The Civil Beat Editorial Board Interview: US Rep. Jill Tokuda - Honolulu Civil Beat


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Civil Beat Editorial Board

The members of The Civil Beat Editorial Board are Chad Blair, Patti Epler, Nathan Eagle, Kim Gamel, John Hill and Matthew Leonard. Opinions expressed by the editorial board reflect the group’s consensus view. Not all members may participate in every interview or essay. Chad Blair, the Politics and Opinion Editor, can be reached at cblair@civilbeat.org.


Editor’s note: The Civil Beat Editorial Board spoke on Wednesday with Jill Tokuda, a Democrat who in November was elected to represent Hawaii’s 2nd Congressional District. This interview has been edited for length and clarity and also for future stories. Tokuda began by recalling the chaotic four days during the first week of January as House Republicans struggled to elect a new speaker. Kevin McCarthy was finally chosen in a party-line vote.

It was definitely surreal. I’m used to what you saw (on Opening Day) at the (state) Capitol, which is everyone’s got their leis on. You’re all fresh, you like each other — for at least the first two hours, right? And you raise your hand, you get sworn in, and then you start to do your votes, right? I mean, because that would make sense — before you should vote, you should be sworn in, because it’s kind of logical that way. But then what you had was a situation where we knew that the first vote was not going to be the vote, though. Right? So we went in there a little bit prepared mentally, and we did the vote, which in honestly kind of cool — just to be able to stick your card in to the reader, press “present,” and do all that kind of thing. I had no idea that you actually voice voted, which is not something we do at home.

And so then I’m thinking that’s a lot of voice votes and I’m “T.” But there was a lot of anxiety and pressure, a lot of weight on that (vote for speaker). Do you just say “Hakeem,” do you say “Jeffries”? Do you say something pithy? I had a whole alphabet to go through, but for me to think about it, some gave whole speeches, as you heard. And I think I said, “On behalf of the state of Hawaii, I’m proud to cast my” — something like that. I did say a little bit more than just Hakeem or Hakeem Jeffries. But it was it was one of those ah-ha moments. “Oh my God, I’m here, right? I’m voting for speaker.” And I will say it kind of loses its luster on the second, third, fourth, fifth, sixth, to the 15th.

Congresswoman Jill Tokuda met with the Civil Beat Editorial Board on Wednesday. David Croxford/Civil Beat/2023

We really didn’t think the 15th vote was going to happen. If you followed the play by play, some days we would fight to not adjourn just to force them through. But they had the votes and so they adjourned. And that was a situation with Friday night where they wanted to adjourn and we’re like, “No, no, no, we’re going to keep running this.” But you could see the margin closing and closing. I literally was following the ticker and seeing where they were differentiating. We were set to lose the vote to stop the adjournment. We were going to adjourn.

And then all of a sudden you see people running to the well (of the House chamber) to change their vote. Apparently, somehow the trigger had, the signal had been given that (Matt) Gaetz and (Lauren) Boebert were going to flip to “present.” And immediately you saw 25, 50, I don’t know how many cards go and change — you can actually renege on your vote. You can switch it out.

During the process of a vote?

Yes. And I was curious, because to me, the time ends, your time, right? When what’s on the clock is it. But that’s not the case. They run the clock. And you can also then be called back up if you missed your (vote), if you want to vote, you can go. But you have to go to the well and you have to cast your vote. But all of a sudden you all the numbers ticking in the background, going the opposite direction, so that the vote to adjourn failed.

If memory serves, there’s actually a big board in the chamber that you guys can see. Is that correct?

You can see it. It’s cast up onto the wall. So you can see everyone’s name and you can see how they voted at that point. The main thing you’re looking at is a tally. It’s like the scoreboard, right? The yeas, the nays, and you can see the numbers, how many people voted. So that’s where you just saw it immediately flip at that point. And then I remember one of my fellow freshmen turning to me, “It looks like we’re getting sworn in tonight,” because why would they stop the adjournment unless they knew they absolutely had the votes? Now, I think they thought they had on the 14th vote.

And there was some talk about the fact that, would we actually be sworn in on Jan. 6 of all days, right?

