WASHINGTON — Jill Tokuda is on the cusp of fulfilling a high school promise.

It was the early 1990s and Tokuda was traveling to the mainland for the first time, not for vacation, but as part of a program designed to bring students from across the country to the nation’s capital to learn about and engage with U.S. democracy.

They visited national monuments, spoke with policymakers and got inside access to some of the country’s most hallowed institutions, including the U.S. Capitol.

During one of those tours, Tokuda stepped foot on a chamber floor. It was there that she made her vow.

“I remember putting my hand on a desk and whispering, ‘I’ll be back,’” she said.

Jill Tokuda candidate for CD--2 speaks to Chad Blair at Chaminade University.
Jill Tokuda, a former state senator, is on the verge of becoming Hawaii’s next member of Congress. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2022

Tokuda, a Democrat and former state senator, is the front-runner in the race for Hawaii’s 2nd Congressional District after beating state Rep. Patrick Branco in the August primary.

The seat was left open by the incumbent, U.S. Rep. Kai Kahele, who announced he was retiring from Congress after serving a single two-year term so that he could run for governor, a campaign that proved unsuccessful.

Tokuda’s opponents in the general election include Republican Joe Akana, a business development coach who served in the U.S. Air Force as an intelligence analyst and graduated from Kamehameha Schools, and Libertarian Michelle Tippens, a former Army counterintelligence officer and founder of the Hawaii Veterans Cannabis Alliance.

Given Hawaii’s history of electing Democrats, Tokuda is all but assured to win — and most likely by a wide margin.

Since statehood, only three Republicans have represented Hawaii in Congress, the last one being Charles Djou, who won a special election in 2010 with a plurality after Democrats Ed Case and Colleen Hanabusa split the vote. Outside of Djou, no other candidate, Republican or otherwise, has cracked 40% in a federal race in the past decade.

Akana ran against Kahele in 2020, losing by nearly 30 percentage points. It’s unlikely he’ll fare much better in November.

Tippens faces an even steeper challenge as a third party candidate, although she said she’s well aware of her odds against Tokuda. But like many other candidates taking on Democrats in Hawaii, she wanted to give voters a choice.

“Democracy works well when you have a diversity of opinions, but what we have here in Hawaii is a monopoly,” Tippens said. “It’s important to have diversity in government and that’s what makes me willing to stand here. If people want to vote for somebody else, I think they should be given the chance to do that.”

Breaking The ‘Subliminal Barrier’

Tokuda, 46, does not consider herself a typical politician, at least by Hawaii standards.

In the state Senate, where she served from 2006 to 2018, she aligned herself with Colleen Hanabusa, who eventually would be elected to Congress, and was part of a faction known by her colleagues as “The Avengers.”

It was a small group that over time was made up mostly of lawmakers representing rural districts and the neighbor islands. Among them were Gil Keith-Agaran, Mike Gabbard, Russell Kokubun, Dwight Takamine and Kalani English, who recently pleaded guilty to federal corruption charges for taking bribes.

Tokuda said her faction primarily focused on policy, but also excelled at political strategy and the ability to count votes.

Tokuda herself says she’s a policy wonk who knows how to get things done. As a state senator, she said, she tried to balance her time at the Legislature with the fact that she was also a young mother with a husband and two young children.

“I didn’t schmooze and I didn’t do a lot of fundraisers,” she said. “I did the work and went home.”

US Capitol Building Washington DC 2017.
Pretty soon Tokuda is expected to be making regular trips to the nation’s capital. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2017

Tokuda ran for lieutenant governor in 2018 and lost to her colleague and eventual winner, Josh Green, who was backed by more than $1 million in super PAC money.

Green is now poised to be Hawaii’s next governor.

Tokuda originally considered a second run for lieutenant governor this year, but pivoted to Congress in May when Kahele decided to forgo reelection.

Much of her campaign has focused on her role as a working mother of two boys, ages 13 and 12, and the fact that she wants to make sure Hawaii is a place they can afford to live when they become adults. But she also admits that’s been one of her challenges as well.

“One of the top three questions I get from the people I meet with, both supporters and not, is what’s going to happen to my children and my husband if I win,” she said.

Tokuda said there’s still a stigma surrounding women in the workplace, particularly in politics.

