Speakers' foes draw from a rich past
HAWAII'S mainstream politicians continually ignore the dissidents within the Democratic Party at their own peril.
The latest examples are Reps. Della Au Belatti, Scott Saiki and Sylvia Luke. The trio last week voted against Rep. Calvin Say as speaker of the House.
"Some of us are reformists by nature," Luke said in a floor speech criticizing Say's leadership during the legislative session's opening day ceremonies.
The three claim to have support, while others warn it is a political mistake to oppose Say, who has been speaker for six years.
There is, however, something about Hawaii's lockstep Democratic Party that just invites dissidents to try harder.
Thirty years ago, Richard Garcia was a 22-year-old, newly elected representative who had a knack for political organization. He was able to gather the freshman Democrats into a group with other House dissidents to gain political power. Garcia became chairman of the health committee at a time when regulating air and water pollution meant running straight at the sugar plantations and the powerful corporations.
Sadly, Garcia also had a knack for stretching the truth, and after 10 years in the Legislature he was imprisoned for securities fraud and failing to file tax returns. He operated a phony tropical plant company called Agriculture Research & Technology Groups Inc., also known as Agretech.
More noteworthy Democratic dissidents include Congressman Neil Abercrombie, former Gov. Ben Cayetano and former legislator and state superintendent of education Charles Toguchi. That trio, along with several others, made life miserable for Richard Wong when he was Senate president.
The dissidents' failed coup ended in a late night Senate filibuster with Toguchi being escorted off the floor by the Senate sergeant-at-arms.
To keep the political circles unbroken, you also have to remember that Wong was a former House dissident who had linked up with Garcia's band of freshmen to gain some power in the state House.
Today's dissidents are casting their battle in terms of "a lack of leadership, the need to hold onto power and the old way of doing things," but it is also a sign of some political muscle being developed and organized.
When the House was organizing before the current session started, both Sen. Dan Inouye and party chairman Mike McCartney attempted to intervene, but were rebuffed by the Say group. The public employee unions also had poked around in the scrum because they were upset with Say.
But meddling in legislative organization is as advisable as offering free advice to the parties at divorce court.
If Luke, Saiki and Belatti come full circle and wind up running the House in 2008, it will not be because of any failure on the part of Calvin Say, but the result of Democrats' ability to regenerate themselves through dissent.
writes on politics every Sunday in the Star-Bulletin. He can be reached at 525-8630 or by e-mail at email@example.com