And so there was definitely excitement there when all of a sudden you hear a scuttling happening towards (the Republican) side of the room and you realize that they’re about to fight, like literally come to blows. I actually have a picture. I didn’t get “the” moment. But you can see Gaetz’s face amongst all of the other Republicans. So there was a lot of tension and it was just kind of insane to think.

Okay. And you were actually sworn in not that night, but the next morning, the early hours.

That’s correct. And there was some talk about the fact that, would we actually be sworn in on Jan. 6 of all days, right? Not that it’s about days, but of all days, Jan. 6, when earlier that morning we had all been on the steps and I believe only one Republican showed up as part of the honoring and the moment of silence. To be sworn in on that day — I know for many it was kind of weighing heavy, just the significance of that.

And a good many of your Republican colleagues actually voted against certifying President Biden’s victory that early morning on Jan. 6 as well, including Speaker McCarthy. How do you assess his strength going forward? You didn’t serve under Nancy Pelosi, but how effective a leader do you think he will be, given what we saw those first four days?

I think just watching the fact that it took 15 votes, the fact that you saw the kind of gamesmanship and trading just right out there in the open really to me signifies that in terms of his strength, it’s very weak within his own party. I think, for many of them, they also recognize the extreme liability their extremists present to them for themselves, quite frankly.

What do you mean by that liability?

Well, basically they’re being led around by a 10%, maybe even less than 10%, if you will, of their caucus or their conference. They call it (a) conference. They’re being led by a very small minority of radicals on their side. And I think for many of them, they know that when they look back at this past election in 2022, they did not win because of extremist values and rhetoric. In fact, many of them probably came very close not to coming back because of that. And so really, continuing down that line is a liability. Is it a good thing for us as Democrats? Absolutely. It is. But I think there’s got to be adults in the room. And that was my real big takeaway. Realizing that this is not what the people of America deserve.

You’re in the minority, a first-time experience for you as a Democrat in Hawaii, (but) you’re 212 (members) strong. You’ve got a minority leader that has all of your support. How effectively are you going to be able to work with a majority that has a very slim margin and whose views in many ways are so polar opposite. How much are you going to be able to get not only the Democratic agenda passed, but your own agenda?

Yeah, that’s a great question. I think what was very heartening was seeing that we were 212 strong. But the reality is, even if you take a look at the spectrum within Democrats, it’s the gamut from — from Ed Case, quite frankly, and the Blue Dogs over here, that’s almost closer to the majority, to very, very ultra-progressive. And yet understanding the importance of coming together when it matters, I think that was very inspiring. Knowing that, push comes to shove, we know what we’ve got to do for the people. I think that bodes well for us going forward.
Getting stuff done now, recognizing we have a strong majority that’s not always going to see eye to eye. We’ve already taken dissenting votes. Quite frankly, I voted, as Ed even mentioned to me, I’ve already voted against him in a couple of votes already on the floor where we’ve had differing opinions within our own caucus.

Jill Tokuda gestures while speaking at the Hawaii convention center with her husband and sons.
Tokuda and her sons and husband on election night at the Hawaii Convention Center. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2022

But to me, it’s knowing we do have a critical mass. The question is, are we going to be able to pull off enough moderates on the other side? And how do we create those bridges? And I’ve given that a lot of thought from before even the general election was over.

What’s an example of a vote that you and Congressman Case split on — perhaps the most prominent one?

The (creation of a) Select Committee on China.

Please explain that.

That was actually a tough one where I appreciate that we could have conversations with colleagues about it. I will tell you the very first thing, and what ultimately stuck in my mind throughout, the very first thing I thought was, “Here we go with the xenophobia. Here we go with the racism.” I have a family where my husband has actually said, “We’re not taking the kids anywhere.” There’s only certain states he would even think about taking our children. And he realizes now probably going to New York for a couple of days was not a good idea, given the hate crimes you saw while I was there with my family and my kids.

When it comes to things like entitlements and supports for families, that’s to me something of a very stark line in the sand.

And so for me, that select committee, it’s not that I support Communist China. Not at all. I protested Tiananmen Square when I was in high school. But there’s questions about how those people would even be appointed from our side of the aisle, even. Would I trust that the people sitting on that committee would be running it in a way that was productive to support American jobs and American interest and not in fact harm Americans, Americans that look like me and my kids, quite frankly. And I did not. And so for myself, it was interesting to have such a tough vote in the first week.

