8. Calvin Say

Speaker of the House

October, 2002

Twenty-six years ago, few people could have predicted that a slight, soft-spoken busboy would clear his way to the highest position in the state House.

Calvin Say’s election to the Legislature in 1976 provided regular fodder for the local media. That’s because the 25-year-old Palolo native balanced his new political career with his dish-clearing duties at the Flamingo Chuckwagon, where he continued to work until 1990. Since then, Say has become vice president and office manager for Kotake Shokai Ltd. (an import-export firm), headed the House Finance Committee and graduated to House speaker in 1998.

“He’s a very low-key individual,” says Steve Hirano, longtime friend and political consultant. “That’s not something you’d expect in a leader; generally, you expect a charismatic or outgoing person. But that’s because he’s listening, and trying to understand how everything fits together in terms of the greater good of the state.”

Say’s demeanor shouldn’t be mistaken for complacency. That’s according to Senate President Robert Bunda, who began his public career as a state representative about 20 years ago.

“He’s not an easy guy to run over,” Bunda says. In fact, Bunda formed his first impression of Say during a heated debate over geothermal energy, one of Say’s longtime priorities. “Several legislators were giving Calvin a hard time, and he called for the members to take a crucial public vote at a time when voting was not as open as it is today,” Bunda recalls. “He basically came out and challenged them, ‘You want to show your true colors to the public, be my guest.’ He’s a tough guy.”

That’s the same conclusion Sylvia Luke has drawn in her past two years as vice speaker under Say.

“He knows he’s the speaker and that comes with the clout, but he doesn’t push his weight around — and that’s something people appreciate about him,” she says. “He tries to judge things on issues alone, and he doesn’t want politics or personalities involved. When people say he’s low-key, that’s what they’re talking about: He doesn’t play politics.”

— Ronna Bolante

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Ronna Bolante