U.S. Rep.-elect Jill Tokuda flew to chilly Washington, D.C., on Saturday for a weeklong orientation even as the balance of power in the U.S. House of Representatives remained uncertain.
Tokuda still does not have an office in either Hawaii or Congress. But her husband, Kyle Michibata, was arranging a one-bedroom apartment for Tokuda in the Naval Yard area about a 13-minute walk from the U.S. Capitol.
The mostly bipartisan orientation for freshman House members has been a blast of information and details almost as overwhelming as the 46-degree Washington temperature, Tokuda told the Honolulu Star-Advertiser on Monday night after warming up in her hotel room.
“It’s cold,” she said. “It’s not Hawaii.”
Tokuda will join the 100-member Congressional Progressive Caucus, which is based on four principles: “Economic justice and security for all; Protecting and preserving civil rights and civil liberties; Promoting global peace and security; and advancing environmental protection and energy independence.”
Michibata will take care of their two sons in Kaneohe: Matt, 14, a freshman at Castle High School; and Aden, 12, a seventh grader at King Intermediate School.
The boys’ grandfather is watching them since Michibata flew with Tokuda to Washington, D.C., following her election last week.
They arrived Saturday afternoon, and by 8 a.m. Sunday, Tokuda was undergoing orientation from staff representing the nonpartisan Committee on House Administration, followed by dinners and separate breakout sessions for Republicans and Democrats.
Much of the national media has been fixated on the post-election fallout over who will control Congress, who should take the blame for the lackluster performance by Republicans and who will be the next speaker of the House.
But for Tokuda so far this week, it’s difficult to separate who’s a Republican and who’s a Democrat around the Capitol with so many new faces, staff and spouses around.
The name tags on the newly elected representatives only “say ‘member-elect.’ It doesn’t give a party,” she said. “You can’t tell whether I’m a Democrat or a Republican.”
Members of both parties whose races still have not been decided have been invited to the orientation but are sent home once the outcome is clear.
At a dinner of House Democrats on Saturday night, Tokuda said Andrea Salinas had just learned that she had been elected to Oregon’s new 6th Congressional District, beating Republican Mike Erickson.
Only two days into the orientation, which concludes Friday, Tokuda has been absorbing a mountain of details about the work of a House member, such as how to cast votes, how to hire office staff, security and insider information on which office to request — decided by a lottery — depending on whether it’s closest to the House floor, the crowded elevators or stairwells.
“There’s been some nitty-gritty, real nuts and bolts,” she said.
She will be sworn in Jan. 3 to represent Hawaii’s 2nd Congressional District, which represents the neighbor islands and rural Oahu.
Until then Tokuda won’t receive a pin identifying herself as a member of Congress. Elections for House leadership are two weeks away. And it’s too soon to know whether Tokuda will get to serve on either of the two committees she wants: education and labor and agriculture.
Serving on either committee would allow Tokuda to work closely with Republicans to address concerns of common interests to their constituents, she said, “like feeding people, growing food. Workforce opportunities for jobs. It’s housing in rural communities. Those are bipartisan issues. It just makes sense to work across the aisle.”
Tokuda especially wants to help Hawaii farmers on basic details such as help paying for fuel, labor and just “helping them survive as a business.”
She’s been texting with the three other members of Hawaii’s congressional delegation but hasn’t had time to meet with any of them in person.
But Tokuda did appoint three key members of her staff:
>> Wendy Clerinx as chief of staff. She was born and raised in Hilo and graduated from Waiakea High School before earning a degree in economics and political science from Santa Clara University. She also graduated from the George Washington University Law School. Clerinx previously worked as director of policy for former Gov. Neil Abercrombie and currently is general counsel to U.S. Sen. Mazie Hirono, Tokuda’s boss when Hirono was lieutenant governor.
>> Kendra Oishi, who will oversee Tokuda’s district office in Hawaii. Oishi graduated from Kailua High School and graduated from the University of Hawaii West Oahu with a history degree. She also earned a master’s degree in public education from the University of San Francisco. Oishi was budget chief for the state Senate’s Ways and Means Committee when then-state Sen. Tokuda chaired the committee. Oishi is currently executive administrator and secretary of the UH Board of Regents.
>> Maui resident Deidre Tegarden will serve as Tokuda’s transition aide, responsible for setting up her offices in Hawaii and Washington. She previously worked for Abercrombie and Gov. David Ige and is currently executive director of the Nisei Veterans Memorial Center on Maui.
Tokuda is particularly happy that all three have long and strong roots in the congressional district that Tokuda will represent.
“More so than they’re women, they’ve got CD2 roots,” Tokuda said. “CD2 is their home. They call our islands home. I think that’s pretty special that we’ve got this diversity of representation. It was a big priority for me.”
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