To be clear, how did you split? Who was for the select commission? Who was against?

I voted against the committee. I spoke with a number of my progressive colleagues, and I think they shared the fear and the concern as to what this would result in for our communities, for our people. I mean, you take a look at so many things within our history. It was under the guise of national security, or economic interests, whether it be internment camps or the Chinese Exclusion Act or anything else. And it was all for good reasons or great intentions, but ultimately really ends up discriminating and harming people. And so for myself, I voted no.

We also knew we were going to lose. I mean, the Republicans wanted it, they had the majority. But I thought it was an important statement to be made that we are still not out of the woods when it comes to hate. And sadly to me, oftentimes when it comes to AAPI hate crimes, it’s less likely to even make the margins of the paper or awareness. It took grannies literally being beaten and killed before somebody stopped and realized, “Oh, gosh, this is a problem that the ‘China flu’ and all these other things where we’re being categorized by ethnicity. We were getting the blame for this. So I think that was a big, big deal.

There’s a question about raising the debt limit, and the Democrats and Janet Yellen and the Biden administration are saying, “We’ve got to do this or else we’re going to default, and that’s going to hurt economies throughout the world.” The Republicans are saying, “Well, we’re not going to do it by increasing taxes. We’re going to have to have spending cuts.” There’s talks about cuts to entitlements — Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid — and this is all coming down very soon. Can you talk about this?

This is definitely one I probably want to get back to you folks as I really dig a little bit deeper into it. Since I’ve been home, this has all definitely cracked. I mean, we thought we had a little bit more time, like maybe the summertime was when we were going to really start to see us hitting that limit. And now it’s I think this week they’re anticipating that we may, in fact, breach that. And of course, there are measures that can be taken. These are not preferred measures in terms of how to run a government and how to support your people in your communities. But they will take those measures. But you can’t hold out too long, is my understanding from what I’m seeing. You’re really going to start to have significant economic harm if we don’t do something in the next few months.

Republicans and Democrats in Congress will likely clash over the issue of raising the nation’s debt ceiling. Nick Grube/Civil Beat/2022

And it is a big concern that basically, at the end of the day, they’re holding the American people hostage. with this issue. And when it comes to things like entitlements and supports for families, from our seniors to our young ones, that’s to me something of a very stark line in the sand that you don’t cross. So there has also been some discussion, and I’m talking with my team as well about in terms of alternative bills and legislation that’s being presented to even remove the debt limit as well. So I am looking very closely at all of that because I think we’ve really got to determine how do we best function as a government for people?

I think you kind of covered one of the areas I wanted to ask you about, which was that splitting of the votes with Ed Case, because as I’m sure you’re very well aware, that’s kind of rare among our delegation. It’s always noteworthy when something like that happens. And there was another bill that was also related to China where you guys split your votes. I imagine there were the same sort of concerns with that.

A little different from that one, actually. I think that was not to sell from our (petroleum) reserves to China. There’s actually another bill that I’ve signed on to that is preferable where it’s not just China, by the way — it should be any country that is antagonistic to U.S. interests. So it’s broader. Quite frankly, we shouldn’t be selling to any bad actors that are posing harm to the United States.

I wanted to know what kind of discussions have you had with Ed Case about what areas where maybe you guys can work together, or on areas where you differ? Back in Kai (Kahele’s) first year, generally they tended to be on the same page and same with Senator Hirono and Senator Schatz.

I’m starting to feel like a little rebel or something. I do think that we have had good conversations. I will tell you this, that he has not imposed himself on me, like, “Hey, how are you going to vote on this and why?” In fact, most times when I have voted no, those two times Ed not come up to me and go, “What’s the problem?” Or anything like that. I will give him this, he has not tried to influence me or to change my vote to match up with his in any way. And I appreciate that because it could be real easy to want to mentor and almost influence a junior colleague of yours.

We have agreed, though, that it would be good for us to keep regular conversations. It’s just been the last couple of weeks has not been the normal, I think, start to a session where you’re literally just trying to organize. We don’t even have committees at this point, you know.

George Santos is sitting on committee.

So unfair. Can I say that?

Marjorie Taylor Greene is sitting on a committee. Democrats are not.

