Rethinking The Value Of Being L.G.

Hali Jiang, center, practices with the Chinese American Community Center Folk Dance Troupe in 'The Dance of the Golden Snake,' in Hockessin, Del., for their performance in the presidential inauguration parade. AP photo

In this week of inaugurations and gaveling to order, a word about the man who, for the first time in 14 years, has not returned as speaker of the state House of Representatives. Calvin Say first drew my attention in 1976. A young man, he stood at the foot of St. Louis Heights, holding his campaign sign replete with Chinese characters, waving at those of us who drove to work or, in my case, delivered their wife to a carpool. A mere stripling, recently graduated from the University of Hawaii, Say worked as a busboy at the old Flamingo’s on Kapiolani Boulevard.

Say worked hard as a representative, bringing to his job Democratic Party values tempered by pake sensitivity to the fiscal bottom line. His party colleagues in the House respected him for both and made him chairman of the powerful House Finance Committee. In 1999, Say challenged then-Speaker Joe Souki and won.

Say enjoyed a brief honeymoon in his new post; during his first few sessions, all, including Republicans, praised his fairness. But as might be expected in a body where the majority party owned all but a few seats, a dissident Democratic Party faction emerged. This year, with the help of the Republican minority, the dissidents forged a majority. Say, who could always count, stepped aside.

He will be missed. Say led with a steady hand, and what he may have lacked in flair, he made up in probity and good sense.

Then consider Brian Schatz. As Hawaii’s senior senator of less than a month’s seniority, the Inaugural Committee undoubtedly sent him an invitation to the festivities. Five years ago, Schatz, attorney Andy Winer and former HECO spokesman Chuck Freedman had set out on the most quixotic of quests: to elect an African American of Hawaii birth president of the United States. They did their part; Obama won Hawaii easily.

Two years later, the youthful Schatz won a five-way race for the utterly useless post of lieutenant governor. The job carries no constitutional responsibilities, not even that of running the state’s elections, previously its only responsibility. In an economy move several years ago, legislators and the governor recognized the worthlessness of the office by stripping it of staff. And one addled columnist in a midweek publication made fun of the lieutenant governorship, called for its elimination and referred to it as “a place where politicians go to rest and political careers to die.” Mea stupido.

“Addled” describes the columnist well. Think. Gov. John Burns appointed his lieutenant governor, William Richardson, Chief Justice of the Hawaii Supreme Court. Lt. Govs. George Ariyoshi, John Waihee and Ben Cayetano moved on to the governorship themselves. Lt. Gov. Mazie Hirono won a congressional seat, and last fall, a Senate seat. Gov. Neil Abercrombie appointed Schatz to the Senate last month. Six of Hawaii’s nine lieutenant governors since statehood have risen to the governorship, the United States Senate or the Hawaii Supreme Court.

The lesson here?

Ambitious young pols, run for that empty, meaningless office where politicians go to rest, then rise.