members of the Maui state House delegation could not be immediately reached Wednesday.
After his election as speaker, Souki welcomed the public and dignitaries to the gathering.
“As you can see, it started with a bang,” Souki kidded, alluding to Say’s amendment and events that followed.
Even as Say mounted his challenge Wednesday, Souki stuck to his prepared remarks thanking Say for his 14 years as House speaker, noting that his colleague maintained the fiscal solvency of the state and had been a “good steward.”
In his address to the members, Souki expressed that there is “cautious optimism” for the state.
“With Hawaii’s economy on the rise, construction stable, tourism up and unemployment down, there is reason for cautious optimism,” he said. “This is the moment we have been waiting for.
“Over the past few years, the state budget was cut by over $2 billion. Meanwhile, wages dropped, health-benefit costs rose, many people were forced out of work. The homeless population still grows among them, war heroes, persons needing mental health services, families unable to pay their mortgage or rent. We have the chance now, to rebuild what the recession took away.”
Souki laid out what areas could be helped, including job creation, medical care, agriculture, infrastructure, protection of natural resources and tourism.
He said there needs to be a “revenue stream” to make improvements in the state. An option would be to have the Legislature rethink tax credits smartly, but he added that he did not want to place an unfair tax burden on “those who can least afford it.”
Souki also thanked his supporters for the trust they have in him.
“Let’s get to work,” Souki said.
* Staff Writer Nanea Kalani contributed to this report. Melissa Tanji can be reached at email@example.com.