HONOLULU (HawaiiNewsNow) - Representative Rida Cabanilla is caught on tape claiming she wasn't present for the historic marriage equality vote because her choice would have cost her district state funding. House leadership is saying that's absolutely not the case.
Cabanilla is the newest member of House management. She replaced Karen Awana as the Majority Floor leader, after Awana resigned amid an investigation into how she spent campaign funds. Given her role in House leadership, Cabanilla is expected to support the majority caucus on key votes – which would have been a yes to the marriage equality bill, SB 1 HD 1. But instead of voting no as she wanted to, Cabanilla excused herself during the vote and was marked absent, though she was inside the Capitol.
Cabanilla was questioned about her absence during the SB 1 second and third reading votes at the Ewa Neighborhood board meeting Thursday night.
Her opponent in the last District race, Dr. Matthew LoPresti recorded the exchange and posted it to his Facebook page. He confirms he plans to run against her again next November.
"I want to call for unity after the contentious gay marriage debate. Agree or disagree our legislators took the time to do their jobs and they represented us and they represented their constituencies and I'd like to thank them for that," LoPresti said, addressing the neighborhood board. "Sadly, there was one person who didn't show up and represent us. I think it is this board's duty to hold our elected leaders accountable when they choose not to do their job."
Rep. Cabanilla who had been sitting in the crowd, rose to respond to LoPresti.
"I object!" Cabanilla said.
"Please hold our elected officials accountable when they choose not to represent us," LoPresti continued, at which point Cabanilla interrupted him again.
"I represent this district to the best I can! You just don't understand it. You just don't understand! FYI, I have this job and you don't, okay? Because you don't understand nothing," said Rep. Cabanilla at which point a Neighborhood Board member can be heard saying "enough of the bickering".
Later, LoPresti asks Cabanilla, "Why didn't you represent our community with a vote?"
"The vote had been consistently 19 to 30. Whether I vote yes or no, it really doesn't matter. It doesn't matter. It's done. If I vote no in front of my leadership, in front of the Speaker of the House, there's a big chance – I can guarantee you 100%, Ewa Beach will be toast," Rep. Cabanilla is recorded responding.
"What Rida Cabanilla said about Ewa Beach losing all state funding for schools and roads in our community is just mind boggling and I think it's patently absurd. It seems that she's placed her political career ahead of the needs of the people of Ewa Beach," LoPresti said during an interview with Hawaii News Now Friday.
Senator Will Espero was in the crowd and according to board members took some heat for his yes vote on the bill.
"At the end of the day, we have to be accountable for our votes and for our actions," explained Espero.
Espero says it's a perfectly legitimate question for voters to ask Cabanilla why she didn't vote.
"Now the voters and constituents have to decide whether her answer was satisfactory or whether there is more information they would like from her," Espero added.
"Now is it worth it for me to vote yes or no on that instance? When the appropriation of the whole district is riding on it and the district is divided?" Rep. Cabanilla went on to say during Thursday night's Neighborhood Board meeting.
House Majority Leader Scott Saiki confirms there is an inherent expectation representatives in leadership roles will vote along party and caucus positions.
"The members of the House need to know that their leadership team will back them up on the hard votes," Saiki explained, but he says there have never been any threats.
"I think some members may have perceptions based on prior experiences but this is a new leadership team in the House and we did not want to send the message or create the impression that members will be punished for their votes," Saiki said.
Hawaii News Now made several attempts to contact Representative Rida Cabanilla and spoke to her office manager multiple times Friday over the phone and in person, but we're told she has left for Africa and is not available for comment.
Cabanilla was elected to the House in 2005. Saiki says there are no plans to replace her as House Majority Floor leader despite her allegations, but LoPresti says he hopes voters will feel otherwise.
"If Rida Cabanilla cannot handle the most basic responsibilities of an elected official, which is to vote and represent then maybe we need to find somebody else," LoPresti said, adding, "As soon as the vote was tallied and it showed that Rida Cabanilla didn't vote and that she was there – I started getting responses from neighbors in the community, both for gay marriage and against it, encouraging me to run against her because they were so outraged. She isolated 100% of the base of our community."
Rep. Cabanilla was one of two House members not present for the final SB 1, HD1 vote. However, Representative Isaac Choy was out of the country on a previously scheduled and paid for family vacation. Cabanilla was also absent for the Civil Unions vote back in 2011.