House GOP infighting over same-sex marriage bill

GOP House infighting over same-sex marriage bill 6PM Update
Published: Oct. 29, 2013 at 5:38 PM HST|Updated: Oct. 30, 2013 at 1:06 AM HST
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HONOLULU (HawaiiNewsNow) - A power play to remove the sole House Republican who plans to vote for same-sex marriage stirred up controversy and political tension at the Capitol Tuesday, but failed.

"I'd like the governing coalition to be dissolved.  I want us to give back the Vice Chairmanships to the majority.  You can have them, they've polluted us.  They've clouded our vision of what it means to provide a good ying and yang a tug and a pull in the democratic process," proclaimed Representative Bob McDermott (R - Ewa Beach, Iroquois Point).

In the showdown, more socially conservative Republicans attempted to oust more moderate Republicans.

Rep. McDermott introduced a resolution to remove long-time Judiciary committee member Representative Cynthia Thielen -- the only Republican who supports same-sex marriage.

McDermott wants Thielen (R - Kailua, Kaneohe) replaced with Representative Richard Fale ((R - Waialua, Kahuku, Waiahole), a fellow socially conservative Republican who also opposes same-sex marriage.

Both McDermott and Thielen serve on the House Judiciary committee, which is scheduled to hear SB 1, the "Hawaii Marriage Equality Act of 2013" this Thursday.  In order for the bill to survive the special session, it must be approved by the Judiciary committee. From there, it would advance to a vote on the House floor.

"In the democratic process, there's a natural ying and yang -- a pull, a tug and when you're all in bed together, so to speak, you lose that.  It's good for both sides because it keeps it taut.  With this there's too much back room slithering -- I mean, all the stuff people hate about politics, that's what this is and when I bought into the leadership I believed what they said -- transparency, openness, deliberate process -- that's not what we have," McDermott said from his office following the House session.

McDermott says he introduced the resolution as a reaction to the Democrat Caucus appointing Representative Denny Coffman (D - Naalehu, Captain Cook, Keahou), who supports same-sex marriage, to the Judiciary committee.  McDermott says the move replaced Representative Rida Cabanilla (D - Ewa Beach, West Loch Estates), who according to McDermott would have voted no on same-sex marriage. However, Cabanilla confirmed with Hawaii News Now during a poll last week, she was undecided.

"This whole arrangement has destroyed the Minority Caucus.  Of course right now, I'm the most hated man in there, fine I can live with that," McDermott said.

House leadership confirmed changes to committee membership does not typically happen unless the representative is removed for cause or consents.

But Thielen would not go down without a fight.

"I refuse to step down.  This body may vote me off of Judiciary, but I refuse to step down from that committee -- and I would ask the Majority, all of you, to have tolerance for a Republican who is a mainstream Republican and who believes in marriage equality for all," Thielen said from the floor. 

"I may be the sole Republican in our Minority Caucus that does, but I can guarantee I'm not the sole Republican in our community that supports marriage equality.  We need the diverse voice.  It doesn't need to be muzzled, Mr. Speaker, by taking me off of the Judiciary committee.  I've been told go join the Democrat party and with all due respect, Mr. Speaker, I prefer to stay here and fight to bring us back to the mainstream where we truly can represent the public and not just be a fringe element looked at as social conservatives before everything else," Thielen said during her House address. 

In his resolution, McDermott also asked to have Representative Gene Ward (R - Kalama Valley, Queen's Gate, Hawaii Kai) instated as Minority Leader of the House-- a move which would replace current the Minority Leader, Representative Aaron Johanson (R - Fort Shafter, Moanalua Gardens, Aliamanu).

"I think that good people can and often do disagree, but that doesn't necessarily have to divide us," said Rep. Johanson during the floor discussion, as he spoke in opposition to the resolution.  "Removing the good representative from Kailua from the Judiciary committee is not the only way to kill the bill," he went on to say. 
"Representative McDermott and I both oppose same-sex marriage, but respectfully and wholeheartedly disagree with some of my fellow Republicans that giving up any official role within the House of Representatives is the best way to further our policy goals. This counterproductive strategy sends the wrong and untrue message that when Republicans don't get exactly what we want, we cannot work with people in good faith and in a constructive manner to achieve our objectives," Johanson said. 

What followed were fiery addresses from several lawmakers.

"Let us not be deceitful.  You have switched out Representative Cabanilla who is a no vote on same-sex marriage with Denny Coffman who is a yes on same-sex marriage -- now who is being deceitful by switching representatives?" Ward said during his address in support of the resolution. 

The exchange grew especially heated when Rep. Ward was called out of order by Speaker Joseph Souki (D - Waihee, Waiehu, Wailuku).

"I'm going to call you out of order," Souki said.
"Well you may do so, Sir," Ward replied.
"You're out of order," Souki Said. 
"Thank you very much.  You want me to walk off?  You want the Sergeant at Arms to come take me off?" Ward challenged.
"Yes, yes," Souki replied. 
"I want to say my peace," Ward responded, at which point a recess was quickly called. 

Later Ward called the moment "déjà vu".

"I was the only member in the 90s, and I think in the history of the legislature, that ever actually got thrown off the floor," Ward said with a smile. 
"This is a very divisive issue.  You can see it, the two caucuses are all split up, the faith community, the gay community is all split up.  We've got to keep this group together.  Leadership is not only to lead and charge the way, but also to keep unity.  We are the governing body for the state of Hawai'i.  We have a responsibility to keep unity and I'm thinking this issue is leading to a lot of divisiveness and I fear that," Ward said. 

The motion failed to pass.

After the vote, Thielen says her heart was racing.

"I was very proud of them, very proud of them because that is democracy.  You don't muzzle a voice because you don't agree with what that voice is saying," Thielen said about her fellow lawmakers.

Majority leadership called the division in the House indicative of the polarizing nature of the same-sex marriage debate.

"We agree to disagree -- not just with the Republicans, but also with Democrats -- within our Caucus.  You know, it's to be expected on an issue like this that you'll have some fundamental differences of opinion and that's the nature of this issue and being in the legislature," explained House Majority leader Scott Saiki (D - Downtown, Kakaako, McCully).

Even with the explosive accusations leveled Tuesday, Saiki says he's confident the House has the votes it needs to pass the same-sex marriage bill.

"I'm sure that once the House Judiciary and Finance committees roll out their amended version of the bill that we'll have even more support.  I'm anticipating that they will amend the Senate bill to address the religious exemptions," Saiki said. 
"Our caucus is split for a wide array of reasons, but this is just like our community, like Gene said -- the community is split on this issue.  Well we have one member out of seven who supports it, and so we're trying to do what we can to give the people an opportunity to vote on this," McDermott said. 

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