Democratic U.S. Rep. Tulsi Gabbard surprised and angered many when she questioned whether Syrian President Bashar Assad was responsible for a chemical attack on civilians that killed dozens and sparked a U.S. attack on an air base.
But back home in heavily Democratic Hawaii, she still has a deep reservoir of good will among those who believe their representative is right to question what many others take for granted.
“This is Tulsi country, and maybe it’s not well understood by people who live in other parts of the United States,” said Richard Harris, 78, a Gabbard supporter who teaches political science at the University of Hawaii at Hilo. “She’s doing what a congressperson should do.”
The 36-year-old Iraq War veteran is widely admired in Hawaii, where she was first elected to the state Legislature at age 21 and, a decade later, won a seat in the U.S. House, becoming both the first Hindu elected to Congress and the first member born in the U.S. territory of American Samoa.
She alarmed fellow Democrats when she met with Trump during his transition to president and later when she took a secret trip to Syria and met with Assad. Last week, critics were quick and fierce in their judgment after she questioned who was responsible for the chemical attack. Former presidential candidate and Democratic Party chairman Howard Dean tweeted, “This is a disgrace. Gabbard should not be in Congress.”
To be sure, some Hawaii residents are confounded by Gabbard’s words and meeting with Assad, which they say gave legitimacy to a president accused of war crimes and genocide.
“People are talking about trying to get other candidates together to try to unseat her,” said Deborah Bond-Upson, a Kailua resident who voted for her. “All the people I’m running into have just gotten concerned about being represented by Tulsi. We’re worried and embarrassed.”
But Josue Cevallos, 42, a retired Army National Guard recruiter in Oahu, said people may be reacting to her challenging popular opinion or questioning military action.
“But we have to ask the tough questions, especially when it comes to the military use of force,” said Cevallos.
In an interview with The Associated Press, Gabbard said her focus is on the fact that Trump launched the attack on a Syrian air base without congressional approval and before the U.N. could carry out an investigation. She said it reminds her of the 2003 invasion of Iraq based on intelligence — later proven untrue — that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction. “I and so many other veterans served in a war in Iraq that was based on false evidence and lies,” Gabbard said.
“My point is: it’s not what I think, it’s not what you think, it’s not what anybody thinks,” said Gabbard, who is a major in the Hawaii Army National Guard. “The point is actually understanding the evidence,” which she and other members of Congress have not seen, she said.
Gabbard says she was not planning to meet with Assad during the trip to Syria, but when the opportunity arose she took it because she’s ready to meet with anyone if there’s a chance it could end the war.
Some Hawaii residents question why she’s getting involved in international politics.
“To me it’s just bizarre … What business does a Hawaii representative have doing these kind of foreign affairs?” said Gaye Chan, chairwoman of the Department of Art and Art History at the University of Hawaii, who voted for Gabbard.
But many call Gabbard, whose district covers rural parts of Oahu and the remaining islands that make up the state, brave for taking a difficult stand.
“You just have to put your confidence in elected leaders when it comes to international relations,” said Robert Arthurs, a retired foreign service officer and Gabbard supporter. “She’s a warrior. And in the true sense of the word.”