MidWeek Profile: Tulsi
Tulsi Gabbard has had a banner year. She resigned as vice chairwoman of the Democratic National Committee, broke ranks with her colleagues in Hawaii’s congressional delegation by throwing her support to Bernie Sanders rather than Hillary Clinton, drew the largest applause at the Hawaii Democratic Party Convention, and entered the national spotlight by putting Sanders’ name in nomination at the Democratic National Convention in August.
But Gabbard wasn’t done. Following Clinton’s loss to Donald Trump in the last half-century’s most vile campaign, she was invited to Trump Tower to meet with the president-elect. Worse in the eyes of some of the bluest of blue Democrats, she accepted the invitation.
Gabbard offers no apologies, starting with the Trump meeting.
“He invited me to talk about Syria,” she says. “I’ve been focused on Syria for a long time. It’s a counterproductive regime-change war.
“We had an hour-long, very substantive discussion about Syria and the Middle East. On some things we seemed to agree, on others we didn’t. I think the issue provides an opportunity for bipartisanship.”
Nor does Gabbard have second thoughts about her support for Sanders.
“I don’t make decisions based on political expediency,” she insists. “I supported him because of his positions on the issues, particularly on foreign policy. He opposed destructive regime-change wars, like Iraq and Syria. He called for Wall Street reform, reinstating the Glass-Steagall Act. I thought he was right on trade, opposing the Pacific Partnership that, like NAFTA, undermines our sovereignty.”
Nor to those who feel that, as a woman, she should have been supporting Clinton: “I’m offended that I must think with my gender regarding the candidacy of Hillary Clinton for president. I’m interested in the issues.”
For Gabbard, a major in the Hawaii National Guard and veteran of two deployments to the Middle East, “issues of war and peace can’t be dealt with like other issues. I’ve seen firsthand the cost of war, the deaths of fellow soldiers — the billions of dollars spent on regime-change wars that could have been used for our own domestic needs.
“That’s why I supported Bernie Sanders. That’s why I took the meeting with Trump. I wanted to share my views on these subjects, to get to him before the neoconservative voices get behind another regime-change war.”
Gabbard is not the first warrior in Hawaii politics to evolve into peacemaker. Indeed, Hawaii’s power in the U.S. Congress peaked in the last quarter of the 20th century, during which World War II veterans Dan Inouye, Spark Matsunaga and Danny Akaka filled three of the Aloha State’s four-member Washington delegation.
nouye walked the corridors of power with an empty sleeve dangling from where his right arm had been blown off by a German grenade. In 2002, he would join Akaka in voting against military invasion of Iraq.
Matsunaga fought in Italy with the 100th Battalion, then devoted much of his congressional career to lobbying for a national Department of Peace. He didn’t get it, but University of Hawaii established Spark M. Matsunaga Institute for Peace and Conflict Resolution.
Their service in America’s wars lent them immense credibility in peacetime. They were not alone, of course. Across the North American continent, those who “wore the uniform,” sought and won power in the nation’s politics — cases in point, Presidents Dwight Eisenhower, John F. Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon.
Add countless state legislators, city councilmembers, congressmen and senators, and you have the Dramatis personae (politics theatre division) of the so-called “Greatest Generation.”
Their call to arms was the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. Sixty years later, it would be the terrorist attack on New York City’s World Trade Center.
The events of 9/11 became Gabbard’s call to arms — and that of Hawaii’s former U.S. Rep. Charles Djou and late U.S. Rep Mark Takai. All three deployed to the Middle East. Gabbard made the trip twice, as an enlisted member of the Hawaii National Guard in 2004, and again as an officer in 2008.
At the onset of wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, Gab-bard was 20 years old. The median age of Hawaii’s congressional delegation at the time was pushing 70. When President George W. Bush’s administration announced the presence of “weapons of mass destruction” in Iraq and asked for authorization for an invasion to topple Osama bin Laden, Hawaii’s congressional delegation, led by Capt. Inouye, voted unanimously against it.
But it passed, the bombs fell and U.S. forces marched into Iraq, where they would be mired for the next six years. In 2008, Barack Obama would defeat Hillary Clinton for the Democratic presidential nomination on a promise to get U.S. troops out of Iraq and Afghanistan, and on his own professed opposition to the 2002 invasion of Iraq.
Gabbard emerged physically unscathed from those wars, but they changed her. Like Inouye and Matsunaga before her, she had seen its costs and war formed her young life as it had American warriors.
In the waning days of 2016, seated in the backyard of her Kailua home, Gabbard appears — and sounds — undaunted by her busy and often controversial year. She sits straight as a soldier should. She dresses in the blue selection of the red, white and blue jackets that have become her political uniform.
Gabbard acknowledges that, “9/11 was an impactful moment in my life. I felt a need to protect our country, to go after terrorists, and to protect Hawaii if it were ever under attack.”
