Rep. Tulsi Gabbard stood before the nation on a stage in Philadelphia as a woman of the people, starkly juxtaposed to the corruption that left the Democratic Party reeling.
Rep. Tulsi Gabbard stood before the nation on a stage in Philadelphia as a woman of the people, starkly juxtaposed to the corruption that left the Democratic Party reeling.
Leaked emails indicated several of the party committee’s major players — namely its chair, Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz — had intentionally subverted the presidential campaign of Sen. Bernie Sanders in favor of the establishment candidate, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.
Gabbard, a two-term representative of Hawaii’s 2nd District, bid adieu to the Democratic National Committee five months previous, relinquishing her position as vice chair to publicly support Sanders in his run for president.
The circumstances surrounding the convention rendered her a symbol of democratic purity among the party’s growing progressive movement as she formally nominated Sanders for the presidency and spoke of a movement of love, of aloha, that could never be defeated.
“She was so popular at the convention that she couldn’t even sit with us delegates because there was constant attention,” said Joy San Buenaventura, state representative for House District 4 in Puna, who served as a delegate for Hawaii. “Delegates from other states were vying for her attention. They like Tulsi because she stood up to the Democratic Party establishment.”
Standing up to the establishment is nothing new for Gabbard, who has taken a less conventional approach to politics throughout her entire career.
“She’s never really been one to buy into the conventional wisdom, and it’s always worked out for her,” said Colin Moore, associate professor of political science and director of the Public Policy Center at the University of Hawaii at Manoa.“She wasn’t supposed to beat (Mufi) Hannemann, and she did. She wasn’t supposed to get into a rather public fight with the president about terrorism. As a very junior member of the House, she certainly wasn’t supposed to publicly criticize someone like Wasserman Schultz. But it’s all worked out for her. She’s the most popular politician in the state.”
Moore said Gabbard’s popularity is key to her ability to give the party the cold shoulder when its platform doesn’t align with her beliefs.
And if popularity is the primary weapon in the congresswoman’s political arsenal, then her timely exit from the DNC to support Sanders helped to stockpile ammunition for future use.
Gabbard is now perceived as a darling of the progressive movement, but to call her a true progressive is perhaps a misnomer. She has shied away from explicitly defining herself as such, and some Hawaii progressives remain only tentatively optimistic that she will become a face of their movement.
While Gabbard holds progressive positions on several issues, her political history paints a more complicated picture of exactly who she is as a politician.
Then and now
Gabbard is a soldier. She’s served in Iraq and Kuwait, and continues to hold the rank of major in the Army National Guard.
She’s a former state legislator and the youngest politician in Hawaii ever to hold such office, elected at the age of 21.
She’s also a former Honolulu city councilwoman, and state voting trends, along with conventional wisdom, indicate she’s likely to become a three-term U.S. Representative for Hawaii’s 2nd District come November.
But that’s the simple answer to a complicated political question: How exactly should this 35-year-old lawmaker be defined? It’s a question that becomes more relevant as Gabbard continues budding into a nationally prominent figure.
“I’m not Obama. I’m not Clinton. I’m not Bernie Sanders,” Gabbard said. “I’m me.”
Gabbard began her career as a conservative Democrat by today’s common political vernacular. She was vocally and vehemently opposed to marriage equality early on and was considered a national security hawk by most pundits.
Then she went to war. Twice. And she returned with a different perspective — one that was pro-LGBT rights and against wars of regime change.
Despite some skepticism from tenured members of the Democratic Party on the genuine quality of her reversals, those views and the ability to articulate them in what voters clearly considered a sincere fashion helped her to pull off a stunning, landslide upset of Hannemann, former Honolulu mayor, for the District 2 House seat in 2012 at the age of 31.
Bold and politically fearless action has now endeared the well-spoken and telegenic Gabbard to the blossoming progressive movement, despite continuing to hold positions well to the right of the progressive platform.
“Sometimes politics is more about attitude than ideology,” said Kyle Kondik of the University of Virginia Center for Politics. “I think Gabbard may have endeared herself to some of the rebels in the Democratic Party who backed Sanders, and her participation in the Sanders insurgency might prompt some to overlook the more conservative parts of her record.”
The congresswoman has taken a hard line against terrorist groups, but opposes military conflicts justified in part as serving national security interests down the line by installing more cooperative governments.
“In short, when it comes to the war against terrorists, I’m a hawk,” Gabbard said. “When it comes to counterproductive wars of regime change, I’m a dove.”
Gabbard voted against condemning Bashar al-Assad, president of Syria, and publicly challenged President Barack Obama over his refusal to use the term “Islamic extremism” when discussing terrorism.
Kondik described both of these moves as shifts to the right, particularly to the right of progressive ideology.
“As the Democratic Party presumably moves to the left, some of (Gabbard’s) breaks from party orthodoxy could cause her headaches if she tries to advance nationally,” Kondik said.
But Gabbard asserted her positions are not contradictions, nor are they breaks from what she’s always advocated.
“I voted against (condemning Assad) because it was a thinly veiled attempt to use the rationale of ‘humanitarianism’ as a justification to escalate our illegal, counterproductive war to overthrow the Syrian government of Assad,” Gabbard said. “In other words, it was a war bill.”
