Souki’s House ca­reer spans 35 years for good rea­son

Honolulu Star-Advertiser - - NEWS - DAVID SHAPIRO Reach David Shapiro at vol­cani­cash@gmail.com.

It would be neg­li­gent to let the 2017 Leg­is­la­ture get too far away with­out voic­ing an ap­pre­ci­a­tion of Rep. Joe Souki, who re­signed as House speaker at the ses­sion’s end.

Souki, 84, is the ul­ti­mate po­lit­i­cal sur­vivor who has rep­re­sented Maui for 35 years in the House, in­clud­ing two stints as speaker — from 1993 to 1999 and from 2013 un­til this year.

He’s about the only Hawaii politi­cian left who in ap­pear­ance and speech evokes mem­o­ries of the late Kent Bow­man’s leg­endary comedic politi­cian from the 1960s, Sen. K.K. Kau­manua.

But be­hind the griz­zled looks and gar­bled pro­nounce­ments is a smart and ca­pa­ble law­maker who knows how to work the levers of power and has been one of the most in­flu­en­tial of his gen­er­a­tion in shap­ing state pol­icy.

When he re­turned as speaker in 2013, Souki was sup­posed to be only a brief place­holder while emerg­ing younger lead­ers such as new Speaker Scott Saiki and Fi­nance Chair­woman Sylvia Luke con­sol­i­dated their power.

That he lasted five years was tes­ta­ment to his deft hand at keep­ing the House on track while the Se­nate dis­solved into fac­tion­al­ism. Souki was an artist at arm-twist­ing in his prime, but he did it with a big heart and en­gag­ing hu­mor.

He said af­ter com­plaints of leg­isla­tive se­crecy this year, “We’re al­ways se­cre­tive. It’s part of be­ing a leg­is­la­tor.” He’s been in­volved in his share of con­tro­ver­sies on is­sues such as the Bishop Es­tate, lease­hold con­ver­sions, gam­bling, GMOs, public hos­pi­tals, Honolulu rail and var­i­ous schemes to raise taxes. He’ll likely be re­mem­bered most, how­ever, for ac­tu­ally look­ing out for the lit­tle guy while oth­ers only talked about it.

Souki was among the few who cared that the poor and dis­ad­van­taged were of­ten the first to lose their ben­e­fits in tight re­ces­sion­ary bud­gets, and the last to get them back when the econ­omy im­proved. He pressed to re­store the so­cial safety net lost to the Great Re­ces­sion.

He didn’t stand in the way of same-sex mar­riage de­spite his per­sonal reser­va­tions as a Ro­man Catholic and cham­pi­oned “death with dig­nity” leg­is­la­tion over church op­po­si­tion, say­ing he had no right to im­pose his re­li­gious views on oth­ers.

How re­fresh­ing is that in our toxic na­tional po­lit­i­cal en­vi­ron­ment in which re­li­gious lob­bies seek to force their be­liefs on every­one? Souki once told col­leagues that hold­ing public of­fice is a priv­i­lege, and “the price for this priv­i­lege is the re­spon­si­bil­ity each of us has to con­duct our­selves with com­pas­sion and dig­nity. Ev­ery day, as you walk down these halls and on this floor, re­mem­ber the hopes and dreams of the peo­ple of this state — and do your best for them.”

Words for younger leg­is­la­tors to re­mem­ber at a time when too many of them view their priv­i­lege as an en­ti­tle­ment rather than a debt.

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