On his first full day as the first Kauai resident to lead the state Senate, Ron Kouchi vowed to put the people and interests of The Garden Island at the forefront of every legislative decision.
Kouchi will continue to focus his legislative power on improving the island’s quality of education and health care, he said. Increasing subsidies for state hospitals is another cause he said he plans to tackle.
“Now from the president’s office there will be a Kauai perspective,” said Kouchi, speaking by phone from Oahu a day after ousted State Senate President Donna Mercado Kim handed him the gavel.
Kouchi unseated Kim Tuesday in a rare shakeup in leadership while the legislature is still in session. The Senate voted 19-6 to force out Kim and promote Kouchi in her place.
Kouchi’s new seat at the helm marks the second time in more than 35 years that the Senate president has been a neighbor island resident.
Such a change in leadership usually takes place after general elections, not in the middle of a two-year legislative session. The last time Senate leadership changed mid-session was in 1993, said Carol Taniguchi, chief clerk of the Senate.
“This is very highly unusual,” Taniguchi said.
It’s also rare for a neighbor islander to lead the legislative body. The chamber is usually led by senators from Oahu, and aside from Lt. Gov. Shan Tsutsui, who led the Senate from 2011-2012 while representing Maui, there wasn’t a neighbor islander at the helm since 1978, Tanaguchi said.
“It is very humbling,” Kouchi said. “I am certainly cognitive of the fact that I have been given the opportunity to be the first president of the Senate from the island of Kauai.”
Mayor Bernard Carvalho said he looks forward to reaping the benefits of having one of Kauai’s own in the Senate’s top seat.
“It’s a wonderful thing for Kauai,” Carvalho said. “Ron has a wealth of experience. Ron, I believe, has a way to find balance and give the attention to Kauai that we need.”
State Rep. Dee Morikawa, D-16 Niihau, Lehua, Koloa, Waimea, said she looks forward to working with Kouchi in his new role, and wishes him well.
“He’s got a lot of weight on his shoulders as far as he can’t just think about Kauai anymore, now he has to think about the whole state,” she said. “But I’m sure Kauai will benefit. We should be in a better position to serve the people.”
Like any newly elected leader, Kouchi is making changes, starting with an edict that senators in leadership positions recuse themselves from committee chairmanships, and vice versa.
The goal, he said, is to spotlight a more diverse range of voices.
“All 25 senate members ran to contribute to creating a better Hawaii, so the more involved they are in the process, it allows the diverse ideas and options to be heard,” he said.
Kouchi said he is also considering changes to some committee memberships.
Hailing from the Westside, Kouchi was appointed to represent Kauai and Niihau in the Senate in 2010 and since then has served as majority caucus leader and Senate vice president.
His career in politics began at the Kauai County Council, where he served for 22 years, a dozen of them as chairman of the council.
Kouchi graduated from Waimea High School in 1975 and attended Drake University in Des Moines, Iowa. He now resides in Lihue with his wife.
Senators were not overt about their reasons for ousting Kim, but some capitol observers concluded it may have resulted from the Senate’s rejection of Carleton Ching, Gov. David Ige’s nominee to lead the Department of Land and Natural Resources.
Many viewed the Ching nomination as a battle between environmentalists and developers, and the Senate faction Kouchi is a part of — called the Opihi group, named for the resilient sea creature — is considered more friendly to development.
Most of the Chess Club faction, which Ige was a part of, did not sign the resolution.
“We are looking at what we feel is the best leadership that will take the Senate forward,” Kouchi said. “I’ve been asked to serve as the president, I’ve accepted the support of my colleagues.”
The Associated Press contributed to this report.