It’s insulting. Sorry. I mean, I won’t go down the “Let’s bash George Santos” trail, because that’s a real easy one, quite frankly. He’s down the hall from me somewhere in the building — same building, same floor. But I will tell you, it is frustrating that they took so long, one, to get a speaker, two, to then come up with the ratios for the exclusive committees and then also the remaining committees, which would be ones that I would sit on and now clearly taking care of their majority, which is the prerogative of each conference or caucus. I get it. But it’s very frustrating for a lot of us who are really just looking to get to work and really are hoping we’ll be able to serve on critical committees where we have much to contribute, and our communities care about those as well.

I was just going to ask which committees you’ve asked for and whether or not the fact that you you still don’t know your committee assignments, if it’s sort of affecting hiring in your office and your ability to actually get up and running?

I have asked for education and labor, which is education workforce, and agriculture as my top two committees. I’ve actually chaired all of them when I was in the state Senate, and they are particularly close to my heart, education and agriculture, but also (there are) key reauthorizations coming up in the next 12 to 24 months —the Farm Bill, education acts. So there are real opportunities for Hawaii to just jump in.

(There are) especially big concerns in terms of the direction the new majority will take when it comes to labor and to me needing really strong folks that can take strong stands on positions and buck against that, to me needs to be on that committee.

The third committee that I’d requested as a waiver to kind of round out — again, this is being optimistic; I get the first two and then you can ask for a waiver committee — was Armed Services. But I did not actually start with it. I know the thought bubbles are you’re going to start with Armed Services and ask for that. That makes sense to Hawaii. No, we’re underrepresented when it comes to education and agriculture. Ag, the last person to sit on it, it might have been (Dan) Akaka in the House.

Wow.

That’s the one I can remember, the last one, and education was Mazie (Hirono). She was always strong in education. But we’ve definitely had pukas (holes) in these areas and I think Hawaii needs to step up.

What has that meant for hiring? For some of my freshman colleagues, they were kind of waiting a little — like, “I don’t know what legislative (aide) to bring in if I don’t know what committee I’m going to have,” because you’d want to make sure that your (legislative staff) has people who are very aware of the issues and have worked it and all this stuff. And so I do know there’s a bunch of us that have held off. I was tempted, but then I realized even before we took all those votes, that it would be forever before we potentially got our committee assignments. So I actually have already started to fill out my team.

Tokuda was still waiting to learn of her congressional committee assignments, which has led to some delays in hiring staff. David Croxford/Civil Beat/2023

The important part is that they’ve got “The Hill” smarts. They’re good at it, they know it, but also — which is hard to find sometimes — it’s the commitment to Hawaii. Do you get what it means for Hawaii? Because it can get very high brow and high level and crazy, right, this D.C. legislative talk and policy. And what’s really critical is do you always have that compass that you understand how all that connects back home for Hawaii and our people in our communities. And if you don’t have that connection, that’s a problem for me, because that’s what I want to make sure is really a part of our office — that connection home.

Real quick follow. You mentioned you’re going to the White House next week.

It’s a freshman welcome reception. I don’t know if they’re inviting the Republicans, though. It’s a lot of people. We have a class of 94, so we’ll see.

What was interesting was we actually had meetings with Cabinet members set up for that first week. They were not allowed to meet with us because we were not sworn in. So we canceled meetings with various secretaries because we weren’t official. We actually couldn’t even get our constituent’s requests until we were official, which is just insane. But we technically would not have been allowed to call any agency and request information on behalf of a citizen because they wouldn’t be able to give us that information. So, a lot started on Saturday morning at about 1:40 or whatever time that was. We finally raised our hand.

January the seventh.

January 7th. I did, yes.

I was curious if you can be more specific about what it is about agriculture and education that you think you can do at the federal level that would be good for Hawaii. We’re interested in sustainability and that kind of thing here.

Absolutely. I also recognize that this is going to be a big learning period where I learn even more what I can and cannot do through legislation. But I feel like I’m in a wonderful period of time where I’m just going to ask, Can you just tell me, yes or no? I can just go for it in many regards.

When it comes to ag, I’ll start with that one, especially with the Farm Bill reauthorization, as I’ve gone to a lot of the neighbor islands and talked to farmers. There are so many challenges, and I remember it from when I chaired ag. We fought for important ag lands and biosecurity and all these other issues. The same challenges exist, but it’s so much more basic, to just getting supplies brought to Hawaii, the cost of transportation, supply chain issues for them, labor. Nothing new for every other state across the country. But I think it’s exacerbated here because it’s more expensive, because it’s hard to find workers, let alone housing for your workers so that they can afford to work for you and live nearby. All of these different issues.

