Tulsi Gabbard was a virtual unknown four years ago when she ran for the U.S. House of Representatives. Still, she crushed former Honolulu Mayor Mufi Hannemann in the Democratic primary in a major upset and went on to achieve a landslide victory in the 2012 general election.
Since then Gabbard’s ascent within the national political arena has been nothing short of meteoric.
She’s graced the pages of Vogue, Outside Magazine and People, and been profiled in outlets including The New York Times, the Washington Post, OZY and Yahoo News.
The national media relishes photos and video of the 35-year-old congresswoman paddling out on her surfboard amid sparkling turquoise Hawaii waters or meditating on the beach.
But beyond the mainland novelty of having a congresswoman in Washington, D.C., who surfs and is Hindu, Gabbard’s made her mark going up against powerful party leaders, including President Barack Obama, crossing the political aisle and becoming a leader in the Bernie Sanders movement.
“She is a remarkable political figure, and I really am amazed by her political instincts — which so often seem counterintuitive and so often turn out to be right — and her ability to take risks and win,” Colin Moore, director of the Public Policy Center at the University of Hawaii at Manoa, said last week.
The Democratic Party star is poised and polished, nailing her sound bites on national news shows, such as CNN’s “The Situation Room With Wolf Blitzer” and MSNBC’s “The Rachel Maddow Show.”
Gabbard attributes her cachet to her spirit of bipartisanship and standing up for what’s right.
“Whatever popularity is there, I really believe it comes from the fact that from Day One on the job, I made it a point to put partisan politics aside and focus on fighting for the people of Hawaii and for our country and fighting for what I believe is right,” she told the Honolulu Star-Advertiser in an interview last week. “You know, bringing voice to the 99 percent to really bring our government back to a place where it’s of the people, by the people and for the people.
“And you know, it’s recognizing that people are a lot smarter than they are given credit for,” she continued. “They know when a politician is doing what they are doing just for themselves rather than actually fighting for them.”
But it’s Gabbard’s latter point — that she’s fighting for the people of Hawaii, rather than being out for herself — that her opponent this year in the Democratic primary has, in part, seized upon as the congresswoman campaigns for re-election in the district encompassing Maui County, Kauai, Hawaii island and rural and suburban Oahu.
“What I have heard time and time again is Tulsi is for Tulsi,” said Shay Chan Hodges.
Leaning to the right
This is the first political campaign for Hodges, a grant writer and author who lives in Upcountry Maui. Her husband, Ian Hodges, is a former chairman of the Maui County Democratic Party who has assisted other local congressional campaigns.
Political analysts say they doubt that as a political newcomer Hodges poses a serious threat to Gabbard’s re-election bid. The congresswoman’s approval rating stood at a remarkable 75 percent in a January Star-Advertiser poll.
But Hodges’ campaign has brought heightened attention to simmering critiques of the congresswoman — including concerns that she leans too for to the right on certain issues, doesn’t do a good job of responding to constituents and is self-aggrandizing, possibly angling to unseat U.S. Sen. Mazie Hirono or U.S. Sen. Brian Schatz, or secure a Cabinet-level position.
Hodges has criticized Gabbard as not being tough enough on gun control and at times embracing hawkish views on Middle East foreign policy. She says that Gabbard doesn’t reflect the progressive values of her district. She points to Gabbard’s appearances on Fox News and her speaking engagement last year at the Republican-dominated American Institute World Forum.
Gabbard has also joined Republicans last year in voting for a bill that would drastically tighten screening procedures on Syrian refugees. Supporters of the measure, including Gabbard, argued that the measure was important for protecting Americans from terrorists slipping into the country.
But Obama called the measure untenable, arguing that it was “essentially shutting our doors to these desperate men women and children who are risking their lives to escape death and torture in their homelands.”
“It’s upsetting in so many ways that she has been elected basically based on the aloha of our district, and then she tried to block Syrian refugees from coming into the country,” said Hodges.
Being a ‘good Democrat’
UH Manoa’s Moore said he doesn’t think Gabbard is vulnerable politically this year, but that races like these often tease out issues that can gain traction.
