HONOLULU (HawaiiNewsNow) - Calvin Say has been speaker of the State House since 1999, making him the longest-serving house speaker since statehood. With the start of a new legislative session just ten days away, house Democrats remain locked in a power struggle over whether Say will keep that post.
Say has 25 votes, one vote shy of what he needs in the 51-member house, thanks to a group of dissident Democrats who are supporting Pearl City Rep. Roy Takumi.
"Representatives are asking the public to be patient," said Rep. Della Au Bellati (D-Makiki/Tantalus/McCully/Papakolea), one of the dissident Democrats. "I think this decision is very important. So for those of us who want a change in the house, who want a more unified house, that's what we're fighting for."
But the chamber's Republicans are anything but patient.
"This is the closest to shutdown that we've ever come," said House Minority Leader Gene Ward. "While the speaker was playing chicken with the dissidents, we felt it was time to get on with it."
Last Friday, the eight G.O.P house members voted, as a bloc, to support Say, because he has more financial discipline and is less likely to raise taxes. However, the Democrats say they'll try to see if they can pick a leader first, without Republican votes.
Even though the leadership issue remains on hold, Democrats say there's still work going on at the state capitol before the legislature convenes. "Informational briefings are going on. People are doing work," Au Bellati said. "I'm in my office every day. We're putting together community briefings as well."
However, because of the leadership struggle, lawmakers still haven't received their committee assignments or chairmanships.
"We've got hearings," Ward said, "but there's a boycott of the dissidents in some of those budget hearings. And you know, we've got an $800 million budget deficit. We've got some real serious business to do."
Say was unavailable for comment Sunday, and wanted lawmakers to use the weekend to mull over the leadership issue. He has set Wednesday as the deadline to organize, but if no decision is made by then, it could still go to a floor vote on opening day, which would include Republican lawmakers.
Representatives said it has never taken this long for the house to organize. Dissidents see that as a sign that they could succeed. "I think that's why I'm most optimistic that we can have real change in the house, because we are being very deliberate and taking the time to really think about how we're going to organize and run our house for the next two years," Au Bellati said.
But Ward said: "Choose one or the other and let's go."