At first blush, there’s not much to distinguish Jill Tokuda from Patrick Branco, the top two Democrats vying for the open seat in Hawaii’s 2nd Congressional District.
Both Tokuda and Branco hail from Windward Oahu, and they each walk the party line on major federal issues, from codifying Roe v. Wade to protect abortion rights to implementing stricter gun control laws to prevent mass shootings like the one in Uvalde, Texas.
They both understand that one of the key expectations of any member of Hawaii’s federal delegation is to build seniority in Washington and to use that clout to help bring government money back into the islands.
Where they differ, however, is in their experience.
Tokuda is well-known in Hawaii politics and has already mounted two statewide campaigns, including for lieutenant governor in 2022, while Branco is a political newcomer who is just completing his first two-year stint in the state House of Representatives.
“This race is arguably generational,” said John Hart, a professor of communication at Hawaii Pacific University. “You have someone who has a lot of experience and who has run for several offices — including some she’s lost — against someone with a relatively brief political career, but who obviously has a lot of bravado.”
Tokuda spent 12 years in the Legislature, where she was the chairwoman of a number of key Senate committees, including Labor and Education and Ways and Means. She’s also a close confidante of U.S. Sen. Mazie Hirono, who she worked for when Hirono was lieutenant governor.
Tokuda, 46, sponsored legislation that established the Executive Office on Early Learning, which helped launch the state’s first publicly funded pre-kindergarten program in 2014. She also introduced a constitutional amendment that voters passed in 2016 to use the state’s surplus revenue to pay down debt on general obligation bonds and retirement benefits for public employees.
“I completely understand the generational disappointment and trauma the Hawaiian community has gone through. There are a lot of unfulfilled promises.” — Patrick Branco
In 2017, she found herself on the outs with Democratic leadership when she pushed back on a proposal to extend the general excise tax to help pay for Honolulu’s cash-strapped rail project that today is nearly twice the cost originally projected. As a result she was ousted from her leadership role on the committee.
That grudge carried over to her bid for lieutenant governor in 2018, when a super PAC linked to the Hawaii Carpenters Union and other pro-rail business interests spent more than $1 million to back her opponent, state Sen. Josh Green.
Green would go on to win the race and is now considered the leading candidate for governor.
Hawaii’s 2nd Congressional District, which covers rural Oahu and the neighbor islands, wasn’t always on Tokuda’s political agenda. She was previously campaigning in a crowded race for lieutenant governor.
She made the switch only after U.S. Rep. Kai Kahele made the surprise decision that he would no longer seek re-election and instead would run for governor.
“When it became clear that this was going to be an open seat I really felt compelled that we needed to make sure that when people looked at our congressional delegation in Congress that they saw someone who understood the needs of rural families and communities here in Hawaii and that they saw themselves,” Tokuda said.
“Is it less crowded than the lieutenant governor’s race? Yes. But I view every race as one where I’m behind and I really need to prove myself.”
Branco, too, must show that he’s ready for Congress, especially considering he’s an unknown quantity in Hawaii politics.
Branco is a Kamehameha Schools graduate and former U.S. diplomat who two years ago won a seat in the state House of Representatives representing Kailua and Kaneohe.
In his first term, the Legislature passed a resolution he authored that apologized for the state effectively banning the use of the Hawaiian language in schools.
He also pushed legislation to close a loophole in Hawaii’s ghost gun law that made it a felony to manufacture, purchase or obtain firearms parts to build a gun without a serial number. The original law was silent on possession, which Branco’s bill addressed after authorities complained that suspects would claim they purchased the parts before the prohibition was in place.
Branco, 35, comes from a diverse ethnic background, which he often plays up as a strength. He is of Portuguese, Filipino and Puerto Rican descent in addition to being Native Hawaiian.
He would be both the first Latino and first openly gay member of Hawaii’s congressional delegation, distinctions that have already brought him endorsements from national organizations including Bold PAC and Equality PAC, which are the campaign arms of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus and the Congressional LGBTQ Equality Caucus.
“The words ‘former U.S. diplomat, current state legislator and candidate for Congress’ are statistically not supposed to be in my biography as the son of a teenage mom and dad who didn’t finish high school,” Branco said. “My family history and my background encapsulate Hawaii’s diversity. That representation matters.”
Branco would be just the third Native Hawaiian to serve in Congress since statehood behind Kahele and former U.S. Sen. Dan Akaka, who died in 2018.
Affordable Housing And Axis Deer
The cost of living is top of mind for both candidates, especially as inflation pushes the cost of goods and services higher and median home prices in the islands creep above $1 million.
Tokuda says she supports suspending the federal gas tax, which President Joe Biden proposed last month to help provide at least some relief to consumers. She also would like to see the return of the expanded child tax credit that was passed as part of the American Rescue Plan that provided monthly checks to millions of families.
Similarly, she would like to see the continuation of a federal program launched during the Covid-19 pandemic that provided billions of dollars in emergency rental assistance.
Tokuda, who’s a descendant of Okinawan immigrants, has pinned her campaign to her role as a working mother of two boys, ages 12 and 13. She said she wants to make sure that as they grow older they too can afford to stay in the islands, just as she did.
“I share the same concern and urgency as so many other families out there,” Tokuda said.
“For all of the decisions that I make and hard work that I’m doing, are my kids going to have a chance to live here? Every day, it seems that possibility is farther and farther away. I’m running because I’m a mom that feels the need to step up and make major changes to give our kids and families a chance to be here.”
