What just happened at the State House?

Reps. Ito and Tokioka just lost their leadership positions on the House veterans committee, and it might have been because of a planned coup to overthrow House leadership.

Will Caron

Above: Rep. James Tokioka

Update: Rep. Ito released a statement giving his version of why he was removed as chair of the VMI committee. While acknowledging that he signed on to a resolution of support for Rep. Tokioka to become Speaker of the House, he still blames his removal on petty vindictiveness, something he claims is commonplace under Saiki’s leadership:

Today, I was approached by Speaker of the House of Representatives, Scott Saiki, and was informed that I would be removed, effective immediately, from my post as Chair of the House Committee on Veterans, Military & International Affairs, & Culture & the Arts (VMI).

I believe the reason for my removal from the VMI committee is purely political. I recently signed a petition supporting Rep. James Tokioka of Kauai as Speaker of the House of Representative, and that was the reason that prompted my removal as Chair of the VMI committee. I was unwilling to compromise my loyalty and friendship with Rep. Tokioka, who is Vice-Chair of the VMI Committee.  The nature of the current political environment in the House is one that operates in the dark, and with retribution for taking a stance that may not be popular to House leadership. I believe that we are a democracy, and all sides should be heard. This is the people’s House. I have full confidence that Rep. Tokioka represents this important, necessary change for the House.

House Resolution 9 was adopted during today’s floor session at the State House of Representatives. The result was that Ken Ito and James Tokioka were replaced as chair and vice chair, respectively, of the VMI committee by Reps. Matt LoPresti and Beth Fukumoto. Reps. Choy, Creagan, DeCoite, Har, Say, Souki and Tokioka voted no, and Reps. Cachola, Hashem, Kong, Chris Lee, McDermott, Tupola and Ward were excused.

We don’t have all the details yet, but as early as last week The Independent had heard rumors that Rep. Tokioka was gunning for Speaker Saiki’s position and was working on obtaining the necessary votes to overthrow the current House leadership. Rep. Tokioka is a member of the faction that held power prior to 2013 under the leadership of Speaker Emeritus Calvin Say. It appears the effort backfired however, with Majority Leader Della Au Belatti introducing HR9.

Because Rep. Tokioka’s efforts happened in caucus and, perhaps, with a floor resolution, there is no written record of what exactly transpired, or which representatives may have signed on to overthrow Speaker Saiki’s leadership team. An anonymous source within the House was unwilling to provide The Independent with a complete list, but suggested that some male freshman representatives may have signed on to the planned coup. It remains unclear whether this was simply a political miscalculation—that is, they thought Rep. Tokioka had the votes already and didn’t want to be left behind when it came to picking new leadership positions and committee chairs—or whether these young reps were legitimately hoping for a return of leadership to the former Calvin Say faction headed by Rep. Tokioka and, presumably Rep. Ryan Yamane as Finance Committee chair.

Another source close to the legislature thinks that there may be genuine dissatisfaction among representatives with the way Rep. Luke handles the Finance committee currently. It is possible that these legislators were tired of, what our source describes as, a certain level of pay-to-play in the form of displays of loyalty to rep. Luke. Specifically, our source mentions some reps. being forced to kill bills in committee simply to demonstrate a willingness to obey Rep. Luke. That being said, our source was highly skeptical that replacing the Saiki team with a reincarnation of the former Say team would be helpful with regard to passing progressive legislation this session, considering they are generally more pro-business and more socially (and perhaps economically) conservative than the Saiki team.

Rep. Say lost power when Rep. Joe Souki organized an unusual coalition of republicans and junior democrats who were less socially conservative than Say’s faction. This allowed then-Governor Neil Abercrombie to call for a special session in November of 2013 to pass a marriage equality bill. The passage of the marriage equality bill, along with other moves on the part of the more progressive democrats in Souki’s coalition, eroded the republican support for the coalition. Combined with a few leadership missteps, including that whole Angus McKelvey thing and pressure from the governor to settle the rail question, this erosion led to another leadership shakeup in which Rep. Scott Saiki assumed speakership from within the existing Souki faction. As we reported then, Reps. Saiki and Luke, had been calling the shots within the remaining Souki coalition for awhile before Rep. Souki was deposed.

For now it appears that Rep. Saiki’s tenure is still secure. It is highly unlikely that a leadership change would be forced in the midst of a session, so Rep. Luke will likely remain Finance chair for the remainder of the session as well. If that changes, we may have to create a new running column, perhaps titled the “House of Cards,” to track the frequent reshuffling of House leadership positions.

In terms of the VMI committee, having Matt LoPresti assume the chairship seems like a step in the right direction. Rep. Ito, who apparently did not even vote against his own deposition as chair (see vote count on HR9), held only a handful of hearings last session and didn’t even attend all of them. LoPresti, by contrast, has already been involved in the issues of cyber security, net neutrality, the missile alert and other potentially relevant VMI committee issues before he was awarded the chairship. There is essentially no time left to introduce new legislation to pass through his committee, but we will have to watch what he is able to accomplish as chair this session and going forward.