She noted that Patsy Mink was the last working mother to represent the islands in Congress and that other members have left small children behind in the islands while they went to work in Washington, including Kahele and U.S. Sen. Brian Schatz.

She plans to follow a similar path by commuting back and forth between Washington and Hawaii on weekends and during recess.

“That subliminal barrier still exists that has prevented qualified women from rising up and serving, not just in politics, but in all fields,” Tokuda said. “I’m running to win because people need to see that this is possible.”

She added that she considers Washington to be her political “end game.”

Can She Bring Stability To CD2?

Colin Moore, who’s the director of the Public Policy Center at the University of Hawaii, said Tokuda could bring some stability to Hawaii’s 2nd Congressional District.

Kahele’s decision to leave Congress was a surprise to many, Moore said, especially given that the central theme of his 2020 campaign was that he would show up to do the job and remain in Washington for the long haul so that he could build seniority in Congress, which would better position Hawaii.

2022 HNN Debate Gubernatorial candidate Kai Kahele debates Vicky Cayetano and Josh Green at the Sheraton Hotel.
Hawaii Congressman Kai Kahele told supporters he planned to be in Washington for the long haul, but in the end will only serve one term. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2022

Kahele’s promises were a direct contrast to his predecessor, Tulsi Gabbard, who was elected in 2012, but quickly pursued her own political ambitions, which included a failed attempt to run for president as a Democrat.

Gabbard, who has become a favorite among right-wing pundits such as Tucker Carlson on Fox News, has since announced she is leaving the Democratic Party.

“We’ve had a strange run the last few years,” Moore said. “To me, Tokuda is a much closer representation of what we’ve had in the past and of what people in Hawaii kind of expect of their members of Congress.”

Both Gabbard and Kahele were flamboyant political figures, who rose to prominence quickly and struggled to contain their personal ambitions, Moore said. Tokuda, on the other hand, has a track record of digging into the minutiae of legislation and doing the work that’s needed to move bills forward.

“She likes being a legislator,” Moore said. “I don’t think she is all that interested in becoming a national media personality. I think she has zero interest in that.”

For her part, Tokuda is already thinking about future committee assignments and policy goals.

Tokuda said she would like to get a seat on the House Agriculture Committee, especially considering Congress is taking up the Farm Bill in 2023, which will set the nation’s agricultural agenda for the next five years. She’d also be interested in the Education and Labor Committees, two topics that are important to her.

As a state senator, Tokuda was instrumental in creating the Executive Office on Early Learning and launching the state’s first ever publicly funded pre-kindergarten program.

The House Ways and Means Committee, which writes the nation’s tax laws, is also an aspiration, but one that Tokuda admits would require her not just winning in November, but also convincing voters to send her back to Washington every two years for a long time so that she could build enough clout to shoulder her way into contention for a seat.

Congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard press conference announcing a future congressional inquiry into the whistleblower at the Department of Health, Epidemiologist Dr. Jessica Smith’s accusations about the lack of contact tracing staff. August 14, 2020
Tulsi Gabbard, who represented Hawaii’s 2nd Congressional District for four two-year terms, gave up the seat to focus on a run for president. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2020

“I’m asking myself how do I contribute and add to the delegation considering where everyone else sits,” Tokuda said.

No member of Hawaii’s current delegation has a position on an agriculture or education committee. They do, however, oversee other critical aspects of the federal government, from appropriations and natural resources to armed services and veterans affairs.

Tokuda said she has spent a lot of time talking to voters across the district and that her top priorities based on those discussions revolve around “access and equity.”

Rural communities, particularly those on the neighbor islands, struggle with accessing health care and other mental health services. Affordable housing, or the lack of it, she said, is a problem everywhere.

While Tokuda is not yet in a position to draft her own legislation, she said, she is in the process of reviewing bills introduced by her predecessor, Kahele, that are worthy of picking up should she win in November.

One bill in particular that she will champion is legislation that will lower the blood quantum requirements for beneficiaries of Hawaiian homelands. Under the current law, Native Hawaiian homesteaders are only allowed to pass down their property to descendants who can prove they have one-quarter Hawaiian blood.

“Even in the days before the pandemic you saw money being lost and that’s just unacceptable.” — Jill Tokuda

Kahele’s bill would lower that requirement to 1/32, which would allow more part-Hawaiians to inherit properties that have been in their families for decades.

