State Sen. Jill Tokuda announced Wednesday she is running in what will likely be a crowded field of contenders next year seeking to be Hawaii’s next lieutenant governor.
Tokuda, 41, was chairwoman of the powerful Senate Ways and Means Committee until she was ousted in May in a power struggle triggered by the high-stakes debate over the Honolulu rail project. The leader of the Ways and Means Committee has control over the budgets that dictate how all state money is spent.
She was first elected to the state Senate in 2006, and has also served as chairwoman of the Senate Education Committee. She previously worked as an aide to U.S. Sen. Mazie Hirono when Hirono was lieutenant governor.
Hirono has already endorsed Tokuda, and will serve as honorary chairwoman of the Tokuda for Lieutenant Governor campaign, according to an announcement from Tokuda.
“I am truly humbled by the outpouring of support I’ve received on my candidacy for lieutenant governor,” Tokuda said in a written statement. “Hawaii deserves leaders that will look forward and work together for our families, for our children and for our future.”
The furor over the rail project may have helped to raise Tokuda’s political profile this year. The 20-mile rail line is vastly over budget, and Honolulu Mayor Kirk Caldwell asked state lawmakers to bail out the project by extending the half-percent excise tax surcharge on Oahu to provide billions of dollars in additional funding.
Tokuda sharply and publicly criticized the city’s management of the project, and she rejected Caldwell’s request. Instead, she proposed an increase of only about $300 million to help shore up the project’s finances. She later agreed to an increase in the state hotel room tax for 10 years as a way to boost rail funding.
Those decisions proved to be politically hazardous because most of Tokuda’s Senate colleagues supported the excise tax extension. The heated rail debate this year was a catalyst for Tokuda’s removal as Ways and Means chairwoman, but it also elevated Tokuda to near-hero status among some rail critics.
But Tokuda (D, Kailua-Kaneohe) said she had already been making plans to run for higher office before the Legislature’s 2017 session.
Apart from shepherding three multibillion-dollar budgets through the Senate, Tokuda has been a key player in some internal Senate power struggles. Most notably, she was instrumental in removing state Sen. Donna Kim as Senate president and elevating Ron Kouchi to that post in 2015, with Tokuda delivering the votes Kouchi needed to take charge.
State Sen. Will Espero, 56, also said Wednesday that he plans to run for lieutenant governor if Lt. Gov. Shan Tsutsui does not seek re-election. He has served 17 years in the Legislature, including 14 years in the Senate, and is now Senate majority floor leader and chairman of the Senate Housing Committee.
Espero has been active during his time in the Senate in areas including prison and police reform, medical marijuana, and promotion of an aerospace industry in Hawaii. He previously worked for eight years as executive secretary of the Neighborhood Commission in charge of Oahu’s Neighborhood Board System under former Honolulu Mayor Frank Fasi.
There is little direct power or responsibility associated with the lieutenant governor’s office, but it has served as a steppingstone for Hawaii politicians including former Govs. George Ariyoshi, John Waihee and Ben Cayetano, and also for U.S. Sen. Brian Schatz and Mazie Hirono.
Tsutsui told the Honolulu Star-Advertiser in March it was “very doubtful” he would seek re-election. Instead, Tsutsui said, he is considering a run for Maui mayor next year, and said he tentatively planned to resign early as lieutenant governor to campaign.
If Tsutsui does resign early, that may reshape the race to replace him next year. State law requires that when the lieutenant governor resigns, the office passes automatically to the Senate president, or to the House speaker if the president declines the office.
However, both Kouchi and House Speaker Scott Saiki have said they are not interested in the job. If they both decline, the office would then be offered to state Attorney General Douglas Chin.
Chin has initiated or participated in a series of high-profile challenges to President Donald Trump’s immigration and other policies this year, which significantly raised his public profile and led some political observers to believe he may be interested in elected office.
Chin has declined to speculate on that possibility, saying he won’t discuss that scenario publicly until the office actually becomes available.
Meanwhile, Maui Mayor Alan Arakawa says he has been laying the groundwork for his own campaign for lieutenant governor, and state Sen. Josh Green (D, Naalehu-Kailua-Kona) has announced he also plans to run.
Others who have said they are considering the lieutenant governor’s race include state Rep. Joe Souki, 84, who was ousted as House speaker on the last day of this year’s legislative session. Souki (D, Wailuku-Waiehu) has served in the House since 1982 and twice served as House speaker.
State Rep. Kaniela Ing, 29, has also been considering running, but said Wednesday it appears he is too young to qualify. Ing (D, South Maui) said the state Constitution requires that candidates for lieutenant governor must be 30 years old on Election Day, and Ing’s 30th birthday is not until Dec. 24, 2018, more than a month after the general election.