Friday, May 6, 2016

The Factions and Tribalism in the State House

There are 51 elected officials making up the Hawaii House of Representatives, each of whom represents districts throughout the state. Forty-four are Democrats, seven Republicans. That tells us very little.
This week, the online publication Civil Beat uncovered the fluid and chaotic groups that constitute the House. The groupings in the House are much more fractious than Democrat versus Republican.
The tribalism in the House begins (and ends) with Maui's own Joe Souki. Souki has been in the House since 1982. He served as speaker of the House for six years in the 1990s.
So what does the speaker even do? The speaker is the top spot presiding over the business of the House. The speaker's role is to assign other House members to subcommittees and dole out who presides as chair over what. Needless to say, it's a powerful position. Legislation lives and dies by the complicated procedure of hearings, committee reviews and readings in the House.
Anyway, Souki presided over the House for six years before stepping down from the position in 1999. Maui has had its fair share. Before Souki, Elmer Cravalho of Paia and Kihei's Tadao Beppu both held the post in the 1960s and '70s.
The new speaker came from Oahu, is younger than Souki by at least 20 years, but had been in the House for a longer period of time. Calvin Say had been representing the district covering St. Louis Heights, Palolo and Kaimuki since the late '70s. When he became the speaker, he was the first Chinese-American to hold the post.
Say's speakership was long and contentious. He held the post for 13 years. Say developed a system of allies in the House and sidelined those who opposed him.
For a Democrat, he's pretty conservative. For example, Say drew a lot of heat in 2010 over civil unions. After then-Gov. Linda Lingle vetoed the bill, progressives and labor unions pressured the Legislature to hold a special session to override the veto. The Senate appeared to be willing, but Say's House wouldn't budge. The matter was dead.
Then there was the issue of where Say actually lived. During his time as speaker, Say faced a residency challenge. Did Say really live in the district he represented? His house on 10th Avenue became the subject of controversy in 2014 and 2015. It may have looked vacant, but he was vindicated and successfully proved what he had said: He resides in Kaimuki.
No one really cared by then. He had been stripped of the speakership. Over the years of Say's leadership, a number of sidelined representatives formed a group of their own and were named the Dissidents.
In 2013, the Dissidents were able to ally with some moderate Republicans who were used to being sidelined and took down Say and his allies. The new speaker needed to have experience and needed to keep the peace among Dissidents, Republicans and others along for the ride. They brought back Souki.
Souki has been speaker for the last three years, and he's still going strong. Souki has his supporters who are neither Dissidents nor Say supporters. In the three years under his leadership, the name Dissident has stuck, even though they are a majority of lawmakers in the House and even though they basically can dictate policy, finance and procedure as they see fit.
They've flexed their muscles over the last three years, passing progressive legislation. They've established marijuana dispensaries, hailed the long-awaited, same-sex marriage bill, and have addressed other progressive causes.
Of course, Say is still around, but his supporters are dwindling. The only real opposition is a handful of hardline, conservative Republicans, and a few splinter groups that break from the pack every now and again.
One group is nicknamed the Fab Four, and it's spearheaded by Upcountry's Kyle Yamashita. Yamashita's group started as just four, but lately his number has increased to include a few others. They are less progressive than the majority and often vote as a group on bills. Their positions are oftentimes indistinguishable from another splinter group, the Three Amigos, named after three Oahu Representatives.
In case you're wondering, Maui is doing well. Angus McKelvey is a longtime Souki supporter. Kaniela Ing and Justin Woodson are considered Dissidents (even though Woodson wasn't around when Say was speaker). Lynn DeCoite is new to the scene and her allegiances aren't yet known.
Now that the business of the House is over, the election campaigns can begin in earnest. Splinter groups come and go. Even majorities dwindle. This is the true ebb and flow of Hawaii politics. All of them are Democrats. We get that, but the alliances formed in the People's House are much harder to discern. The divisions don't seem to be based on policy or geography. It's, well, just politics.

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