Maui state Sen. Shan Tsutsui on Thursday accepted the position of lieutenant governor of Hawaii, saying he hopes to act as a liaison between the Neighbor Islands and Gov. Neil Abercrombie's administration while continuing to direct resources to Maui.
As state Senate president, Tsutsui, 41, was in line for the post following the governor's appointment of Brian Schatz to the U.S. Senate to replace the late Daniel K. Inouye, who died Dec. 17.
Tsutsui's new job was effective Thursday.
Lt. Gov. Shan Tsutsui speaks at a Thursday news conference in Honolulu with Gov. Neil Abercrombie announcing that Tsutsui has agreed to serve as Hawaii's new lieutenant governor and replace newly sworn in U.S. Sen. Brian Schatz.
"What Maui and the Neighbor Islands can look forward to is the executive branch having a greater presence," Tsutsui said in an interview with The Maui News. "That's one of the items the governor and I discussed and negotiated. I look at this as an opportunity that really shows a commitment to Neighbor Island folks that they can have access."
Abercrombie announced at a press conference Thursday at the state Capitol that an additional Office of the Lieutenant Governor is being set up on Maui for Tsutsui to work from both Honolulu and Maui.
"I want to make very, very clear . . . our state is multiisland and so Lieutenant Governor Tsutsui will be working out of Maui and Oahu officially, and I'm very pleased about that," Abercrombie said. "There's no reason to expect Neighbor Island folks to have to give up their lives on the Neighbor Islands to accept statewide office."
SHAN TSUTSUI at a glance . . .
Shan Tsutsui, a Democrat, served as the 12th Senate president of Hawaii, representing the district that covers Wailuku, Waihee and Kahului. He had been the first Senate president from Maui.
Tsutsui, 41, was first elected to the Hawaii Senate in 2002 to represent Hawaii's 4th Senatorial District. (Through redistricting, it has since become the 5th Senatorial District.) His previous leadership positions included serving as vice chairman of the Senate Ways and Means Committee and as Majority Caucus leader.
He was elected Senate president in 2010 to replace Colleen Hanabusa, who was elected to the U.S. Congress that year. Tsutsui had again been chosen for the leadership position shortly after this year's general election.
His profile on the state Capitol's website included the following resume:
Maui High School, 1989
University of Hawaii at Manoa, bachelor of arts in economics, 1994
Business consultant, Atlas Insurance Agency Inc., 2008-present
Director of marketing, Hawaii Investment Securities, 2005-09
Owner/operator, Keiki Time, 2001-08
Financial adviser, UBS Paine Webber, 1998-2004
Financial adviser, Prudential Securities, 1996-98
Financial adviser, Manulife Financial, 1994-96
Elected to the Hawaii State Senate in 2002
* Senate Committees
2003-04: Ways and Means, vice chairman
2005-06: Ways and Means, vice chairman; Majority Caucus leader
2007-08: Ways and Means, vice chairman; Intergovernmental and Military Affairs, vice chairman; Majority Caucus leader
2009-10: Ways and Means, vice-chairman; Majority Caucus leader
Tsutsui said that the state is still seeking out permanent space for the office, but, in the meantime, he may work out of the governor's Maui liaison office in Wailuku. His family - wife Lyndelle Lee Tsutsui and daughters, Mikayla, Kaylee and Kenna - will remain on Maui.
He said he anticipates being able to spend more time on Maui in his new role than in his previous legislative position.
"As Senate president, I spent a large amount of time on Oahu," he said. "I think being lieutenant governor and having a Maui office will allow me to spend more time on Maui, which I'm really looking forward to. I miss the interaction with constituents."
Still, Tsutsui said the decision wasn't an easy one.
"I went back and forth, and just this morning when I woke up, I thought I'd turn the governor down," he said. "But over the last 24 hours we had numerous conversations about what my role would be. . . . I felt like I was in a good position to help Maui and help the state in my role as Senate president, but this will provide me the opportunity to work with the Legislature and assisting the administration with areas like collective bargaining, unresolved issues with the (Public Lands Development Corp.), and help the governor move forward with his New Day initiatives."
He said he intends to play "a very meaningful role."
Tsutsui added that he believes he's leaving Maui in capable hands with the current Maui delegations in both the state House and Senate.
"With the possibility of having Speaker (Joe) Souki in the House, and my two senior senators, Senators (Roz) Baker and (J. Kalani) English, Maui is in really good hands," Tsutsui said. "Hopefully, Maui can benefit from me being in a different place."
Abercrombie said Tsutsui's role would not simply be a ceremonial one, as the lieutenant governor position is often perceived.
"I think he's going to be happy in this role because it is not symbolic, it is not pro-forma. It's dynamic and it's every day," Abercrombie said.
In fact, the role has often proved to be a springboard for Hawaii politicians seeking higher office.
Tsutsui joked at the news conference that he might run against Abercrombie for governor in 2014.
University of Hawaii political science professor emeritus Neal Milner noted that former Govs. George Ariyoshi, John Waihee and Ben Cayetano all served as lieutenant governors before taking the state's top elected position.