For Tokuda, that means making sure that Hawaii gets its fair share from the U.S. government.
“We’re leaving money on the table and we’re losing that money.” — Jill Tokuda
She was a member of the House special committee on Covid-19 set up to advise legislative leaders and the governor on how to handle the pandemic. She often appeared on legislative panels armed with charts and graphs showing what federal dollars were coming in and where they were going.
Tokuda pointed to a recent report from the Hawaii Appleseed Center for Law and Economic Justice that found that the state has lost out on nearly $200 million to help support school food programs over the years due to outdated methods of calculating reimbursements.
That can’t happen, she said, especially when the needs of the state are so great.
“We’re leaving money on the table and we’re losing that money,” Tokuda said. “You have to have a congressional delegation that can really work with the state and county to make sure that those funds are received and executed so that the money gets to where it needs to go in the community and make a difference in people’s lives.”
Branco, too, sees people getting priced out of the islands and points to the need to build more affordable housing as a key to getting people to stay. In particular, he wants to work on building more housing for Native Hawaiian homesteaders, some of whom have been waiting decades for the chance to own their own homes.
Tapping federal dollars to diversify the economy is also a priority, he said. The Defense Department spends more money per capita in Hawaii than almost any other state, and Branco wants to harness those dollars.
He said he wants to follow the lead of his predecessors so that he can get appointed to the House Armed Services Committee, where he can work on federal legislation, namely the National Defense Authorization Act, to look for opportunities to expand industry in the islands, particularly around cybersecurity.
Branco said he envisions a clean energy economy for Hawaii that includes renewables, such as geothermal and wave energy, and that his job would be to secure as much federal funding as possible to make it a reality.
Agriculture and island food security are also critical, he said. For instance, he would like to work with the U.S. Department of Agriculture to find more ways to turn the nuisance axis deer population on Maui and Molokai into a reliable food source as well as an economic export.
“Iowa isn’t the only place for farms,” Branco said. “Hawaii has a lot of farmers too.”
Branco highlighted his Native Hawaiian heritage and said it’s important that at least one member of the state’s four-person delegation represents its indigenous people.
He said he would champion legislation to make it easier for Hawaiian homesteaders to pass down their land leases to their relatives by modifying the blood quantum requirement that’s built into the 101-year-old Hawaiian Homes Commission Act from one-quarter to 1/32nd.
Kahele, who is also Native Hawaiian, introduced similar legislation in 2021.
“Native Hawaiian issues underpin every issue we have here in the state,” Branco said. “I completely understand the generational disappointment and trauma the Hawaiian community has gone through. There are a lot of unfulfilled promises.”
Tokuda’s Race To Lose?
Tokuda’s experience and the fact that she’s run a statewide campaign before appears to give her an edge in the race. She’s already stacked up a number of major endorsements, including from the Hawaii Government Employees Association, which is the largest union in the state, and EMILY’s List, which supports pro-choice Democratic women for higher office.
Tokuda also received the backing of the Hawaii State Legislature’s LGBTQ+ Equality Caucus, which is co-chaired by state Rep. Adrian Tam. Tam said Tokuda has been a strong advocate for the LGBTQ+ community both as a supporter of marriage equality and as someone who helped shepherd legislation into law that banned conversion therapy for minors.
“She was there for us when it was tough,” Tam said.
Branco, meanwhile, has his own smattering of endorsements, although many of them come from Washington-based organizations, including Bold PAC and Equality PAC.
He’s also working closely with New Politics, a nonprofit organization that works to get more veterans and other service-oriented candidates, such as those who have served in the Peace Corps, elected to office.
New Politics was one of the organizations behind the push to get Kahele elected in 2020.
Kevin Holst is a senior campaign advisor at New Politics, who has been working closely with Branco’s campaign.
While he said he understands Branco is the perceived underdog in the race given Tokuda’s past experience, he’s hoping voters will be looking for a fresh start, especially given the current state of affairs in Hawaii, with record-high home prices and ongoing public corruption scandals involving some of the most visible members of the local political establishment.
He also said that a number of internal polls from various sources have shown that there are still a lot of undecided voters who could break Branco’s way.
“There’s an inherent distrust in state government in Hawaii because of the leaders who have been in office for decades who have failed the people,” Holst said. “In Pat, what voters in Hawaii should see is someone who has D.C. experience and who offers that service-oriented leadership that is sorely lacking in Hawaii.”
One of the challenges Branco faces is getting out that message to voters.
So far, he’s struggled to garner much attention for his campaign, and has been complaining about Tokuda’s refusal to participate in more public forums and debates. He’s also attacked Tokuda for a 2012 endorsement she received from the National Rifle Association although Tokuda is already running TV ads touting her gun control record.
Colin Moore, head of the Public Policy Center at the University of Hawaii, says it appears that the race is Tokuda’s to lose. Branco is a good candidate, Moore said, but he’s going to struggle with name recognition, especially with the Aug. 13 primary a little more than a month away.
There’s also no indication yet that Branco has the money to spend big on advertising to increase his name ID with voters.
Both he and Tokuda entered the race after the April 15 filing deadline for candidates to submit their first-quarter campaign spending reports with the Federal Election Commission. Their next quarterly reports, showing how much money they’ve raised and how they’ve been spending it, won’t be available until mid-July.
“I think Jill Tokuda made a very smart strategic decision to get out of the lieutenant governor’s race and get into this race early on,” Moore said. “What’s remarkable is that the path was made clear for her to walk through the front door.”
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