Others have raised skepticism about Gabbard’s position on LGBT rights, of which she was an outspoken critic early in her career.
Michael Golojuch Jr. — chair of the LGBT caucus of the Democratic Party of Hawaii, which offered sponsorship to Gabbard’s opponent, Shay Chan Hodges, in this year’s primary — said the congresswoman’s relationship with the state’s LGBT caucus is steeped in distrust.
He said when the caucus first met with Gabbard in 2012, she said all the right things —a trend he acknowledged has continued.
But he noted her decision not to submit testimony to the special session called in 2013 to discuss marriage equality, something every other member of the state’s national delegation chose to do.
“As it stands right now, we don’t know which Tulsi she is,” Golojuch said. “Is she the Tulsi from 2012 or the Tulsi that will not support us when we really need her, like in 2013? Is she the Tulsi who doesn’t really support us and is just saying what she thinks she needs to say to get elected?”
While Gabbard didn’t submit testimony to the 2013 hearing, she has co-sponsored legislation to repeal the Defense of Marriage Act. She also signed the Marriage Equality Amicus Briefs and was a vocal proponent of the Supreme Court decision Obergefell v. Hodges, which upheld marriage equality at the federal level.
Furthermore, Golojuch’s views of Gabbard are not pervasive throughout Hawaii’s LGBT community. Jack Law, an activist and a member of the LGBT Legacy Foundation, met Gabbard leading up to her first run for Congress.
“When I met Tulsi, I was quite surprised she had changed her position because of her past,” Law said. “I asked her about that, and she said when she was in foreign countries, she realized what it was like for people who didn’t have certain rights. She told me that’s what changed her mind.”
Law said he believes the congresswoman is genuine when she speaks to the issues of LGBT equality, and Gabbard has continued to offer up mea culpas when questioned on the matter.
“I fully believe in marriage equality, and my consistent and unequivocal voting record on marriage equality and other LGBT issues speaks for itself,” Gabbard said. “Where I was on this issue more than a decade ago was wrong.”
Still, skepticism persists. David Tarnas, a former state legislator and former chair of the Democratic Party of Hawaii County from 2013-15, was a witness to Gabbard’s anti-LGBT rhetoric early in her career.
“She has a lot of healing to do, and she has to build a lot of bridges,” Tarnas said. “There is a lot of skepticism that this is a genuine change, because she was very adamant about her positions before. I’m sure there are a lot of folks who need reassurance.”
An independent streak
The progressive movement is defined, in part, by a push for income equality, reform of the justice system and disengaging from costly wars of regime change. It’s less a faction of the party breaking away from the establishment than it is a faction of voters, many of them young, trying to break in.
What it means to be a Democrat or a Republican are topics of debate within each party, particularly as ideologists — who are often one-issue voters and who tend to dominate primary elections — are pulling candidates to more polarized positions as they fear losing their seats to primary challengers.
The debate has intensified and become more convoluted amid what Jonathan Rauch, a writer and editor with “The Atlantic” magazine, has described as an increasingly atomized political system characterized by chaos syndrome, where party establishments and intermediary groups have less and less influence over candidates’ individual platforms, and by extension, the political process in its entirety.
He asserted the development as a central cause of congressional inability to pass meaningful legislation, as party structures have traditionally served as a coalescing force incentivizing compromise.
“Political parties have kind of lost control over candidates,” said Dolly Strazar, vice chair of the Democratic Party of Hawaii. “This has happened across the board, across the country. This is not just a Hawaii phenomenon. It is sort of the erosion of party politics.”
Because of the widespread shift in political practice, consequences of bucking the establishment have lessened and created a space for politicians like Gabbard to operate as they see fit, freer of party influence than perhaps ever before.
“Both parties will punish members who don’t fall in line, but it has become a bit more difficult with populist insurgencies on both the left and the right. Parties still do have some sticks, but it’s not as threatening as it used to be because constituents like anti-establishment views,” Moore said. “(Gabbard) does fit the atomized model, and it has worked for her. But it’s a high-risk, high-reward strategy, because you’re not necessarily considered a reliable vote.”
The prevalent political climate since Gabbard entered the fray of national politics four years ago — coupled with her overwhelming popularity in Hawaii, where her office hasn’t been legitimately threatened since she won it in 2012 — has enabled the congresswoman to follow her own compass.
“I’m not consciously trying to ‘be independent.’ I simply look at each issue on its own merits and do what I feel is best for Hawaii and our country,” Gabbard said. “If that happens to not be in lockstep with certain people, then so be it.”
Gabbard appeals to the progressive ideal of the public interest with her boldness in the face of pressure from the DNC. Her stances on foreign wars, GMOs, environmentalism and increased activity on gun control further endear her to the far left.
But on some issues, she’s landed further to the right.
“Tulsi does tend to take a pretty hard line with terrorism,” Moore said. “She took a very hard line with Syrian refugees, disagreeing with Gov. David Ige about Hawaii welcoming refugees.”
