Deposed Thursday, former Speaker Souki ponders what’s next

Longtime Maui lawmaker seriously considering a run for lieutenant governor

Joe Souki

Joe Souki rested at his Wailuku home Friday, a day after being deposed as speaker of the state House of Representatives. He was reflective and willing to shed some light on the behind-the-scenes politics at the Capitol.

“It was a tough day and the day before when I could see what was happening,” Souki said.

He acknowledged that it stung to lose the speakership, which he held since 2013. But when he saw his support evaporating among a majority of House members, he decided to resign instead of going through a floor fight he knew he’d lose.

The vote to oust him would have been 30 to 21, with the majority including two Maui lawmakers — South Maui Rep. Kaniela Ing and Central Maui Rep. Justin Woodson.

Souki, 84, said he harbors no ill will toward Ing and Woodson.

Rep. Joe Souki speaks at the dedication ceremony for Heritage Hall, which honors the cultures of Portugal and Puerto Rico, in Paia on June 3. The former speaker of the state House reflected on his resignation Thursday after it became apparent that he did not have the votes to continue in the post. -- The Maui News / MATTHEW THAYER photo

“I don’t have ill will against anyone . . . Life is too short for that,” he said. “Some of them were misguided.”

Souki said Ing thought it was time for a “new generation to take over.”

Souki recalled that he was among up-and-coming lawmakers who unseated then powerful House Speaker Henry Peters in 1986.

That came after 22 freshmen lawmakers were elected to the House in 1982 — Souki among them, he said.

“It was a big bloc, one of the biggest ever,” he said.

Souki said his fellow lawmakers helped his rapid rise in the ranks until he was chairman of the powerful House Finance Committee by his third term and speaker in his sixth term. (He was speaker from 1993 to 1999.)

Fast forward to the present, and Souki said he can see how young lawmakers want to move up to more powerful positions.

“And maybe I’m the cork,” he said. “You take out the cork in the bottle, and everything rises.”

In the short term, “of course it stings,” he said of his fall from the fourth-highest seat of power in the state. (In the line of succession, the House speaker is behind the governor, lieutenant governor and Senate president.)

There was “power and latitude, which I don’t have now,” he said, adding that he was “doing well” in adjusting to being simply one vote in the state House.

“It’s a transition,” he said. “I’ll look at it and see where I go from here.”

Souki said that while some younger lawmakers may think “I’m an old codger and I should be replaced,” he shouldn’t be counted out entirely. He said he’s in good health, and his mind is sharp as ever.

“I still have some teeth,” he said. “I’m not dead. I can still contribute.”

Souki made it clear that he would serve until the end of his current term as representative of the 8th House District (Wailuku, Waikapu, Kahakuloa, Waihee, Waiehu, Puuohala), and he’s not considering retirement. Rather, he’s “very serious” about running for lieutenant governor in 2018.

Earlier this year, the Capitol rumor mill was humming with speculation that Souki might be in line for lieutenant governor – if Lt. Gov. Shan Tsutsui resigned to run for mayor of Maui County and if Senate President Ron Kouchi of Kauai was not interested in taking the state’s No. 2 job.

At the time, in early April, Souki acknowledged he was interested in the lieutenant governor’s job. And, although the line-of-succession scenario is off the table now, Souki said he’s still interested — in running as a candidate.

The filing deadline is June 5, 2018. The annual pay for the lieutenant governor will be $154,812 as July 1, 2018.

Souki said he has a good working relationship with Gov. David Ige, and he knows state government inside and out. And that would be a plus for Ige, he said.

“I do know the system very well, more than anyone running,” he said.

When asked who might fill his House seat, Souki acknowledged there has been “some discussions,” and there are “people out there who’d fit in pretty well.”

He declined to name any potential candidates, saying it was “much, much too premature at this time.”

When asked for his post mortem on how he came to lose the speakership, he cited a number of factors.

One was when West Maui Rep. Angus McKelvey was booted as chairman of the House Consumer Protection and Commerce Committee in mid-March. He was replaced by Oahu Rep. Roy Takumi, and McKelvey was given the chairmanship of the Higher Education Committee in place of Woodson, who moved to chairmanship of the Education Committee, previously chaired by Takumi.

When the faction led by new House Speaker Scott Saiki and Finance Committee Chairwoman Sylvia Luke learned they had 30 votes to replace McKelvey with Takumi, then “I guess that showed they had a little clout,” Souki said. “And it built from there.”

(Saiki and Luke are both from urban Honolulu. Saiki represents McCully, Kaheka, Kakaako and downtown; Luke’s district covers Makiki, Punchbowl, Nuuanu, Dowsett Highlands, Pacific Heights and Pauoa.)

And, Souki said his position on funding the Honolulu mass transit rail project hurt him.

In his opening remarks for this year’s session, Souki called for House members to extend the general excise tax for Oahu to pay for rail. On Thursday, he said he wanted to “finish rail whatever it took,” and his position evolved to an extension of the general excise tax increase for Oahu for two or three years and a 1 percent or 1.5 percent increase in the transient accommodations tax. Powerful members of the House opposed that, and they didn’t want Souki to negotiate a compromise on rail with Senate President Kouchi. The Senate had approved a bill to extend the 0.5 percent excise tax for 10 years to 2037.

Souki said he was ready to discuss a resolution with Kouchi, “and at that point it fell apart.”

That became the catalyst for him losing support of House members for leadership as speaker, he said.

Another rail casualty was Senate Ways and Means Chairwoman Jill Tokuda. She criticized Honolulu’s management of the rail project and rebuffed the city’s request for an extension of the half-percent tax surcharge.

Ing and Woodson were not the only Neighbor Island House members to break with Souki. Six of seven Big Island representatives would have voted in favor of the new leadership and two out of three Kauai members were set to vote that way as well, Souki said.

The power restructuring in the House unravels a Neighbor Island coalition that offset the numerical advantage of Oahu lawmakers and gave clout to legislators from Maui, the Big Island and Kauai.

“It takes away the strength from the Neighbor Islands and gives it to Honolulu,” Souki said.

In time, the Neighbor Island House members may regret their move, he said.

In the end, he said, “I wasn’t asked to resign by anybody . . . I knew I didn’t have the votes.”

Souki said it was his decision to resign and to avoid a floor fight on the last day of this year’s lawmaking session.

“For the future of the Legislature it’s not best to make a fight but to heal,” he said. “That was my choice.”

Counting votes is “very important” for a lawmaker, he said.

“The bad thing about it is when you know you don’t have enough, and you can’t do a damn thing about it,” he said.

Souki said his staff in the speaker’s office was working Friday to remove his belongings.

“We’re trying to get word on where we’re going,” he said.

When asked jokingly if his new office might be a broom closet, Souki laughed and said that’s been known to happen, although he hopes he still has the respect of his fellow lawmakers.

He said he received phone calls Friday night from House members who sided with and against him, thanking him for “stopping the bloodshed.”

And, when asked about the future of Maui County’s influence in the state House, Souki said: “I think Maui will do fine.”

Maui still has Upcountry Rep. Kyle Yamashita in a key position managing capital improvement projects on the Finance Committee, he said. “That’s very important.”

And, he said he expected that Woodson would remain as Education Committee chairman and McKelvey as chairman of the Higher Education Committee.

“If we keep those things, that puts us in a very good position for the future,” he said.

* Brian Perry can be reached at bperry@mauinews.com.


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