With the elections over and the legislative session looming Jan. 18, Speaker Emeritus Rep. Joe Souki of Maui appears to have a slight edge in a fluid internal battle over whether to replace longtime Speaker Calvin Say, Maui legislators said Thursday.
Meanwhile, the day after Election Day, the state Senate decided to stay with President Shan Tsutsui of Maui.
If the 79-year-old Souki is able to wrangle his old job back with the help of disenfranchised, younger and more liberal lawmakers, the switch would put the two top leadership posts in both houses of the state Legislature in the hands of Maui County lawmakers.
"The focus will continue to be on the budget, the economy and job creation and having a workforce ready for the future," said Tsutsui, who declined to weigh in on House leadership issues.
Tsutsui said he also wants a new prison, better roads and expansions to the college and hospital, among other Maui projects. The lawmaker, who represents Wailuku, Waihee, Kahului and Paia, won re-election facing no opposition this election cycle.
Entering his second year as president of the state Senate, Tsutsui said he was told he was selected because of his collaborative style, rather than "aligning myself with like-minded others to push an agenda."
Organizing the state House is not going as smoothly as in the state Senate, with Say and Souki attempting to sway enough members of their caucus to win the speakership. They need 26 Democratic members to take the post, one more than half of the total 51 members in the state House.
Souki said that the struggle to lead the Democratic-dominated House comes down to: "The 'have nots' want to have and the 'haves' want to keep."
Souki, who lost his leadership post to Say 13 years ago, said the caucus is almost evenly split among the House's 44 Democrats. Souki said his experience, mentoring and independent thinking has made him the other choice.
Souki, who represents the 8th District, which includes Wailuku, Waihee, Waiehu and Waikapu, and ran unopposed this election cycle, said there's no timetable on a leadership selection, but the sooner would be better.
The speaker assigns committee chairperson assignments and can influence policy and legislation.
"At this moment, it's internal, but of course it's no secret that I'm looking to unseat Speaker Say," said Souki of his old friend. "But right now, both sides don't have the needed (26 Democratic) votes, and we're both working on it."
Rep.-elect Kaniela Ing, who will represent South Maui, said Souki leads by a couple votes. He added that it would send a horrible message if Say continues to block Souki's ascension.
"I don't think the difference between the two sides is as much ideological as it is about the old style of politics versus the new era," said Ing, who put the seat into the leadership fray by defeating incumbent Republican George Fontaine on Tuesday. "And I think a lot of us are sick of the special interest control under Speaker Say's leadership."
Say did not immediately return a call Thursday but has said that he's fair and doesn't understand the disappointment with him.
"Some people believe that they need a new vision," Souki said. "Calvin's been a good speaker, but he's been in for years.
"I have the ability to get change to come about. His group is a little more conservative, and we're still looking at major problems like the unfunded liability. And education and health care have been underfunded all these years."
Rep. Angus McKelvey, who represents West Maui-north Kihei, received the chairmanship of the Economic Revitalization and Business Committee last session under Say's leadership. He is worried that if Say wins out, Maui could be a political casualty and could lose out on committee leaderships posts and funding for Maui projects.
He and Ing said that Say has stayed in power, in part, by supporting campaigns of his backers over the years. But over recent years, the House membership has been evolving with the influx of new members, like the 23-year-old Ing.
"No matter what happens, we need to be able to bring the House together after," McKelvey said. "I hope whoever it is recognizes the talent on both sides."
Ing added this is an opportunity for the Neighbor Islands to have a greater say.
"No pun intended," he added.
McKelvey also wanted to remind the public that these party disagreements occur "in every statehouse in America."
"In the end, I'm going to go with the guy from Maui and who's been good for us," he said. "And Calvin's been great to us, too. But I'm going with the home team."
* Chris Hamilton can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
* This article includes a correction from the original published on Friday, Nov. 9, 2011. The article incorrectly cited State Rep. Joe Souki's district number due to an editing error. The Maui News apologizes for the error.