WASHINGTON — When U.S. Rep.-elect Jill Tokuda arrived in Washington this week for new member orientation, she had no idea whether she would be in the majority or minority.

That was still the case Tuesday morning as she donned a yellow lei and Hawaiian-print blazer for her freshman photo, although she said she knew the prospects for Democrats retaining control of the House were grim.

“The reality is that both parties are going to have to reconcile with the fact that they did not win this election in a landslide,” Tokuda said.

“So working together and working across the aisle is an imperative for both parties. The country is deeply divided at this point so it’s going to be incumbent on us as leaders to start bringing it back together. That doesn’t mean compromising on values or positions, but it does mean we have to start working together to restore faith, confidence and trust in government.”

U.S. Rep.-elect Jill Tokuda takes a selfie while posing for a new member photo in Washington. Courtesy: Jill Tokuda/2022

When Tokuda is sworn in on Jan. 3, she’ll likely be entering a House that is controlled by a Republican Party that had widely been projected to win the House by a wide margin but appears headed toward a slim majority instead.

Tokuda will represent the 2nd Congressional District, which includes rural Oahu and the neighbor islands after incumbent Congressman Kai Kahele opted to make an ultimately unsuccessful run for governor instead of seeking reelection.

Republicans underperformed in many closely contested races across the country, particularly where abortion access was on the ballot and where extreme candidates, particularly those who aligned themselves with false claims of election denialism pushed by former President Donald Trump, struggled to break through.

Still, neither side won an overwhelming mandate and Tokuda will be serving in a divided 118th Congress.

Tokuda, 46, is a former state senator who spent more than a decade in the Hawaii Legislature, which is dominated by Democrats. She said she understands that this will be her first time as a member of the minority party and that she will be forced to interact with colleagues who might not agree with her on basic principles such as what is a fact and what is false.

Tokuda said her plan is to approach those conversations with “strength and humility.”

The GOP is the party that must reckon with itself, she said, especially if it’s looking to actually govern in Washington. Her hope, she said, is to find members who gravitate toward moderation.

“The majority of Republicans realize that they lost these elections because of the far right,” Tokuda said. “How are they going to deal with the Freedom Caucus and the election deniers when that’s not where the pulse is of the people? If they’re looking at all to try to keep their seats or win more seats, they’re going to have to migrate more honestly toward the middle.”

Top Staffers Named

For her part, Tokuda has been connecting with like-minded colleagues and working to get her office in order before she’s sworn in.

Wendy Clerinx will serve as Tokuda’s chief of staff. Submitted

Tokuda has spent a lot of time with members of the Congressional Progressive Caucus and has floated the idea of forming a “Congressional Mom Caucus” along with Democrats Mary Peltola of Alaska and Becca Balint of Vermont.

Tokuda has two boys, ages 14 and 12, and focused much of her campaign on the fact that she’s a working mother searching for solutions that will allow them to remain in Hawaii when they become adults.

She recently announced she has hired several staffers, including Wendy Clerinx as her chief of staff and Kendra Oishi as her district chief.

Clerinx has a long history in Washington but is originally from Hawaii. She’s worked for several members of Hawaii’s federal delegation including U.S. Sen. Mazie Hirono and former U.S. Rep. Tulsi Gabbard. She also worked for former Hawaii Gov. Neil Abercrombie, including when he was a member of Congress.

Oishi, on the other hand, has extensive experience in Hawaii government, and worked for Tokuda when she was the chair of the state Senate Ways and Means Committee.

Tokuda has also hired Deidre Tegarden, of Maui, to help with her transition.

Tegarden is the executive director of the Nisei Veterans Memorial Center and a former chief of staff to Maui Mayor Michael Victorino.

Tokuda has yet to learn what committees she will be assigned to in the new Congress, but she has already submitted her requests. At the top of the list are Education and Labor and Agriculture, but in the long-term she would like to work her way onto the Ways and Means Committee, which will require increased seniority and political maneuvering in the coming years.

In the meantime, Tokuda said she’s just trying to take in her new surroundings.

“Every single one of us here is running on fumes, but we’re running a million miles an hour,” she said. “There’s so much that has to get done before we get sworn in, but then you find yourself sitting in the House chambers and realizing that your name is going to be on that vote board and you’re going to be able to put your card in and vote ‘yes’ or ‘no.’ It’s absolutely a humbling realization that after all the hard work we’ve put in, we’re actually here.”

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