The internal battle to lead Hawaii's House of Representatives appears to have ended with Maui's Rep. Joe Souki officially announcing Wednesday that he's garnered enough support to defeat longtime House Speaker Calvin Say.
Souki's return to the top post won't be confirmed until lawmakers vote on it Jan. 16, the opening day of the 2013 Legislature.
Nonetheless, Souki said he has 28 votes in his favor - two more than the minimum needed from the 51-member House. That includes all seven Republicans in the House and a dissident faction of Democrats opposed to Say's leadership.
"It's not official until the third week of January, but it's official that I have the votes. And I'll try to accumulate more votes as we go along," Souki told The Maui News following a press conference he called Wednesday at the state Capitol.
Say, who has held the speakership the last 13 years, was unavailable for comment Wednesday, according to Thelma Dreyer, a House spokeswoman.
Lawmakers have said privately that Say has not given up yet, and things could still change between now and opening day.
A similar behind-the-scenes stalemate two years ago dragged on until opening day of the 2011 session. Say eventually got the backing of the Republican caucus in order to hold on to his seat for another two years.
Hawaii Democratic Party Chairman Dante Carpenter in a letter last week had cautioned House Democrats against enlisting the help of Republicans to end the deadlock.
Souki said Wednesday that crossing party lines was needed to break the impasse among the 44 Democrats but added that he thought the GOP lawmakers could be "reasonable" colleagues.
"I think the nation as a whole is looking at bipartisanship as we go along. One of the reasons, of course, for working with them was to break the stalemate, but I think the group I'm working with is very reasonable," Souki said. "It will be a trial for both of us."
In return, the Republicans, led by Minority Leader Aaron Ling Johanson, will be given vice chairmanships of three key House committees: Energy and Environmental Protection, Economic Development, and a newly created co-vice-chair position on the powerful Finance Committee that Johanson would hold.
"It was important that we be able to organize the House now because we can't plan a legislative agenda if we're not organized now," Johanson said. "I really feel like this is a historic event because this is the first time there has been a bipartisan coalition for leadership. I am excited for the minority caucus to have the ability for the first time to be a constructive voice and have a little more opportunity for input within the confines of committees."
If Souki's support holds true, it would mean both chambers of the Hawaii Legislature for the first time would be led by Maui lawmakers. The Hawaii Senate has already re-elected Maui Sen. Shan Tsutsui as president.
Maui good-government advocate Dick Mayer recalled, however, in the early 1990s when the late state Sen. Mamoru Yamasaki of Maui chaired the powerful Senate Ways and Means Committee during Souki's past tenure as House Speaker, giving Maui County considerable representation at the Capitol.
"There's been a history of Maui people having leadership positions, but never both (chambers) at the same time," Mayer said.
Souki said he and Tsutsui are mindful of Maui's needs.
"Both the Senate president and myself need to look at the state as a whole, but at the same time keep an eye on Maui County's needs," Souki said.
Tsutsui's office said he was unavailable for comment.
Souki noted several Maui projects among his priorities for the upcoming session.
"I would like to see for Maui a new high school for Kihei; I would like to push that," he said. "And, of course, moving the Maui County jail to a new location, and as far as infrastructure, we need to complete the access road for the airport."
Souki said he also wants to address the state's massive unfunded liabilities for retiree health and pension benefits as well as revisiting the role of the controversial Public Land Development Corp.
"And I want to make sure that we hopefully end with a (budget) surplus, and maybe re-evaluate all the (state) tax credits and see which ones we need, which ones we can trim or maybe not even have," he said.
Johanson said there will be "no shortage of work" in the upcoming session, noting that some of his priorities include helping the economy grow more robustly and addressing cost-of-living issues.
* Nanea Kalani can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.