Testing the (Senate President’s) power

As an observer of politics in Hawai‘i, one of the areas that this blogger likes to witness is when a vote comes up that may show just how strong a coalition is for a leader in the Legislature.

Hawaii State Senate, just before the March 5, 2024 floor session

Those leaders, the Senate President and the House Chair are voted in by the members of the respective body, with the majority vote installing the nominee for that position. Leaders in those positions make up a part of the overall leadership of the state, responsible for maintaining business in the respective chamber, as part of the legislative branch.

As with most positions that are voted in by a constituency, it’s up to the holder of it to maintain their support. How they maintain support is sometimes considered part of the “sausage making” that legislation goes through to get passed. And there are times when the velvet curtain of power is pulled back, and one can see who and what is supporting the mechanism.

That velvet curtain got pulled back, for just a moment, on March 4th, in the Hawai‘i State Senate, when the vote went down to confirm or deny the University of Hawaii Board of Regents Interim Chair Alapaki Nahale-a a second five-year term on the board.

Alapaki Nahale-a speaking to his supporters at the State Capitol, March 5, 2024

They denied him that opportunity, everyone knowing full well that the vote was going to be close. But in watching the events unfold that day, this blogger took a look at who voted for and against Nahale-a, and discerned a few things from that vote.

For the record, the vote was 13 against confirming, 12 for. Looking at the list of those who voted against it, one saw real fast that those who did were squarely in the “leadership court” of the Senate.

That court includes what seems to be a set that is styling itself to the people as some sort of accountability club. They include Senators Donna Mercado Kim – chair of the Higher Education Committee; Donovan Dela Cruz – Chair of Senate Ways and Means from Wahiawā, Michelle Kidani – Vice President of the Senate hailing from Mililani and Kurt Fevella – member of the Higher Education Committee and one of 2 Republicans in the Senate, from Ewa. They were able to bring along 9 others to vote down Alapaki, with the President of the Senate going along with this club.

Senator Les Ihara (foreground) speaking in support of Nahale-a, to the Senate President, Ronald Kouchi, March 5, 2024

Now typically if a candidate is at this level of vote – the full floor – they are either voted up or down, generally, by the whole body. But in this case, barely over half did, with the President adding his vote, and no more.

With such a slim margin of victory over an issue like a nomination, that result told this humble blogger that, perhaps, the current Senate President Ronald Kouchi of Kaua‘i didn’t have as strong a lock on his position as he may think he has.

And other pundits with whom I shared this observation, agreed that perhaps the Senate President position is weaker than first assumed.

This could have ramifications later on especially if a person who voted for Nahale-a gets ticked off enough to try and flip at least one of the votes that voted against, then they could have a shot at reorganizing the Senate.

“But really, is that possible?” you may ask, and the answer is “Oh, yah, you betcha”.

After the vote, Nahale-a, his family and supporters draped lei on the Queen Liliuokalani statue and sang a song.

The reason for that is, unlike a measure that is talking about changing a law, or creating a new law that divides people, nominations of candidates elicit more emotion, especially in those who support the person. How they are handled, treated, and eventually decided upon could lead to a rise in emotion that eventually drives the question of whether the current leaders in the Senate should continue.

The way some have expressed Nahale-a’s rejection brought out raw emotion, anger, and in some cases, resolve in those there that the treatment he received by the Senate should not stand.

Will that drive someone to call for a reorganization of the Senate? This pundit predicts that this vote will be one of a few votes that, potentially, could divide the Senate enough to call for that to happen. With the ongoing issues of recovering Lahaina, Governor Green’s push for more housing, legalization of marijuana, and the pressure of a downturn in tourism on the bottom line, there may be votes that will “tip the emotional bucket over” in the Senate.

Time will tell but make no mistake, on March 4th, during a floor session, the Senate President and his leadership just experienced its first test this year. And while it passed, it didn’t pass with flying colors.