Souki’s House career spans 35 years for good reason
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.