But what went into the making of Tulsi Gabbard, woman warrior?
In 1981, Gabbard’s parents lived in American Samoa, where they taught school and where Carol Gabbard bore the fourth of the couple’s five children. The first three were boys. Tulsi and sister Davan, born three years after Tulsi, constituted a later-born crop.
The Gabbards home-schooled their kids. “We wanted to be included in the kids’ education,” says Carol. “We wanted to teach them about God, about who we are as a family, about the
purpose of life. If you home-school, every circumstance can be a teachable moment, like going to the doctor or cooking a meal. Two of my kids liked school, three didn’t. They had to be herded. Tulsi was the easiest. She liked to learn. She did her work. She’s always been responsible and self-motivated.”
But she also was “the quietest and most shy of all our kids,” says Carol. “So we were surprised when she came to us in 2002 and said she wanted to run for the state House.”
Sister Davan was surprised as well. “Tulsi was painfully shy. For her, I know it took courage to overcome her fears, get out of the car and go knock on that first door. But she did it. She knocked on every door in her district.”
And she won a Leeward Oahu seat in the state House of Representatives. She was 21 years old on election day; on swearing-in, she became the youngest state lawmaker in the country.
Politics had become a family affair for the Gabbards. Mother Carol was in the midst of a four-year term on the state Board of Education. Father Mike’s name appeared on the same 2002 ballot with his daughter; he as a candidate for the Honolulu City Council. He would win a four-year term.
But 9/11 compelled his daughter to take the oath as a member of Hawaii National Guard, as well. Gabbard went to basic training in the summer of 2003. In October, the 2,500-member 29th Brigade of the Hawaii National Guard received orders for an 18-month deployment, 12 months of which would be spent in Iraq.
State Rep. Gabbard couldn’t find her name on the brigade’s roster for deployment. She went to her commander to find out why and was told her position as a legislator took precedence.
“There was no way I could stay in Hawaii while my brothers and sisters were marching off to war,” she says. “So I volunteered.”
Gabbard already had filed for re-election to a second term in the House: “I withdrew and headed for basic training at Fort Jackson, South Carolina.”
The Army assigned Pvt. Gabbard to a medical unit as a patient administrator.
“In case of mass casualties, our unit determined the right treatment, where they needed to be,” she says. “We dealt with the docs, the medics, supply.
“Every day we were getting a report of every casualty, active or reserve. We, of course, looked for our guys, some I knew. They paid the price of war. That sticks with me. Even now I hold it close to my heart.”
Gabbard returned to Hawaii in 2006 and went to work as a staffer with U.S. Sen. Daniel Akaka. “I jumped right back into politics. It had changed a lot, but so had I,” she says. “Sen. Akaka chaired the Veterans Affairs committee. They were trying to craft bills that would provide a seamless transition for veterans to civilian life. I had just gone through that, so I could take my experience and apply it.”
How effective did Akaka’s legislation prove to be?
“Some of it was good. Some not so good,” Gabbard admits.
Akaka taught the future member of Congress a valuable lesson, however. He had served 16 years in the U.S. House before his election to the Senate.
“When I first came to Congress, members were constantly greeting me with ‘How’s Danny doing?’ He showed me how to lead with aloha in a place like Washington, D.C., where aloha is often in short supply.”
In 2008, a 27-year-old Gabbard received her baccalaureate degree, taken primarily online at Hawaii Pacific University. Coupled with officer candidate school, it enabled her to return to the Middle East as a “butter bar lieutenant” in command of military police platoon. “We were stationed in Kuwait providing security for convoys from the ports there to the border with Iraq; from there they went to various parts of Iraq.”
Gabbard’s unit also provided primary training for National Guard counterterrorist teams: pistols, rifles, marksmanship.
“We also took them on host nation visits, relation-building,” says Gabbard. “We worked with special-needs kids, the elderly as well. I particularly enjoyed that.”
Ryan Soon served as one of the 40 soldiers under Gabbard’s command.
“I was her driver, and I got to know her pretty well,” says Soon. “We talked a lot. Rides are long over there.
“She’s one of the best officers I’ve ever worked with. She never played favorites, never any of the local ‘bruddah, bruddah stuff,’ including with me. I was occasionally her confidant on some of those long rides, but she gave me no special treatment.
“She served as an E-4 on her first deployment. She came up through the ranks to become an officer. She didn’t pretend she knew all the answers; she was humble enough to listen and learn.”
Barack Obama entered the White House in 2009 and began ratcheting down U.S. involvement in the Middle East. Gabbard returned to Hawaii in the same year, her thirst for politics unquenched. She immediately began looking for an open seat. She found one in a mid-town Honolulu City Council race.