So in talking to that, we’re really looking at how can we maybe increase subsidies, whether it be for transportation of goods here to Hawaii? How can we look at workforce housing specifically for agriculture, which is very unique? And, while always taking into mind the worker and the worker rights, but understanding that right now farmers can’t even take care of their crops in their fields if they have nobody to do it right now.

I have also had a conversation with someone recently, for example, too that’s probably going to become a line item in the farm bill — mental health and health care support for farm workers. We never think about really who’s behind our food, and it doesn’t stop at the company who produces it. It’s the hands that actually put it there. And for many of these families and individuals, life is very hard. And so access to health care, mental health especially, is one of the big ringers for me across the board. That’s something we have to really take a look at. And I’ve already started to talk to some of the other freshmen from smaller states, Vermont and others. They represent not the mega farms, not the big, big farms, but the small to medium farms. And that’s the lifeblood of their economy and how do we take care of their needs and reflect that.

Biosecurity is also a big one. I just think about that because I was in Hilo on Saturday and it’s just wave after wave of attack — of a mite, of a something coming over. And (airport security) is very tight on us when we leave and we go to California. Unfortunately, it is quite an open door and open season on Hawaii. It’s not as strong here when it comes to APHIS (Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service) protections. So that’s what I’m hoping for ag and still expanding my thoughts on what more we can do.

Education — that’s a dangerous area for me because I could want to do absolutely everything (when it) comes to education. So I have to really rein myself in a little bit. As you folks know, and I’m glad to see it taking off here in Hawaii, but early childhood was something I’ve been involved in since my babies were babies. And they’re in high school and intermediate now. They’re not babies anymore. I carried them to the press conferences. And for me it’s how can we at the federal level provide supports? Subsidies are one thing, and yes, we can do that. But the state’s looking at that. The reality is if every family had the money to send their kids to preschool or child care, there’s still not enough providers and facilities to actually make that happen.

So how are we looking at whether it’s loan repayment programs or different kind of workforce training programs that will create a pipeline for our early childhood educators? I think that’s important. There’s been some pieces of legislation I looked at from previous years that really looked at child care as infrastructure — I mean, positioning it that way. I think we’ve got to start looking at taking that very seriously. This is actually one of the areas I hope to get bipartisan support for. I think if there’s anything the pandemic showed in all sides is, we’ve got to help our workers take care of their families or they’re not going to come to work. That’s the reality.

Going up the spectrum as well, taking a look at college affordability and access at all levels. I barely got to college, you know, if it wasn’t for Pell, Perkins and Stafford, I almost had nothing to to go to college. My parents never filled out a FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid). They never went to college. They didn’t graduate. No one in my family had at that point.
I do feel that especially coming into a lot of the reauthorizations, how can we make sure that Hawaii’s unique needs and situation are also recognized and we take advantage of it?

You’ve got a lot of plans and ideas. What about Native Hawaiian issues in Congress? Is that something that is on your agenda or do you cede that others in the delegation?

I think it’s an important one for CD2. I think demographically speaking or presentation wise, Native Hawaiian issues, it’s critical. It’s right there. One of the discussions I’ve been having, first and foremost, is the blood quantum bill.

Kai Kahele’s bill.

Kai’s bill. And so I’ve been asked on the campaign trail, would I be willing to to introduce a blood quantum bill? And I said, yes. That being said, I’ve got to look at the specific languages again in the various drafts. I think in the last month or two, he had reintroduced some (resolutions) and other things, too, in the last few weeks of this Congress.

But I think there’s two things. I think one is succession — blood quantum as it relates to succession, right? And so if we take that, taking it to 1/32, basically, essentially you can pass on to the grandkids now, if you will, the land and the home that they have grown up in, the family has built, is connected to, that is critical. And we’re seeing a lot of situations, I have talked to people who are in jeopardy of losing their family home, their land that they have known and have grown up on. And I think that is something we’ve got to address, is that succession and the blood quantum going to 1/32?

