HONOLULU — One of Rep. Tulsi Gabbard’s duties when she deployed to Iraq with the Hawaii Army National Guard in 2005 was to scan a list of U.S. combat casualties for names of her unit’s soldiers.
Her job as a brigade surgeon operations specialist was to make sure these soldiers got the care they needed.
This daily confrontation with the cost of war helped propel the 37-year-old Hawaii Democrat on a path to Congress and now, potentially, a run for president.
“I saw how few leaders in Washington had foresight and thought through the consequences of the decisions that they made, that they didn’t think through the cost of this war that they started and who paid the price,” Gabbard told the Associated Press.
Whether Gabbard will mount a bid for the Democratic Party’s nomination for president is something she said she’s “thinking through very carefully.” She has visited early primary and caucus states New Hampshire and Iowa in recent months and has written a memoir that’s due to be published in May.
Gabbard would join a crowded Democratic field if she does run. By some estimates it may include more 30 people, many of whom, like former Vice President Joe Biden, have decades more experience and greater name recognition.
Yet she won’t have to worry about standing out.
She’s almost guaranteed to be the youngest. Right now, she’s barely old enough to run. The Constitution requires the president to be at least 35. She’s part Samoan, part Caucasian. She’s the first Hindu elected to Congress, and was sworn into office with her hand on the Bhagavad Gita. Her parents homeschooled her and her four siblings. She’s a combat veteran. She was first elected to office at age 21, when she won a seat in the Hawaii state House of Representatives. She surfs in her spare time.
She first emerged on the national stage as one of the few lawmakers in Washington to back Bernie Sanders’ underdog candidacy against Hillary Clinton during the last presidential primary campaign. Her endorsement came in dramatic fashion, with her resigning as a vice chairwoman of the Democratic National Committee to express her support.
Indeed, Gabbard has rankled some in her party for her unorthodox moves. After Donald Trump was elected, she met with the then president-elect to discuss the war in Syria.
Last year, Gabbard came under intense criticism – including from some Democrats – for traveling to that country and meeting with Syrian President Bashar Assad, whose government lawmakers have accused of war crimes and even genocide during the country’s civil war.
She doesn’t regret the trip and meeting.
“If we are serious about pursuing peace, then we have to be willing to meet with those who are friends and adversaries to achieve that peace,” she said.
She said U.S. wars in the Middle East have destabilized the region, made the U.S. less safe and cost thousands of American lives, At the same time, terrorist groups like Al Qaeda and the Islamic State group are stronger than before the Sept.11 terrorist attacks, she said.
“Those who have been setting our country’s foreign policy are lost,” Gabbard said, placing blame on both Democrats and Republicans. “Our policies have been without clear objective or purpose for some time. And it’s cost our country, and it’s cost the world, dearly.”
Many Sanders supporters like Gabbard and will support her if she runs for president, said Howie Klein, the treasurer of Blue America PAC, which was the first political action committee to raise money for Sanders in the last presidential election.
But the question becomes, what will happen if Sanders also runs?
Klein said it would make “no sense at all” if Gabbard were to run against Sanders. Gabbard may run in the hope Sanders will make her his vice presidential running mate, Klein said. Or she may run to raise her profile, he said.
Asked if she would still consider running if Sanders ran, Gabbard said Sanders is a friend and she doesn’t know what his plans are.
“I’m thinking through how I can best be of service and I’ll make my decision based on that,” she said.
When it comes to domestic issues, Gabbard stands out for doing 180-degree turns on abortion and gay marriage.
In 2004, the then-state representative urged Hawaii voters to support a federal constitutional amendment to ban same-sex marriages nationwide. She was worried gay marriages licensed in Massachusetts would be deemed valid in Hawaii.
“Homosexuals married in Massachusetts will soon come to Hawaii and challenge the 1998 decision by Hawaii’s people to ban same-sex marriages,” she said at the time. “It is highly likely that federal judges will soon be tearing apart our U.S. Constitution in order to force same-sex marriage down the throats of the people of Hawaii and America.”
Eight years later, while running for Congress, Gabbard said she would work toward requiring the federal government to recognize same-sex marriage. She also metamorphosed from being anti-abortion to in favor of abortion rights.
She explained that serving in the Middle East showed her these positions she once held were rooted in the mistaken idea that it’s the government’s role to “define and enforce our personal morality.”
“The next year was full of challenges and soul-searching as my long-held views were challenged by my newfound recognition of the absolute importance of keeping church and state separate,” she wrote in a 2011 blog post.
The transformation hasn’t held her back in Hawaii politics. She notched a come-from-behind victory over former Honolulu Mayor Mufi Hannemann in the 2012 primary and has coasted to re-election ever since.
She still hasn’t won over the LGBT caucus of the Democratic Party of Hawaii, however. Its chairman, Michael Golojuch, said Gabbard hasn’t been there for them when it’s mattered most, like when the state Legislature debated a bill legalizing same-sex marriage in 2013. Asked to respond to this critique, Gabbard pointed to her record in Congress supporting gay rights and her high rating and endorsement by the Human Rights Campaign, a national gay rights advocacy group.
Honolulu City Councilwoman Ann Kobayashi remembers how she was once a Gabbard foe, having supported her opponent in a race for the city council.
But Gabbard didn’t hold it against her and they became friends, Kobayashi said.
One evening, not long into Gabbard’s first Council term, the freshman called Kobayashi to tell her she was going to run for Congress.
“I said ‘whoa,’” recalled Kobayashi. “And then I said ‘I think you’ll be good. Go for it. Let’s try it.’”
Kobayashi called Emily’s List, an influential political action committee that helps elect women to public office, on Gabbard’s behalf. They campaigned together on rural islands that are part of the congressional district Gabbard was targeting.
That campaign — during which initial polls pegged Gabbard’s support at 20 percent versus 65 percent for Hannemann — was just one example of the ambitious, young politician launching a bid for office long before many would consider it her time. Gabbard said her experience in Iraq, and subsequent deployment to Kuwait, prompted her to run.
“She was so gracious to everyone. She was a very easy sell because her sincerity comes through,” Kobayashi said.