She says that she enjoyed her tenure on the Council. “You’re one of nine on the Council, and you get close to your fellow councilmembers,” Gabbard says, and you get close to your constituents, as well. City government is about streets, parks, trash and sewers: things that affect people’s lives every day.
“I still remember a little loop in Kalihi, 40 homes whose residents took special pride in their neighborhood. Their houses were immaculate, their lawns well-kept. But their street had the worst potholes, some 130 of them. They pled, ‘Please fix our potholes.’ It was one of the first things I was able to do as a councilmember, and it was very satisfying.”
But Gabbard hadn’t come home from the war-torn Middle East with overriding interest in filling potholes. “I had experienced the cost of war; I saw who bore them, both military and civilians. I didn’t want to see the United States continue to make these terrible decisions.”
Those decisions were made in Washington, D.C., and Gabbard recognized that few in the 21st century U.S. Congress had worn the uniform.
One who had, her former boss Akaka, announced in early 2012 that he would not seek re-election. That launched a rush for open federal offices, among them the so-called rural, 2nd Congressional District, composed of Windward Oahu and the Neighbor Islands.
Six Democrats entered the Democratic Party 2nd District primary list, including two attorneys and Mufi Hannemann, former two-term mayor of the City and County of Honolulu. Early polling showed Hannemann with a comfortable lead, Gabbard running second.
In campaign appearances, Hannemann’s experience showed; he had a grasp of issues unmatched by his opponents. But he also carried baggage: his mid-second-term abandonment of the mayor’s job for an unsuccessful run for governor and his championship of building rail transit. Windward Oahu voters, the single largest segment of the 2nd District’s electorate, were not big fans of the rail they would have to help pay for, but from which they could discern no benefit.
Gabbard benefited, of course, from being a veteran of the Iraq War. By 2012, “Thank you for your service” had become both a genuine expression of gratitude and a guilt-ridden response of a nation whose volunteer army carried the burden of war while they tended their backyard gardens. And the composure, discipline and focus the military demanded of her showed throughout the campaign.
She possessed another advantage. Cameras loved her. Few Hawaii politicians in recent memory look as good on TV as Gabbard. Mix Samoan and haole and the camera stays in focus on you.
On primary election night 2012, Gabbard won handily, garnering 62,882 votes (54 percent) to Hannemann’s 39,176 votes (33 percent). Three months later, against a token Republican opponent, she took more than 81 percent of the vote.
Then Gabbard committed a misstep. Hawaii’s powerful senior senator Inouye, a veteran of 50-plus years in Congress, died, leaving a huge hole in Hawaii’s Washington delegation. Gov. Neil Abercrombie asked for nominations to be appointed to fill out the first two years of Inouye’s term. Then 31-year-old, newly elected 2nd District congresswoman threw her name into the scrum.
Many saw it as naked ambition, others merely effrontery. She was too young, in too much of a hurry; she’d just won a House seat, and had yet to be sworn in. Abercrombie chose his lieutenant governor, Brian Schatz, to fill the vacant Senate seat.
So Tulsi Gabbard went to Washington as a member of the U.S. House, one of 102 women members of the 111th Congress. She was appointed to the Foreign Affairs Committee of the House of Representatives. One of her young colleagues on Foreign Affairs was Joe Kennedy III, representing Massachusetts’ 4th Congressional District.
“Veterans often are big voices on the Foreign Affairs Committee,” says Kennedy. “Tulsi was a vet, she represented Hawaii with all of its military bases, and she was a student of the Middle East.
“She argued that, while the United States had the world’s strongest military, we had to be realistic about how we used it. We have to ask what success looks like before we choose to use our forces.
“The military may be the easy part of it, but then you must rebuild and bring peace. That kind of argument earned Tulsi respect from both Democratic and Republican colleagues on the committee.”
Washington’s media fell in love with her. A Washington Post article dubbed her “The Democrat that Republicans Love,” and she did appear frequently on Fox News. But most of the Sunday-morning talk shows also invited her. Vogue featured her in “Making a Splash: Is Tulsi Gabbard the Next Democratic Star?”
The Hill, a newspaper covering Congress, thought so. The mere mention of her name seemed to include the phrase “rising Democratic star.” She even made it to Charlie Rose’s big round table.
So how far does Gabbard see her star rising?
For the foreseeable future, no farther than the U.S. House of Representatives. She disavows any interest in an oft-rumored challenge to Mazie Hirono in 2018. “I think Mazie and Brian are doing a good job,” she says.
She remarried last year to cinematographer and fellow surfer Abraham Williams. Next year she’ll be 36 years old, and she and her husband want to have children.
But what if President-elect Trump does make her a job offer? Or, in 2020 or 2024, or beyond, what about a run for the big one? After all, in a recent New Yorker article titled, “Thirteen Women Who Should Consider Running for President,” Hawaii’s 2nd District member of Congress made the list.
Tulsi Gabbard has a lot of political future to ponder.