I believe that Kai had also started to then look at the waiting list and actually getting the waiting list to be diffused, if you will. So, translating, your spot on the waiting list can be passed down to your grandkids, essentially. I disagree with that. I know some people would love that, but to me, we have enough people on that waiting list that have not been served. And until we get through the end, the 50 percenters, we should not be diffusing this this blood requirement right here.

I do think part of it also has to be about having conversations, not just introducing bills. So I you know, when I saw (Interior) Secretary (Deb) Haaland, I told her I would love to just sit down and talk with her, get their perspective, maybe even find ways to engage both of them together at some point. But I know that there had been some tensions between Kai and the Department of the Interior at points where I don’t think as much conversations were had as should have been. And I think for something as important as this and as sensitive as this, we’ve got to start first with conversations. And so that is something I’m definitely committed to.

And then also going out into the community and listening, quite frankly, and really hearing from beneficiaries what other pieces of legislation are really critical and important. I don’t presume to know anything about what is a priority for them beyond even this blood quantum bill, whether it be education, language, whether it be looking for more resources to counter the disparities that we see, with native Hawaiian populations, things like incarceration rates or health disparities, diabetes and all these things. But I want to listen and learn from them in terms of what they really identify as priorities. So I have been reaching out and asking for these conversations.

Following up on just your perspective, having been education chair. What do you think of (Lt. Gov.) Sylvia Luke’s plan — the pre-K plan? What makes it different this time? How did we get this through?

I’ll start with what they’ve got in their favor is that you’ve got an administration that clearly is supporting it and they have the legislature in support. You know, when we went up 10-plus years — I don’t know what it was — to do the Con Am (to allow use of state public money for private preschool), we didn’t have all the Legislature. We barely eked it out, as you might recall, to get it on the ballot to begin with. I remember sitting with Neal (Abercrombie, then governor) in the gallery of the House. Just trying to get that two thirds of what we needed to get in on the deal and actually being impressed that he sat there to look at them because he’s like, “I need your vote. Get it on the ballot. “And there was all kind of pilikia (trouble) with that.

Senator Jill Tokuda WAM Rep Sylvia Luke after 1030am joint conference meeting on funding rail. 28 april 2017
For several years, Tokuda chaired the Senate Way and Means Committee while Sylvia Luke, now lieutenant governor, chaired the House Finance Committee. Luke is now leading the Green administration’s efforts on pre-K. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2017

But if we did not have the full support of the Legislature, like what you’re seeing here … interestingly, our partners were businesses when we were really pushing preschool and universal preschool at that time. It was a mixed mode system, right? It was public-private. It was not just public. It was also looking at using public dollars to, quite frankly, beef up the early childhood infrastructure that we had, which was at that point — and still is, kind of — vast majority private sector, vast majority. And the unions were against us, as you may recall. Some of them were torn, but the unions were against us.

Now, fast forward to this situation. You have a lot more people on board. I think that is definitely working in their favor. They are flush at this moment with money — that is also very much in their favor. The question always becomes sustainability because the system (they are) proposing is expensive. So they will have to come up with the mechanism to fund it. It is also a complicated and I have not looked honestly as closely as I need to, since they’ve just unveiled it.

In Hawaii we are half in denial ourselves when it comes to the race and diversity and acceptance issue too.

Money is the easiest thing any government can give and do. But you need teachers, you need classroom space, you need after-school care and transportation. I think of it from a parent’s lens: a lot of these public programs in schools where you have aftercare for preschoolers, a lot of them don’t have aftercare for preschools. What time do you work? Do you get off at 2 p.m. so you can go pick up your toddler? Most can’t.

And so that was some of the things that when we were talking about this over 10 years ago. We talked about having a system that was multilayered like that, understanding that it was going to be the money to help pay for kids seats, the facilities, the workforce, the labor and all these other things that parents need for it to work. As a mom, I used to sometimes drop my sons off early because I had to get in early. And a lot of parents do that, but they don’t always have that and probably don’t for little ones with 3- and 4-year-olds for kindergarten. Now they do, but not for the babies. I wish it all the best. My question will be how we can then support it at the federal level and quite frankly, make it available for keiki across our country.

I wrote about the Biden administration’s new strategies on Asian-Americans, Native Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders. I was interested in asking you about what you thought of it and if there’s any way that you think that Congress could build on it — like anything related to the various initiatives that they have brought up about this — disaggregation, language, access, discrimination. 