“The kinds of things that Shay is criticizing her for could eventually become more serious political liabilities,” he said. “People find her grandstanding troubling.”
Traditionally, Hawaii voters look to their congressional delegation to bring back federal funds for the state, he said, not develop a national profile — a strain in Hawaii politics that he traces back to the days of Prince Kuhio.
“I think the fear is that she is not developing the relationships and rising through the party and being a good Democrat who will eventually (secure) a committee chairmanship,” said Moore.
“And I also think that it gets at why some of the older members of the party find her such a frustrating figure because she isn’t willing to play the role that our delegation has historically been supposed to play,” he said.
The race has also kicked up increased chatter in the blogosphere about Gabbard’s religious ties to a local splinter group of Hare Krishnas that some say seems cultish. (Gabbard acknowledged in a video made last year to celebrate the legacy of A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada that Chris Butler, founder of the Science of Identity Foundation, was her guru.)
Moore said that if Gabbard does seek higher office, the issue could become a “very big liability.”
“Her challengers in the media here have not pushed that story as aggressively as the national media would,” he said.
While Gabbard has proved remarkably nimble politically, there are signs of frustration among some constituents at home, as well as members of the local Democratic Party.
State Rep. Angus McKelvey, who for a decade has represented West Maui, has publicly endorsed Hodges, and he’s not shy about his criticism of Gabbard.
“She’s too busy running around the country doing a rock star act,” said McKelvey, who argues that Gabbard has shown a “complete disregard” for critical issues facing her district.
Gabbard also lost the endorsement of the local LGBT Democratic Caucus this year, which has lingering concerns about her personal views on gay rights. The caucus has endorsed Hodges.
Gabbard was a staunch opponent of gay marriage before running for Congress in 2012. The combat veteran and major in the Army National Guard said her time deployed in the Middle East had changed her views.
Michael Golojuch, the party’s LGBT caucus chairman, said last month he was particularly troubled by an article published in OZY last year. In regard to homosexuality, the reporter wrote that Gabbard “tells me that, no, her personal views haven’t changed, but she doesn’t figure it’s her job to do as the Iraqis did and force her own beliefs on others.”
Asked whether this was an accurate reflection of her views, Gabbard told the Star-Advertiser on July 29 that she wasn’t “going to go there and start commenting on second-, third- and fourth-hand what other people are saying. and I don’t have that piece in front of me.”
Gabbard told the Star-Advertiser in a follow-up email that where she was on the issue “a decade ago was wrong.”
“Two people who love each other have the right to celebrate that love in marriage,” she said, comparing the cause to women’s fight for the right to vote.
Gabbard also listed a litany of legislation that she has supported in Congress relating to LGBT rights, including the Respect for Marriage Act and the Equality Act.
Gabbard brushes off much of the criticism. Rather than catering to party politics or toeing the line on a progressive agenda, she says she looks at each issue on its merits rather than through a partisan lens.
“I really believe that my colleagues view me as someone who is committed to doing the right thing over and above what may be politically beneficial or convenient,” she said. “I see that colleagues on both sides of the aisle on different issues will come and have a conversation with me, they will seek and ask my opinion on different issues because of that recognition of aloha, of respect and my focus on building those relationships.”
Indeed, she’s accomplished the remarkable task of often pleasing both Republicans and progressives.
A champion of veterans’ issues, she points to two bills in particular that are examples of her success in working across the aisle.
Just months into her first term in Congress, she successfully pushed through legislation aimed at making it easier for disabled members of the military, including those with prosthetics, to pass through security with as much ease and privacy as possible. The Helping Heroes Fly Act was signed into law by the president in August 2013.
More recently she sponsored legislation aimed at protecting children from abuse on military bases. The proposed measure is named after Talia Williams, a 5-year-old who a decade ago was beaten to death by her father, an infantryman who was stationed at Schofield Barracks in Hawaii.
The bill was passed by the House, and Gabbard said she’s working to get it passed by the Senate.
Both measures had bipartisan support.
“It’s a Republican-controlled Congress,” she noted. “You can’t get anything passed if you aren’t working in a bipartisan way. That is the reality of the situation we are in.”