“It is critically important in terms of fulfilling our commitments to our Native Hawaiian beneficiaries, and, quite frankly, it just speaks to the issue of providing access to housing,” Tokuda said. “I’ve already committed to reintroducing that measure, but will also be looking at the whole breadth of work that has preceded me to see what needs to be continued and reintroduced.”

Another concern for Tokuda is making sure that Hawaii is getting its fair share of federal dollars.

As the chair of the Ways and Means Committee in the state senate, Tokuda said too often she saw the state losing money because it wasn’t spending federal funds fast enough or simply wasn’t taking advantage of opportunities.

During the pandemic, Tokuda saw a similar pattern as she tracked billions of dollars in federal spending that came to the state through Covid-19 relief aid.

That’s why in Congress she said she is considering dedicating a single staffer to make sure Hawaii is no longer leaving money on the table.

“Even in the days before the pandemic you saw money being lost and that’s just unacceptable,” Tokuda said. “This is not just about getting the most dollars. To me, having a point person is about making sure that those resources are going to where it’s most needed. And if we find that it’s not, then we need to act to correct the situation.”

A Minority Party Backbencher?

If she wins, Tokuda will face challenges as a first term lawmaker in the House, especially if Republicans retake control of the chamber in the November election.

In the Legislature, where Democrats rule, Tokuda was never a member of the minority and didn’t have to worry about crossing party lines to get things done. Should Republicans win the majority, that will likely be her only option.

Even if Democrats defy the odds and retain the House, Tokuda would still face a challenge passing meaningful legislation, said Todd Belt, a professor at George Washington University and the director of the school’s graduate political management program.

Senator Mazie Hirono conducts a hearing with Secretary of Veterans Affairs Denis McDonough held at the Oahu Veterans Center.
Senator Mazie Hirono is one of Jill Tokuda’s biggest supporters in Washington. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2022

“There’s a saying that you don’t really become a true representative until you’ve been there for three terms,” Belt said. “It’s usually not until your fourth term that you can really start making some policy changes.”

The reasons are myriad, he said, from the need to focus on re-election to gaining enough seniority to work up the chain of committee assignments. Of course, there are occasions where new members are given plum assignments, but Belt said that’s typically when those individuals’ votes are needed by the speaker to ensure party unity and cohesion.

“It’s going to be a humbling experience to be a backbencher in the minority party,” Belt said. “She’s really going to have to bide her time and take her opportunities as they come.”

Already Tokuda has begun forging relationships in Washington that she hopes will serve her well in the coming years.

In August, just two weeks after winning the Democratic primary, Tokuda met with California Rep. Mark Takano, the chair of the House Veterans Affairs Committee, while he was visiting Hawaii.

“I believe she will be a strong voice for Hawaii.” — U.S. Sen. Mazie Hirono

Tokuda took Takano to the Nisei Veterans Memorial Center on Maui where they discussed the importance of honoring the islands’ veterans. They also reminisced about former U.S. Rep. Mark Takai, who died of pancreatic cancer in 2016.

Takano was a close friend of Takai and was instrumental in passing legislation after his death to provide benefits to veterans who were exposed to toxic radiation at a U.S. nuclear test site on the Enewetak Atoll in the Marshall Islands.

Tokuda has already had meetings with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Majority Leader Steny Hoyer. Earlier this month she was in Los Angeles for a fundraiser sponsored by several of her prospective House colleagues, including Takano, Judy Chiu, Ted Lieu and Brad Sherman.

Among her allies is U.S. Sen. Mazie Hirono. Tokuda was an executive aide to Hirono when she was Hawaii’s lieutenant governor and considers the 74-year-old senator to be her “political mother.”

Hirono endorsed Tokuda in the Democratic primary and formed a joint fundraising committee with her that has raised nearly $30,000 to split between their respective campaigns.

Hirono described Tokuda as a determined public servant, who’s shown a penchant for hard work and collaboration.

Tokuda held a number of key positions in the Legislature, including as chair of the Education and Ways and Means committees. Hirono said that interest and experience, particularly in education, is something that will be a welcome addition to the federal delegation.

She said it’s also not lost on her that Tokuda is a fellow woman of color, who has been unafraid to speak out about the need to protect women’s health and right to an abortion after the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade.

“It would be delightful to have Jill in Congress,” Hirono said. “I believe she will be a strong voice for Hawaii.”

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