When I’ve talked to people about Hawaii in that way, it’s a bit of an eye-opener for them, right? Because they see us as a very utopic place where we’re diverse, unique, and everyone loves each other and we’ve got beautiful beaches and people. And I’m like, “It’s complicated, way more complicated than that.” And we’re half in denial ourselves when it comes to the race and diversity and acceptance issue too. So that’s like a whole other conversation.

But the AA and NHPI community to me is sometimes forgotten and left out of so many things — data disaggregation, we are “other.” I remember raising a concern and being quite outraged, actually seeing a graphic on a presentation that was being done where you had Black, white, Latino-Hispanic and other. I’m like, “I’m more than other. I’m way more than other.” We’re 7% of this nation’s population and quickly growing the fastest growing in the country right now. And we’re still labeled as “other,” we’re forced to put non-Hispanic on the little bubbly sheet.

And so for me, it is a big concern, and I think not just an irritation but a feeling that I need to act on those things. And I think we don’t do enough in these particular areas. So it’s not something that I can tell you I have specific initiatives on, but that’s personally why I decided to be more involved in CAPAC, the Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus, because I really felt that there needs to be more of us and we need to stand up and we need to recognize that.

You know, it’s not just that representation matters. You’ve got to do something with that representation. There’s two AAPI freshmen members in my class. That’s not enough. I’m sorry. We’ve got a record number of Latino, Black women, people of color and Shri Thanedar (the first Indian-American from Michigan) and I can pat each other on the back. It was really, again, a wake-up call that we come from Hawaii where it’s majority-minority, although that’s even changing a bit right now. But the reality is we have to really make sure that we have that representation in Congress that looks like America, which includes AA and NHPI. But then do something about to raise awareness.

I remember when we talked about the Select Committee on China. For some people they didn’t get it that maybe this could cause an increase in xenophobia and hatred towards China. You have an 18-year-old student being stabbed in the head going off a bus in Indiana because that woman thought that she was taking out one more person that could blow up America. That stuff still exists out there.

And if you have committees that increase the rhetoric and the thought and plant those horrible seeds in people’s head, our kids are in danger, as far as I’m concerned. Our families are in danger. And so it’s a very personal one for me, too, to make sure that we stand up and do more in this area. I would hope it’s one where we can work side by side the administration. But we’ve also got to work in our own House to make sure that these issues are raised — and not just raised, that we’re going to do something about it.


Read this next:

The Democratic Party Platform Calls For Serious Government Reform. So Why Are Democrats Reluctant To Do It?


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The members of The Civil Beat Editorial Board are Chad Blair, Patti Epler, Nathan Eagle, Kim Gamel, John Hill and Matthew Leonard. Opinions expressed by the editorial board reflect the group’s consensus view. Not all members may participate in every interview or essay. Chad Blair, the Politics and Opinion Editor, can be reached at cblair@civilbeat.org.


Latest Comments (0)

I'm disappointed that Jill Tokuda has already begun to adopt the rhetoric of her own party at the federal level by labeling her political opponents as "extremists." Whether she truly believes this or is only saying this to win brownie points with her team, only time will tell.

elrod · 2 weeks ago

She's a born legislator. Such a wonky perspective of legislative processes. Yep, after looking at those House Rules you know you aren't in Honolulu anymore. One of her projects could be attaching a public access room to the La Follette Congressional Reading Room that's usually reserved for use by Members of Congress, their families, and their staff members. A lot of great Congressional Research Service Reports there, but it's lacking the real spirit of Bob La Follette by not being open to the public to educate and empower them. It needs a public access room there.

Frank_DeGiacomo · 2 weeks ago

That's the best interview I've read of an incoming Congressional representative. I voted for Jill Tokuda without knowing a lot about her other than the offices she's held, her candidate platform, and that she seemed the most qualified of all the candidates. Her honest appraisal of her new circumstances impresses me. She has identified so many issues that should be a concern for all her constituents. I hope Civil Beat will be able to engage in more candid interviews with Tokuda as she progresses through her first term in Congress, particularly in this difficult session with so many oddball Republicans seemingly interested in only obstructing progress.

Bett · 2 weeks ago

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