By Derrick DePledge
When Gov. Neil Abercrombie called a special session of the state Legislature to consider a marriage equality bill, House leaders said they were confident there were enough votes in the chamber to pass the bill.
Behind the scenes, however, the vote count on the House Judiciary Committee, which would have jurisdiction over the bill, was perilously close.
An initial vote count by the Star-Advertiser after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in June that legally married gay couples were entitled to federal benefits had the House Judiciary with 8 votes for gay marriage, 3 votes against, and 2 lawmakers who were undecided.
The initial count -- like others conducted over the past few months -- had Rep. Mele Carroll, a Democrat from Maui, as a `yes' vote.
But House leaders have said privately in recent days that they believed Carroll would vote against the bill, which she ultimately did. Rep. Ken Ito and Rep. Clift Tsuji, who initially said they were undecided, had also shifted to the `no' column.
That means that when Abercrombie called the special session, the actual split on House Judiciary was closer to 7 to 6 in favor of the bill.
But then came an unexpected twist.
Rep. Karen Awana, who had served as the House majority floor leader, was hit with another round of fines by the state Campaign Spending Commission in early October that led her to resign her leadership post.
House leaders named Rep. Rida Cabanilla as Awana's replacement as majority floor leader. Cabanilla, who was a `no' vote on gay marriage, said she did not have to promise to change her vote as a condition of accepting the new post.
(In a curious shift, Cabanilla did subsequently promise House leaders that she would vote `yes' on the bill but was instead excused for the final vote on Friday night.)
Cabanilla did have to relinquish her chairwomanship of the House Housing Committee and her slot on House Judiciary in return for the leadership post. The House assigns leaders only to the House Legislative Management Committee.
So going into special session the split on House Judiciary was 8 to 5 for marriage equality.
House Republicans desperately tried to remove Rep. Cynthia Thielen, the only Republican who supports gay marriage, from House Judiciary but were rebuffed by House Speaker Joseph Souki and House Minority Leader Aaron Ling Johanson.
Had Thielen been removed and replaced by a Republican who opposed gay marriage, the split on House Judiciary would have been back to 7 to 6, a narrow margin to hold during the pressure of a special session.
Had Awana not faced campaign-finance fines that prompted her to resign her leadership post, had Cabanilla not replaced Awana and given up her House Judiciary slot, and had Republicans united in agreement to replace Thielen on House Judiciary, the House Judiciary count could have been 7 to 6 against the bill.
"We would have lost," one House lawmaker on the committee said privately.