HONOLULU - Infighting between progressive and old-line Democrats has left the Hawaii House of Representatives leaderless as the state's annual legislative session begins today.
Majority Democrats are divided over whether Speaker of the House Calvin Say, D-St. Louis Heights-Wilhelmina Rise, and his team should keep their posts. The speaker has the power to decide which bills get hearings, what committee leaders will guide legislation and which issues are priorities.
Say has led the House since 1999, and he has 25 Democrats supporting him - one short of the majority he needs to continue heading the 51-member legislative body. Seventeen Democrats who are generally younger and more liberal want a change in leadership that would include them more in decision making.
Among the likely candidates are Rep. Roy Takumi, D-Pearl City-Pacific Palisades, or Rep. Sylvia Luke, D-Pacific Heights-Punchbowl.
"The views of a very small group of people have been dominating the House for a very long time," said Rep. Jessica Wooley, D-Laie-Kahaluu. "They've excluded diversity, they've excluded women, and they've pushed their agenda to the exclusion of a lot of other people."
The House's eight Republicans, who support Say because of his anti-general excise tax hike stance, could break the stalemate if the leadership struggle spills into a public forum on the House floor.
Relying on Republicans to settle a battle in the nation's most one-sided Legislature could weaken Democrats politically and lead to bitter internal disputes throughout the upcoming 60-day legislative session.
Say acknowledged that he could accept Republican help, but he hasn't given them anything in return.
"A vote has to occur to get the people's work done by the end of the week," Say said. "Sometimes individuals think they could be chairs or leadership, and that's where the difficulty occurs."
Any representative could introduce a resolution to name the speaker, which would require a vote of the full chamber.
Say and several Democrats on both sides said they hope to avoid a public power struggle that would detract from opening-day festivities. They could take up the leadership issue later in the day or week.
The leadership dispute has dragged on since the Nov. 2 general election, when four new Republicans and three new Democrats were voted to the House. Republicans gained two House seats.
Last year, four of Say's opponents led committees, and one of them had a leadership position. Only one member of his leadership team is a woman.
Say said he's offering the opposition five committee chairmanships and two leadership positions. But they want seven or eight committee chairmanships and two leadership positions.
Republicans said Tuesday that representatives should get on with the business of making new laws and balancing the state's budget. They will introduce a bill that would require an interim speaker of the House be named 45 days before each year's session begins.