Chad Blair: Jill Tokuda candidacy could upset a congressional race

Half a dozen politicians tell me a new candidate has emerged to run for Congress if Rep. Kai Kahele announces a gubernatorial bid early next month.

Jill Tokuda, the former chair of the Senate Ways and Means Committee, is reportedly seriously considering running for the 2nd Congressional District. On Monday, she also dropped out of a lieutenant governor’s debate with her and other leading Democrats vying to replace Josh Green.

On Tuesday, the Hawaii State Office of Elections showed Tokuda was still considering the LG race despite nothing having been filed in his name on the Federal Election Commission’s website.

But, University of Hawaii Pacific Professor John Hart, who was scheduled to moderate the debate at the Aloha Tower Marketplace campus on Friday night, said a Tokuda run for Congress seems likely.

“Certainly the political chatter is that many unions are upset that Tommy Waters is considering a CD2 run because they would rather he stay home,” Hart said. “He’s more valuable to them as city council president and maybe one day running for mayor than being in DC.”

If Kahele drops out of CD2, leading Democrats fear Hawaii will lose influence in Washington. Hawaii needs long-term representation in Washington, which Waters reiterated Monday in a news forum.

Jill Tokuda and her family.
A screenshot from Jill Tokuda’s Lieutenant Governor’s website showing the candidate and her family. She now appears ready to drop out of that race to run for Congress.

Added to this is the need to accumulate seniority and have experienced members of Congress to perhaps succeed Senator Mazie Hirono when she leaves office (she is next in 2024). Kahele was reportedly groomed for the job, and even if he does not run for governor, it is hard for many to imagine him running for a second term, as he has already declared his desire to return home.

It’s also not certain that Waters will run. Yet when asked about possible disappointment among union groups if he left the Council, he texted me on Tuesday saying: ‘I can’t please everyone all the time – it’s bound to happen that a union won’t be happy with me.”

Waters added:

“I tried to strike a balance and apply fairness to all sides, always treating people with respect and courtesy. I tried to be open-minded to all sides and to listen before I speak. If I ruffled feathers here and there, that’s normal. I wouldn’t be doing my job if I didn’t ask the hard questions and expect straight answers.

Regardless of what Waters and Tokuda do, declare that Senator Jarrett Keohokalole is no longer in the hunt for CD2. He now says he will run for re-election. State Rep. Angus McKelvey said he will be running for Roz Baker’s seat in the state Senate because the veteran Maui lawmaker is retiring this year.

But state Rep. Pat Branco is still planning to run for Congress.

If Tokuda runs, she may have a powerful advantage if she is able to enlist the support of EMILY’s List, a political action committee that strives to elect pro-choice Democratic women.

The PAC did not return an investigation Tuesday, but it has in the past supported Hirono, Patsy Mink, Tulsi Gabbard and Colleen Hanabusa for federal office, and Tokuda for state and local races.

Tokuda also struggled to fundraise for the LG race and saw union endorsements go mostly to Sylvia Luke, another LG candidate.

Do you need to live in CD2?

Tokuda, currently co-director of CyberHawaii, is a founding member and organizer of the Patsy T. Mink Political Action Committee who also represented Kaneohe and Kailua in the state Senate for 12 years.

As a resident of Windward, she lives in CD2 – as do McKelvey, Keohokalole and Branco while Waters once represented Waimanalo in the Legislative Assembly.

In Hawaii, a resident of CD1 who wishes to show up for CD2 – and vice versa – is permitted. CD1 is Honolulu’s largest urban city while CD2 is the rest of Oahu (including the north shore and windward side) and all other islands.

I spoke to Ed Case, the only person from Hawaii who represented both offices. When elected to CD2 in 2002, Case was living in CD1, moving to the district the following year. He still lives in Kaneohe today, where he now represents CD1.

Ed Case Congress
Hawaii Congressman Ed Case shortly after being sworn in for his CD1 seat in 2019. He says it’s important for members to understand their districts even if they don’t live there. Nick Grube/Civil Beat/2019

“I think just whether or not you live in the District of Hawaii isn’t particularly relevant,” said Case, a Democrat seeking reelection. “There are certainly similarities between the two, but also differences. Functionally, in Hawaii, there are a lot of general representations in our House delegation.

Case points out that Hawaii had only one seat in the House after statehood, represented by two at-large representatives. In 1970, Hawaii transitioned to the district model and has since had two seats in the House. Over the years, there have been several examples of Hawaii reps living in a neighborhood where they don’t actually reside, including Hirono, a former CD2 rep.

The important thing, Case said, is that the rep understands and respects Hawaii, and has the right temperament and knowledge.

“I don’t worry about whether a problem is on this side or this side of the Pali or whether it’s Maui or whatever,” he said. “I think that’s how the members approached it overall. It’s not like you come from Philadelphia and try to represent Pittsburgh, or from San Francisco and try to represent Los Angeles.

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