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Souki is Speaker-Elect

Long-time Maui politician says he has the votes to lead the state House.

December 13, 2012
Susan Halas - Senior Contributing Writer ( , The Maui Weekly

The coming session at the state Legislature is looking promising for Maui, with Shan Tsutsui resuming his post as Senate president and Joe Souki announcing he has the votes needed to recapture the House speakership.

The lock on leadership is a new experience for Maui, which has never before held both the key posts.

It's especially sweet for Souki, who has waited 13 years for a clear shot at getting his old job back. This year, that opportunity came his way, when for the first time in his 16-term career in the House, he faced no opposition.

Article Photos

Joe Souki was previously House speaker for six years in the 1990s.
Photo: Susan Halas

Souki was previously speaker for six years in the 1990s. When Calvin Say, the present speaker, ousted him, Souki was among the last to know that those he considered his "own people"--some of whom he had chosen for key legislative committee assignments--had turned against him.

The reason expressed at the time was that Say and his supporters didn't like Souki's iron hand and one-man-rule leadership style. They wanted legislative power a little more spread out.

But the criticisms leveled against Souki then are very similar to the objections being aimed at Say now.

In addition to Say's own authoritarian tendencies, lawmakers didn't have to look far for other signs of internal and external discontent. On the policy side is the flap over state law 55, which set up the Public Land Development Corporation (PLDC). According to recent news stories and opinion pieces, this law has proved very unpopular and the odds are good there will be action to repeal it.

On the fiscal side, Hawai'i's financial straits continue. There's the multi-billion-dollar unfunded pension liability and the shortfalls in other state accounts. Battles about money also color the state's rocky relations with public schools and the University of Hawai'i.

Given the shortfalls, taking on the responsibility of speaker is not for the faint of heart.

But none of this seems to faze Souki. He has even added new words to his vocabulary--words such as "inclusive, Republican, moderate, diverse and transparency."

But the most important addition is the word "majority." When you have the votes (in this case, the magic number is 26, plus a few extra for slippage), you are no longer the "dissidents," as the faction opposing Say has been frequently labeled. You're the new majority.

The whole scenario has an element of karma about it. To some, it seems odd that out of the 51 members of the House, there are only these two men who want this job, and they pass it back and forth unless, of course, you believe "What goes around comes around." And frankly, Souki does.

The way Souki sees it, the dissatisfaction with Say has been evident and growing for some time. The House has the ability to reorganize any time--and that's exactly what they did. This time, they did it openly. Now that Souki has the votes (even extra votes), he wonders why Say doesn't concede gracefully, pack his office and cooperate in the transition.

At this writing, the speaker-elect has 22 firm votes from his fellow Democrats and seven from House Republicans.

Souki has only good things to say about Minority Leader Aaron Johanson. The O'ahu Republican is of Chinese-Scandinavian ancestry and comes with a degree from Yale. He's solidly in the Souki camp and brings six other House Republicans with him.

"He's a nice guy," said Souki. "We hit it off."

In the last 30 years, Souki has never uttered more than a handful of favorable words about any Republican--about one kind word every decade. This is friendship with members of the minority party is something entirely new.

Also, there is a new, more congenial tone that emphasizes shared responsibility. There is going to be a new finance chair--Sylvia Luke, an O'ahu Democrat. There will be three Republican vice chairs at the committee level.

Personal history

For those of you who haven't been watching Souki in all his incarnations and reincarnations, here's a short back-story of his life, times and leanings.

He was born in 1933 at Pu'unene on Maui. He's a product of plantation camp life and strong Portuguese heritage.

He speaks with a one-of-a kind local accent. It's a unique rendition of the English language. Once you've heard his voice, you'll always recognize it. (And it's now part of the fabric of Hawai'i politics.)

Joe is a lifelong Catholic. He graduated from Saint Anthony School in Wailuku. He's been married to wife Francis for going on 50 years. The couple has two grown kids and a large extended family.

His formal education consists of a Bachelor of Arts degree in business from Woodbury University in California, but his real-world experience is impressive.

In the 1970s, he headed Maui Economic Opportunity (MEO), an agency created by federal legislation. Its programs include pre-schools, senior bus transportation and many other services.

His side job when the legislature isn't in session is real estate. Most of his transactions are neighborhood-sized, but now and again a whopper comes his way. A deal many remember transpired back in the 1990s, when he negotiated the land for Maui's Kamehameha School property via Seibu and developer Everett Dowling.

Political history

Souki has been a fixture on the Maui political scene for as long as anyone can remember. He's a LBJ "Great Society" Democrat in the best sense of the word, and one of the few who remain. Underneath his crusty, grouchy, mostly bald exterior, there beats a warm heart. This perhaps is not a widely held view, because not everyone has the patience or perseverance necessary to drill down to the core.

Souki first won an elected office as a delegate to the State Constitutional Convention in 1978 and went on to win a seat in the state House representing Wailuku and nearby areas. This district has been reconfigured several times, but however the lines are drawn, he continues to hold the seat.

His strongest base in his early years was among seniors, and the affinity continues to this day. The difference is, now he is a senior himself. He doesn't have to imagine how that works--he's living it.

His grasp of "the numbers" is solid. He's been known to figure the state budget (measured in billions of dollars) on the back of a cocktail napkin, and come pretty close both in style and substance. He has a well-deserved reputation for having a tremendous memory. The twists and turns of deals and votes long past are still firmly lodged in his grey matter.

He can be Liberal--very Liberal, and he can be Conservative, too--very Conservative. What's more unusual is he can be both at the same time.

For example: Souki (the Liberal) has repeatedly introduced legislation to legalize gambling. It has failed 100 percent of the time. He also supports legalized marijuana and always has. That has also failed time and again. Souki (the Conservative) supports traditional marriage and voted against civil unions.

Most of his projections play out as conceived--and that has been a very good thing for Maui over the years. There have been endless improvements to the college, the hospital, the tech park, the roads, harbors and airports that with his help have come to the Valley Isle.

Souki's knowledge and contacts cut a wide swath statewide. He knows all the players and he runs his own operation almost entirely out his back pocket. He's done it that way as long as anyone can remember. Souki's office is wherever Souki is.

It's rare at 80 to get your fondest wish, or be picked first, or to be able watch a puzzle be completed as carefully crafted pieces fall into place.

At home, the consensus is to root for him to solidify the speakership, which Mauians seem to feel will be good for him, good for Maui and good for Hawai'i.

This is also the view held by Souki's new majority; they hope Calvin Say gets the message.

Look at it this way: If history repeats itself, in another 13 years Say will only be 73--plenty of time to try again.



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