The first-term congresswoman doubled down on her campaign pledge in a recent fundraising email. Experts say it’s all about political messaging.

WASHINGTON — To mark her 100th day in office, U.S. Rep. Jill Tokuda sent a fundraising email to her supporters reminding them of a promise she made last year when first running for federal office.

She would not take any money from corporate political action committees, saying “corporations and the super wealthy have too much influence over our electoral system.”

Tokuda appears to be abiding by her pledge, although she’s still bringing in significant sums of money from influential donors, including lobbyists, CEOs and military contractors.

Jill Tokuda gestures while speaking at the Hawaii convention center with her husband and sons.
U.S. Rep. Jill Tokuda says she won’t take money from corporate PACs, but special interests still have plenty of ways to support her campaign. (Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2022)

Tokuda’s campaign raised nearly $109,000 during her first three months on the job, according to her latest filing with the Federal Election Commission, which covers Jan. 1 to March 31.

Of that, more than 70% came from individual donors while the rest came from PACs affiliated with fellow members of Congress, labor unions and other organizations, such as the National Confectioners Association, which represents the candy industry.

Tokuda’s campaign also received money from the PAC affiliated with the Washington-based End Citizens United, which seeks to reverse the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2010 decision that allowed outside groups to spend unlimited amounts in elections.

Among the lawmakers who donated to Tokuda through their leadership PACs are U.S. Sen. Brian Schatz, Hawaii’s senior senator, and former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.

Colin Moore, a political scientist and associate professor at the University of Hawaii Economic Research Organization, said Tokuda’s decision to swear off corporate PAC money hasn’t seemed to dim her financial prospects at least when it comes to raising campaign funds.

Moore said at this point there’s no indication Tokuda will draw a serious challenger in the 2024 election from either party.

“I’ve seen firsthand the impacts of dark money in politics.”

U.S. Rep. Jill Tokuda

She also still has the support of other influential groups, he said, including organized labor and major outside political players, such as EMILY’s List, which seeks to elect Democratic women who are pro-abortion rights to federal office.

“This is something that sounds more meaningful than it probably is,” Moore said. “This is a clever rhetorical statement that sends a signal to voters without limiting her future possibilities. There’s still a lot of money to be had from people who aren’t technically corporate PACs.”

Under current FEC rules, PACs can only donate $5,000 to a candidate per primary and general election for a total of $10,000 whereas individuals can donate up to $3,300 per election for a total of $6,600.

During Tokuda’s 2022 campaign, she raised nearly $23,000 from executives of Matson Inc., including CEO Matthew Cox, while still abiding by her promise not to take money from corporate PACs.

So far this year, she’s taken donations from a number of other business executives, including Cox, Hawaii developer Stanford Carr, Tradewind Capital Chairman Colbert Matsumoto and Zephyr Insurance President and CEO Timothy Johns, who is also a trustee of Parker Ranch.

Tokuda says it’s important to find ways to nullify the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Citizens United v. FEC. (Nick Grube/Civil Beat/2019)

Tokuda said her decision to refuse corporate PAC donations was an easy one because outside money from special interests have played an outsized role in her previous campaigns.

In 2018, she narrowly lost the Democratic primary for lieutenant governor to Josh Green after Be Change Now, a super PAC affiliated with the Hawaii carpenters union, spent more than $1 million trying to ensure Green’s victory. Green is now Hawaii’s governor.

When Tokuda ran for Hawaii’s 2nd Congressional District in 2022, she faced a barrage of attack ads that were funded by special interests supporting her opponent, Patrick Branco, a first-term state representative.

During the campaign Tokuda openly criticized the influx of outside money that was backing Branco, much of it coming from mainland interests, some of which was tied to the cryptocurrency industry.

“I’ve seen firsthand the impacts of dark money in politics,” Tokuda said. “So for me it was important to put my money where my mouth was and walk the walk.”

Swearing off corporate PAC money, she said, allows her to focus on gaining support and earning trust from real people in the community.

“There’s still a lot of money to be had from people who aren’t technically corporate PACs.”

Political scientist Colin Moore

Although her FEC filings show she’s raised sizable amounts from recognizable business leaders and lobbyists, Tokuda said she’d rather focus on the individuals giving lesser amounts to her campaign.

“It’s easy and simple to key in on the big names and big amounts,” she said. “But what humbles me is what you don’t really see, which is the significant amount that I get from small dollar donors.”

Tokuda’s campaign reported receiving $8,200 in unitemized donations during the first quarter, which are those that amount to less than $200.

‘It’s A Small Step’

The so-called no corporate PAC pledge became increasingly popular, particularly among progressives, during the 2018 election and continued into 2020 when a number of high-profile Democrats running for president used the tactic to boost their credibility among liberal voters.

In 2022, a record 69 candidates who took the pledge during the campaigns won seats in the 118th Congress, according to End Citizens United, an increase from the two previous election cycles.

Tokuda is the only member of Hawaii’s congressional delegation to take the pledge.

Senator Brian Schatz listens during a field hearing held at the East West Center Auditorium.
U.S. Sen. Brian Schatz supports campaign finance reform, but has refused to swear off corporate PAC money. (Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2022)

Schatz, U.S. Sen. Mazie Hirono and U.S. Rep. Ed Case, on the other hand, accept corporate money from a wide range of interests.

Schatz, for instance, raised nearly $2 million from PACs during his 2022 reelection bid. Many of those donations came from major companies, including Google, Comcast and General Dynamics.

Hirono, who will be on the ballot in 2024, also has accepted significant sums from corporations.

According to her campaign’s latest filing with the FEC, more than half of her $357,000 in contributions from the first quarter of 2023 came from PACs with several of the donations coming from defense industry heavyweights like Booz Allen Hamilton and BAE Systems.

In the House, Case’s campaign reported raising nearly $88,000 in the first quarter, and as in the past, he received most of that money from PACs with business interests in Hawaii.

Among companies donating to his campaign through their PACs were Lockheed Martin, Hawaiian Airlines and Huntington Ingalls Industries, which is the largest military shipbuilder in the U.S.

The fact that Schatz, Hirono and Case have continued to take in corporate donations has done little, however, to affect their ratings with groups like End Citizens United, which has given each of them an “A” rating due to their positions on legislation meant to limit the influence of money in politics.

Case in particular has said that just because he takes money from certain special interest groups doesn’t mean he’s beholden to them.

“I completely believe in campaign finance and ethical reform, but I don’t believe that extends to no PAC money at all,” Case said in a previous interview about the no corporate PAC pledge.

Michael Beckel is a research director at Issue One, a Washington-based nonprofit that supports efforts to reduce the influence of big money in politics.

While it can be easy to dismiss the no corporate PAC pledge as low-stakes political messaging, he said, it’s still an important way for candidates to tell voters that they support campaign finance reform while also differentiating themselves from their opponents, particularly in primaries.

“It’s a small step, maybe, but it’s a step,” Beckel said.

Getting candidates to focus on grassroots, small-dollar donors engages more people in the political process, he said.

The biggest challenge, of course, is finding ways to limit other ways corporations and other special interest groups influence elections, whether it’s through the use of lobbyists or underwriting super PACs that can raise and spend unlimited amounts of money.

“Most of the politicians who are taking these pledges are trying to operate as good faith actors,” Beckel said. “They’re looking for ways to have rubrics they can actually abide by while also signaling to voters that they want to fix a broken political system.”

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