Dissent surfaces among Democrats on opening day
On a day traditionally set aside for ceremony and celebration, a rift among majority Democrats led to an unusually testy opening of the 2007 session in the state House.
The division within the 43-member majority was voiced by three Democrats who voted against the nomination of Rep. Calvin Say to a fifth term as speaker of the House.
"I have lost my faith and trust in the speaker," said Rep. Sylvia Luke, a former vice speaker under Say. "The lack of vision, the lack of leadership and the need to hold on to power and the old ways of doing things have been more than just disappointing; it simply breaks my heart."
Luke (D, Pacific Heights-Punchbowl) was joined by former Majority Leader Scott Saiki (D, Moiliili-McCully) and freshman Rep. Della Au Belatti. All three apologized for marring the celebratory tone of opening day but said they needed to vote their conscience.
"This is an important vote," said Belatti (D, Tantalus-Makiki). "I think that what this leadership team represents is the status quo, and that's why I stood up and spoke."
The dissension was not unexpected. Say has survived leadership challenges in recent years led by younger members of the caucus, including Saiki. Opponents contend current leadership is shortsighted and too concerned with simply maintaining power.
While he disagreed with their characterization of his leadership style, Say welcomed the comments as "constructive criticism."
"It's an open, democratic process that we have," said Say (D, St. Louis Heights-Wilhelmina Rise-Palolo Valley). "We're doing the people's work, and we're going to move forward, working with everyone."
He pledged to maintain openness and to encourage discussion on all issues before the caucus.
Supporters noted that the House membership voted 48-3 in favor of Say and new Vice Speaker Jon Riki Karamatsu.
"If the vote was a lot closer, we'd have some real problems," said incoming Majority Leader Kirk Caldwell (D, Manoa). "I think these are just some people who don't want to give up on their reorganization challenge."
Opponents contend the divide is actually greater and will show itself as the session progresses.
"It's the first day of session, and there's a lot of pressure," Luke said. "For a freshman like Della, it took a lot of courage for her to stand up and speak against the speaker. It takes a lot for any individual to do that."
Incoming Finance Chairman Marcus Oshiro (D, Wahiawa-Poamoho) said the public will get to decide the effectiveness of the leadership team when the session is over.
"Obviously, we're disappointed in how they used the opening session as a soapbox to air their grievances," Oshiro said. "The proof will be in the pudding -- on what kind of measures we come out with and the record of accomplishments."
Saiki added, "We'll be serving as watchdogs this year, and we're going to make sure that things are done properly."