Hawaii’s freshman congresswoman trying to share “little bits of aloha” in Washington

Rep. Jill Tokuda (D-Hawaii) was sworn in to her first term in the House of Representatives last month.
Published: Feb. 3, 2023 at 3:23 PM CST
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WASHINGTON (Gray DC) - WASHINGTON (Gray DC) - Rep. Jill Tokuda (D-Hawaii) says she is a busy woman. The freshman congresswoman, who was sworn in to her first term in the House of Representatives last month, was appointed to the House Agriculture and Armed Services Committees last week. And while she is far from the only busy member of Congress, Tokuda is balancing her workload in Washington with a five-hour time difference and nearly 5,000-mile distance from her home and district.

Recently, Tokuda allowed the Gray Television Washington News Bureau inside access into what a day in the life is like for her. Tokuda says it starts at 8 a.m. Eastern Standard Time and typically finishes around 5 p.m. Hawaii-Aleutian Standard Time.

“There is an advantage to being five hours and soon, six hours time difference away from home,” said Tokuda. “You can continue the work, the calls, the Zooms, well into the evening. So oftentimes, I find myself it might be 9:00, 10:00 (eastern), I’m still on the phone talking to constituents, talking to lawmakers back home, talking to our team and our staff. And they’re still going at it.”

Tokuda starts her day by walking 30 minutes into work from her home in Washington.

“I get my steps in before I even get here,” she said.

The next steps she said include “tons of meetings, back-to-back caucus meetings, meetings with constituents that are in town and team meetings.”

Tokuda also has her responsibilities to be on the House floor for votes and deliberations. She gave her first floor speech last week.

“It was very stressful,” said Tokuda. “The talking about the debt limit and the impact on working families, especially in Hawaii, where so many people depend on everything from Social Security to Medicaid to veterans payments, all of these things that could be impacted If we hit that ceiling in that crisis.”

While some might be overwhelmed by the extended daily work load, Tokuda said it gives her pride.

“It is absolutely thrilling and exciting that we have this opportunity to meet, to double the time that we have to really serve the people in (Hawaii’s) 2nd Congressional District.”

At the same time, Tokuda is a wife and mother of two boys, Matt, 13, and Aden, 12. She admits being 11 hours away from home from that aspect is tough.

“And we knew it would be,” said Tokuda. “But I’m really blessed that my family has just embraced me. And so we do a lot of video calls late at night while I’m lying in bed and I’m falling asleep and they’re having dinner, literally. That’s the time difference. We’re able to see each other talk, ask each other how our day is, if I’m lucky and I’m still awake long enough, which means it’s closer to 1 a.m. our time, I’m playing video games with the kids.”

Tokuda said having today’s technology is certainly a benefit versus the representatives that previously served.

“We do stay connected and make sure everything all day (the kids) get a text from me. ‘Goodnight.’ ‘Good morning.’ My husband (Kyle Michibata) and I connect up as soon as he wakes up as the first text that he does.

However, Tokuda said nothing can replace the time she has with her family back in Hawaii.

“Do I look forward to flying home 2 to 3 times a month? Absolutely. In the meantime, I’m never disconnected from home.”

Tokuda said she will try to get back to Hawaii as much as possible and looks forward to the time when representatives go back to their districts to do work there. In the meantime, she said she has made it a point to bring some of Hawaii to D.C.

All around her office, the leis are hard to miss.

“I do have some leis,” said Tokuda. “They are fake leis, but handmade beautifully from folks, supporters in my district. So I want to bring it here. I wear them on the floor.”

There are also tiny Hawaiian candy and figurines. Tokuda said, as she showed us a giant box of Hawaiian food she brings from home to her office, that she has “tiny bits of aloha that we want to share throughout this building. And that gives us a chance to explain to them what aloha really means; the way of life, the way we treat each other with respect and how we want to work together and make it a little sweet (when referring to the candy).” She joked, it is the “Hawaii Calling Card.”

Outside her office hangs a traditional Male Lei. Tokuda said, “We use it to signify the opening of offices.”

She pointed out on January 3rd, the first day of the session, a traditional Hawaiian service took place at her front door.

“We did have a kumu come here to actually do an official blessing,” said Tokuda. “He did his blessing. We had traditional line salt and chanting done right here in the halls of Congress. It is tradition to leave (the Male Lei) up for as long as possible to continue the blessings into the office. We went throughout the office taking breaths together, really to signify all of the good energy and the positive spirit that we wanted to to bring to this office.”

But what might be most fascinating about Tokuda winding up in Washington is, as a teenager, she might have spoken her service into existence. Standing just outside the Capitol, Tokuda said, “You know, it’s funny. The very first time I came to D.C., the first time I flew to the mainland actually was in high school through the Close-Up program. And I distinctly remember walking on the hall right there on the floor of Congress as part of a tour. And right before I left, I remember putting my hand on a desk and whispering, ‘I’ll be back.’

She admits, that was a bold statement to make by a high school student.

“But now to be back here decades later, it really is, quite frankly, a dream come true. And again, a humbling, humbling honor to represent the people of our district.”