Gabbard supported a Republican-sponsored bill requiring all refugees to receive rigorous background checks administered by the Federal Bureau of Investigation.
Her independence from the party establishment is in large part what the more radical faction of the Democratic Party finds appealing. But as her voting record indicates, that independence can manifest in both directions.
It actually renders Gabbard more open to compromise with Republicans who have an agenda almost entirely different than that of progressives. And in this political climate, more idealistic members of the electorate on either side of the spectrum — capricious and vocal minorities who actually turn up to cast primary ballots — are less inclined to support politicians willing to compromise.
Incumbent fear is centralized to primary elections, particularly in the House, where many districts are no longer competitive in general elections due to gerrymandering, geographic sorting and straight-ticket voting.
Moore pointed out, however, that this threat is greater to Republicans, adding it hampers Gabbard’s independent streak less because of her party affiliation.
“Most research shows congressional gridlock and extreme polarization is more of a result of the deep conservatives than the Democrats,” he explained. “They go sharply to the right because of these primary challengers. You have not seen a lot of district level, progressive challenges to mainstream Democrats.”
Gabbard said in an Aug. 11 talk story in Kailua-Kona that several members of Congress feel hogtied by that fact. Many on both sides of the aisle say privately they’d like to compromise, but are afraid of losing their seats if they do.
Gabbard has a solid track record of working across the aisle, albeit mostly on issues involving veterans, where Democrats and Republicans tend to think more similarly.
As Gabbard continues to navigate the vertical tightrope up the rungs of an increasingly less-centralized and less-defined political system, she may risk alienating voters of all types, even those who say they’re frustrated by the lack of compromise and legislative movement in Congress.
The same independence that allows her to appeal to both the progressives and operate effectively across the aisle already separates her from the party establishment. If shifts to the middle push away progressives, she risks becoming a politician without a country, so to speak.
San Buenaventura and Raina Whiting, a Big Island teacher and a delegate at the convention this year, both identify as progressives and both said they are tentatively optimistic Gabbard will blossom into a face of their movement. But they have reservations.
Whiting noted Gabbard’s support of the sit/lie bill in Honolulu, which made it illegal to sit or lie on sidewalks. The bill was viewed by some, particularly progressives, as legislation effectively criminalizing homelessness.
How Gabbard’s relationship develops with the progressive faction of the party will depend largely on her future stances on key issues. But as it stands now, her position in Hawaii is as cemented as any politician’s in the state.
Moore went so far as to imply that her methods are politically evolutionary.
“Tulsi really has created this new model for Democratic, federal-level politicians in Hawaii,” Moore said. “It’s known here that if you want to rise to power, you wait your turn. I think that’s why she has received a certain amount of criticism or eye rolling from the political establishment here, because she’s really not willing to play that game. She shows that if you’re popular, you can get away with a lot.”
Looking to the future
As Gabbard gathers more notoriety and national visibility, however, it is reasonable to expect her early voting record will become an increasingly painful thorn in her side. But based on Gabbard’s responses to questions about her future plans, that isn’t a substantial concern.
“When I was in Iraq, there was a sign on the gate that said ‘Is today the day?’ (It was) a reminder that our time could come at any moment,” Gabbard said. “I just get up every day and do what I feel is in the best interest of the people of Hawaii and our country. That’s it. I don’t have any grand, long-term, so-called career goals.”
But Moore said her record tells a different story.
“The way she has positioned herself is not as someone who wants to stay in the House for her career,” Moore said. “The way you make a good career in the House is you basically keep your mouth shut, you do what the party tells you to do, and you wait for a decade or more and eventually get some sort of committee chairmanship. She is clearly angling to run for Senate or perhaps for a cabinet position. Or maybe, some day down the road, a run for president.”
Moore added that with more attention, more headaches are likely to follow, particularly on stances controversial within her own party.
“I don’t think she’s seen a lot of pushback (on conservative stances), because most people at the national level don’t even know about it,” Moore said. “But as she becomes more prominent, I think that’s going to be a serious liability for her.”
When asked if he thought Gabbard could continue her political ascension to a seat in the Senate, a governorship or even the White House, former Hawaii Gov. Neil Abercrombie replied simply: “Why not?”
“From a political perspective, she has a great combination,” he said. “She’s young, she’s a veteran, she’s a female, she’s well-spoken and she holds views that are seen as progressive. She took positions that were clearly not establishment in a conventional sense.”
But he did hint at a danger present in the place Gabbard now finds herself.
“She is a little bit of a shooting star,” Abercrombie said. “The problem with shooting stars is they tend to burn out. You have to be real careful about believing what other people want you to be in terms of all-star status. People project what they want to project on political individuals.”
Moore, too, acknowledged the tenuous footing of which any politician in Gabbard’s position must be wary.
But he added the path Gabbard is currently treading — that of a well-packaged, mild renegade who occasionally leans to both the left and the right of a party with which she’s not afraid to disagree — is the one that can lead her to the political promise land.
“I think she is far more effective kind of being the outside critic,” Moore said. “I think it fits her personality better. And if she’s going to run for Senate here in Hawaii, or if she’s kind of angling for a national level office, I think she’s doing exactly what she needs to do.”