But, he said, taking on the job as lieutenant governor doesn't necessarily prime Tsutsui for the Governor's Office.
"The position will get him more visibility than president of the Senate," Milner said.
But he pointed out that Ariyoshi, Waihee and Cayetano all had more experience and statewide name recognition before they launched bids for the Governor's Office.
If Tsutsui is interested in running for governor, he has a lot of work to do to become more well-known statewide, Milner said.
The amount of visibility Tsutsui gets will be dependent upon what Abercrombie tasks him with doing, he said, because it's not explicit what the lieutenant governor does.
With Schatz, Abercrombie gave him "important stuff to do," such as giving him a leadership position in preparing Hawaii for the international Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation conference last year.
"It takes a heck of a long time" for the public to recognize a name sufficiently for statewide office, Milner said. Name recognition is one of the first thing polls look for in assessing political candidates, he said.
Milner speculated that because Tsutsui's succession as lieutenant governor "happened so suddenly" the long-term implications may not have occurred to him.
"Those sorts of things haven't even entered into his thinking," he said.
Tsutsui acknowledged that he's not focused on running for re-election, saying, "I really just want to focus on working with the governor right now and in time I'll make that decision."
Tsutsui's fellow Maui lawmakers expressed excitement over his new role.
"I think this is a great opportunity for Shan," Baker said. "I know he'll serve not only our state well, but do an excellent job for Maui and keep his eye on things from a new perspective. I look forward to working with him in his new role."
In the state House, Maui Rep. Gil Keith-Agaran added: "I think he's going to be a great lieutenant governor. I think, potentially, he would be a great governor."
Souki, who has secured the needed votes in the state House to become speaker, also was pleased.
"I was very elated. . . . I'm very happy for him," Souki said.
While Keith-Agaran said "today is Shan's day," he said he would like to possibly fill Tsutsui's vacancy for the state Senate 5th District, which includes Central Maui, which Keith-Agaran also represents in the House.
"Certainly, I would consider doing it," he said.
Keith-Agaran said he'd be interested because he, along with Tsutsui and Souki, "have been working on a number of issues we think are important" and "we want to make sure we have people in both the House and Senate to make these things move forward."
He cited, for example, continuing to improve Maui Memorial Medical Center; funding the University of Hawaii Maui College and expanding its four-year program; making sure the Central Maui Regional Park is built; and ensuring that if a new jail is built on Maui, it's "done right."
Souki, who also represents part of Central Maui, said he's not interested in the state Senate seat because he's made a commitment to his colleagues in the state House to assume the speakership.
Maui County Council Member Joe Pontanilla, who ran unsuccessfully for Keith-Agaran's seat this past primary election, said he will not seek Tsutsui's state Senate seat.
Pontanilla will end his 10-year council career in about a week because of term limits.
Council Member Mike Victorino, who holds the Wailuku residency seat, said Thursday evening that he had just heard the news of Tsutsui's decision and would have to evaluate the situation before considering whether to seek the state Senate seat.
"I have to really look at it before I decide," he said adding that he was just elected to another term in the County Council in November.
"I'm happy for Shan," said Victorino, calling him one of the "bright young" politicians in the party.
Stephanie Ohigashi, vice chairwoman of public relations and communications for the Maui County Democratic Party and a 9th District precinct officer, said Tsutsui's replacement will need to come from the 5th Senate District, which covers the Wailuku 8th House District, including Waihee, and the Kahului 9th House District.
Maui Democrats would entertain applications from party members and then transmit three names to the governor for appointment, she said.
Ohigashi said she did not have a timetable for that to happen, and she pointed out that as of late Thursday afternoon, the party had not yet been formally notified that the seat was vacant.
Under Hawaii Revised Statutes, "the political party shall submit the list of prospective appointees to the governor within 30 calendar days following the first day of vacancy."
The Maui party would verify that applicants are party members and receive resumes and statements of candidate interest, she said.
The candidates do not need to be elected or former elected officials, she said, and they can be grass-roots party members or someone active in the party for at least six months.
Ohigashi said she would "most likely" sit on the Maui panel to review the applicants, and she said that she would consider legislative experience, community organizing experience, the ability to draft bills, knowledge of the 5th Senate District and the ability to work well with people.
She said she would like to find "someone who could go to bat and pick up where Shan left off."
As for who will serve as state Senate president when the legislative session opens Jan. 16, state Senate Vice President Donna Mercado Kim said in a statement that members would be meeting in the next few days to discuss just that.
"While we are sad to see President Shan Tsutsui leave the Senate, we are happy that he has agreed to accept the position of lieutenant governor, and we look forward to working with him," Kim said.
Baker said that the state Senate had previously come to an agreement on committee chairmanships and assignments for the upcoming session, but noted that those could possibly change under new leadership.
"I would anticipate the Senate would want to keep as much of the agreement in place as possible, but anytime there's movement in one place, there will be other movement as well," she said.
* City Editor Brian Perry and Staff Writer Melissa Tanji contributed to this report. Nanea Kalani can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.