State Rep. Patrick Branco’s future uncertain following congressional loss

Gun Rights

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State Rep. Patrick Branco is supporting former rival state Sen. Jill Tokuda in her congressional campaign and serves as an unpaid volunteer in Lt. Gov. Josh Green’s run to become Hawaii’s next governor as Branco’s own political future is now uncertain after election commercials on his behalf linked Tokuda to the National Rifle Association while showing images of the Uvalde, Texas, school massacre.

Branco was a freshman member of the state House representing Kailua and Kaneohe with just two
legislative sessions’ worth of experience when he announced his candidacy to represent rural Oahu and the neighbor islands in Congress against Tokuda, who had served 12 years in the state Senate also representing Kailua and Kaneohe.

Branco, now 35 and still living in his grandmother’s sewing room in Kailua, had been counseled to get more political experience before trying to serve in Washington, D.C.

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“They said I need to wait my turn, or I need to pay my dues,” Branco said. “That statement is disingenuous. Elections are elections. Elections are not coronations.”

Then, just as mail-in ballots arrived in voters’ hands across the islands, Branco was blasted for commercials on his behalf from a group called VoteVets that linked Tokuda to the NRA and the Uvalde school massacre.

Tokuda — a mother of two school-age Kaneohe boys — called the first commercial “disgusting.”

Branco had posted
so-called red box information on his campaign website offering talking points for unaffiliated organizations to support him, including a pronunciation guide for common Hawaiian terms such as “ohana.”

In accordance with campaign spending laws, Branco insisted that he did not cooperate with any political action committees.

“Those commercials, I had nothing to do with them,” Branco told the Hono­lulu Star-Advertiser.

But it took two more weeks — following widespread condemnation —
before Branco distanced himself from the second commercial that also went after Tokuda.

“The second ad was sensationalist and directly connected Ms. Tokuda’s name to the school shooting,” Branco told the Star-­Advertiser. “That’s where they crossed the line.”

In a statement Aug. 8, five days before the close of voting, Branco wrote: “I am publicly calling on VoteVets to pull down the ad they began airing today. Throughout this campaign, I have raised what I believe are serious questions about Jill Tokuda’s record that voters deserve answers to before they cast their vote. That being said, Jill Tokuda’s name and image should never be connected to school shootings, and I sincerely hope that VoteVets will stop airing this ad.”

By then the damage to Branco’s own political reputation had been done.

Tokuda defeated him in the Democratic Party primary by just over 35,000 votes — 61,872 to 26,871, or an overwhelming margin of more than 2 to 1.

Branco’s next steps are uncertain.

Before the primary, Branco had applied to become an intelligence officer in the Navy Reserve, and has since been accepted to serve at the Indo-Pacific Command at Camp H.M. Smith as a Navy ensign.

Branco will lose his legislative salary of $62,604 and other than his part-time Navy Reserve enlistment has no immediate full-time job prospects.

So he will continue to live with his grandparents — Edna Streadbeck, 72, and Daniel Streadbeck, 76 — in their seven-bedroom, three-and-a-half bath home in Kailua, along with 12 “aunts, uncles and cousins,” Branco said.

Branco sleeps in the sewing room by himself but said his grandmother still uses it, including while he’s sleeping.

“I’ll sleep and she’ll sew,” he said.

Branco drove for Uber during six months of his first year in the House. His ongoing living and financial
situation resonated with supporters his age, especially those who are considering moving to less expensive states, Branco said.

“It isn’t easy living here in Hawaii,” he said.

Supporters of his generation said, “‘Thank you for stepping up to the plate,’” Branco said. “I’m proud to be part of the next generation of service-oriented leaders who are willing to step up and run for office.”

But the outside attacks against Tokuda backfired and damaged his political future, said Colin Moore, director of the University of Hawaii’s Public Policy
Center.

In retrospect, Branco should have listened to the advice to serve more years in elected office before going after “a well-known and well-liked politician such as Jill Tokuda,” Moore said.

“The trouble for Patrick Branco is that he is not someone who was known before,” Moore said. “He was a virtual unknown. But now the public connects him to these attack ads against Jill Tokuda, whether it’s fair or not. Her image is as a mom, a legislator concerned about families and children. Red-boxing Jill Tokuda and trying to paint her as an NRA supporter felt particularly jarring. So it’s going to be tough to rehabilitate his image. It’ll be tough to run a statewide race again after this.”

Especially in a low voter turnout primary election — where politically savvy
voters were likely over-represented — Moore said the campaign tactics against Tokuda “did not comport well” among Hawaii voters.

“I’m not sure you’d have the same reaction in other places,” Moore said. “There is a strong sense here that you should wait your turn and be respectful of more senior legislators. Otherwise there weren’t real distinct policy differences. He’s a
liberal Democrat and so is Jill Tokuda.”

Branco said he has no immediate plans to seek elected office and is focused on supporting other progressive candidates such as Green and Tokuda as they advance to the Nov. 8 general election.

For himself, Branco said he wants to find other ways to be of public service and inspire others his age to do the same.

He is “very proud” to be the fifth generation in his family to serve in the military, although all of the others were in the Army.

Otherwise, Branco said, “We’ll see what’s in store. I want to be of service to the people of Hawaii.”

So last week he began volunteering at Green’s campaign headquarters in Kalihi on North King Street.

“I helped clean and set up tables,” Branco said. “They needed ice so I got ice.
I said, ‘I’m happy just to
be of service, that’s my thing.’ After politics and even after you didn’t win, you can still be of service
to the community. That’s the message I’d like to
convey.”

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