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Observations of a Souki Watcher

May 20, 2014
Susan Halas - Contributing Writer ( , Maui Weekly

[Opinion by Susan Halas]

Joe Souki was one of the people I met when I first came to Maui in 1976. In those days, he was a tall skinny guy who headed MEO (Maui Economic Opportunity), then, a small nonprofit. A few years later, he ran as a one of Maui's delegates to the state Constitutional Convention in Honolulu and won his first seat. In those days, I was working for The Maui News and they sent me over to cover it. I started watching Souki in politics in 1978, and I've been watching him ever since.

And as the song says, "What a long strange trip it's been."

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Opinion by Susan Halas

Earlier in May, I interviewed him about the outcome of the 2014 Legislative Session. (See "Speaker Souki Reviews 2014 Legislative Session" here:

It was a good conversation and he demonstrated again that he has an in-depth knowledge of many subjects. His legendary memory was in fine form. His mind is bright and sharp.

One of the mysteries of dealing with Souki is you never quite know which Joe you are going to get. Sometimes you get the softhearted, old-school, plantation-camp-raised Portuguese, Great Society Democrat with roots in MEO. When you get that Joe, it is almost always about service--service with style.

But sometimes you get the grumpy, grouchy, irritable, thin-skinned Souki, who doesn't want to talk about it now (not now, not ever) and tells you in words of one syllable to go away and stop being a "pest" or worse yet, "a spy."

Then sometimes you get the family man who has commitments to his wife and children, his real estate business, not to mention his committee for re-election. That's the Joe Souki who is girding himself to walk up all the driveways in his district. Some of them are very steep and he is no longer a young man.

Unlike many politicians, Joe Souki has demonstrated an ability to modify and change with the times. After years of excluding Republicans, he accepted a House coalition including members of the minority party (and some even say he engineered it). He voted in favor of "marriage equality" in the last session and is still taking the heat for that vote. He does actually listen to a broad spectrum of opinion and has he has an in-depth, detailed knowledge of the state's financial position and its pressing needs.

Last year--when he finally recaptured Speaker's post--I went over for opening day to celebrate and re-entered the familiar corner office where he'd served as Speaker before.

It felt good. His assistant, Flo Hamaskai, ("She knows more than me," says Joe) was still there and smiling. Robin Matsunaga, his former chief of staff, poked his head in and other old-timers ringed the room, watching the ceremonies televised from the floor, where the Calvin Say faction was fighting right down to the wire--to no avail. Souki is still a careful counter and he had the votes.

At times, he can be patient, as in the contest with Say, and willing to wait for years if necessary. But mostly, he's not.

Joe Souki is still always in a hurry, always on the way to the next event and always writing rows of figures on napkins, placemats and the backs of envelopes, folding them up and stuffing them in his back pocket where they magically to turn into budget revisions and bond allocations. You name it, if it has dollar sign, it is somewhere on Joe's list.

So with Souki, you get the whole package in equal parts: leader, survivor, pragmatist, Democrat and the main man from Maui who knows where all the "bones" are buried.

Of course, I remember those original Maui delegates to "Con Con:" Mark Andrews, Masami Hironaka, John Tam, Alan Barr, David Blaine, Riki Hokama, Tony Takitani and Joe Souki. Did I leave anyone out?

Of that group, only Joe and Riki are still in public life. Though I've given up trying to figure him out, I do still like to talk politics with him.

We've made predictions on just about every election in the last 30 years. The rule is, if both Joe and Susan think it will happen, then chances are good it will happen. But if we split--that's a race to watch. Joe is frequently right, but he is not infallible. Susan is right enough to be an irritation and sometimes an obstacle.

He is excellent company, and better yet, good copy and what reporters call a "reliable source." He will indeed listen to other points of view, but he will also argue back, pound the table and shout. If that doesn't work, then there's sarcasm, needling and nit-picking to add to the mix.

Despite our frequent and noisy disagreements, I think he's smart, qualified--maybe a little kolohe--and we're lucky to have him. He's truly Maui's ace in the hole.



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