HONOLULU - There was no Christian rock band jamming at the Hawaii Capitol Tuesday morning. Nobody waving protest signs. No chants about “marriage equality” or prayers for “homosexual sinners.”
Just a nice breeze, a couple pigeons and a few ladies wearing rainbow-colored lei. It was a far cry from the rallies in the rotunda and passionate testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee that consumed the Capitol Monday.
All the action on the second day of the special legislative session to pass a same-sex marriage bill was on the floor of the House chambers where the rift in the majority and minority caucuses widened for all the world to see. Or at least the dozen or so members of the public seated in the gallery.
The House Finance and Judiciary committees are set to hold a joint hearing on the gay marriage legislation, Senate Bill 1, Thursday morning. To up the odds of defeating it, House Republicans tried to pull Rep. Cynthia Thielen from the 13-member Judiciary Committee. She’s the lone Republican in the Legislature who supports gay marriage.
Rep. Bob McDermott, one of seven Republicans in the House, put forward four resolutions that attempted to dismantle committee makeups and change leadership coalitions.
Three were deferred until Wednesday, but Speaker Joe Souki entertained House Resolution 5. Among its proposed changes was replacing Thielen with Richard Fale, who opposes gay marriage, on the Judiciary Committee and replacing Aaron Johanson with Gene Ward as minority leader.
The debate on the floor opened with McDermott nearly yelling at Souki, challenging the speaker’s authority and alienating his colleagues in the process. Tempers flared as the discussion ensued and Souki had to call for security at one point.
McDermott said the coalition Republicans formed with majority Democrats to give Souki the speakership last year is no longer working. He said there’s no transparency and the power structure should be changed to put new leaders in charge.
“This whole arrangement has destroyed the minority caucus,” McDermott said, referring to himself as “the most hated man” in the minority caucus.
Ward didn’t even know his name was being put in for a leadership position. Using the speaker’s name as a verb, he told Johanson that he would not “Souki him.”
“Your caucus is divided. My caucus is divided. The people are divided,” Ward said, but added that “leadership is keeping unity.”
Ward went on to point out that Souki had replaced Rep. Rida Cabanilla, likely a “no” vote on gay marriage, with Rep. Dennis Coffman, a “yes” vote. (In a separate action, the House passed a resolution to replace Rep. Karen Awana with Cabanilla as majority floor leader.)
That was when Souki banged his gavel, telling Ward he was out of order and calling for the sergeant-at-arms. But the brief recess that followed apparently didn’t calm tempers.
McDermott called Johanson out for trying to “save his own hide” and then it was Rep. Cindy Evans trying to bring the House back into order. She said the rules don’t allow reps to make comments like that about their colleagues.
Moments later, Rep. Chris Lee’s speech in opposition to the resolution was cut short by Ward interrupting him and accusing him of breaking the rules by referring to some of the House Republicans as the “extreme right.”
Republican Beth Fukumoto stood up and left the room.
“My decision to leave the floor today was in response to Representative McDermott’s insistence on destroying a legitimate strategy to restore balance in the public process and perpetuating politics as usual,” she later said in a statement. “I felt no need to be a part of the personal attacks or the purposeless and chaotic actions that do nothing to advance the cause of stopping the same-sex marriage bill or helping the Republican Caucus and the people we serve."
McDermott’s resolution drew support from fellow Republican Richard Fale and Democrats Jo Jordan and Marcus Oshiro, a longtime supporter of the previous speaker, Rep. Calvin Say.
Eventually, the motion was defeated by voice vote. The resolution would also have broken up the bipartisan coalition by taking away the three vice chair seats Republicans were given for their support of Souki.
Johanson released a statement later explaining why he disagreed with his colleagues’ effort to reorganize.
“This counterproductive strategy sends the wrong and untrue message that when Republicans don’t get exactly what we want, we cannot work with people in good faith and in a constructive manner to achieve our objectives,” he said.
“Removing Representative Thielen from the Judiciary Committee is not the only way to kill the bill.”
Fukumoto said she would support the idea of removing Thielen from the Judiciary Committee if the proper procedure was followed –- an internal decision by the Minority Caucus in concurrence with House Rules.
“Thus far in this special session, the deck has been entirely stacked against the opponents of same-sex marriage, and it was my hope that we could help restore balance to the committee and the public process,” she said.
“Unfortunately, Representative McDermott decided to make this a political move, personally attacking other members of the body without reason in an effort to make a point rather than a difference. I could not support his mission to cause chaos without any effective purpose in sight.”
Thielen considers herself a “mainstream Republican.”
“I believe some of these social conservatives have done more damage to our party than some of the Democrats have done,” she said.
She recalled joining the GOP in the 1950s, a few decades after Republican President Teddy Roosevelt founded the National Park Service. And she fondly remembered Barry Goldwater supporting gays in the military in the 1970s.
“I support marriage equality,” Thielen said. “I may be the sole Republican in our minority caucus that does ... but I can guarantee I’m not the sole Republican in our community who does.”
The Senate passed SB 1 on second reading Tuesday and is set to hear it Wednesday for a third and final reading before sending it over to the House for its consideration.
Huge crowds are expected again Thursday at the Capitol. While the bill is expected to clear the Senate by a wide margin, the votes in the House are a lot tighter and amendments will likely be introduced concerning religious exemptions.
Thousands of people have testified on the bill and the House has created a new system to improve efficiency.