Democrat Tulsi Gabbard, first elected in 2012, was one of the first two female combat veterans and the first Hindu in Congress. At home and in Washington, she has been outspoken and independent. Her occasional freelancing on national security issues has generated bipartisan criticism. As a prominent supporter of Bernie Sanders in the 2016 campaign, she clashed with some leading Democratic officials. As one of the first Democrats to declare their candidacy for president in 2020, she had a rocky start.
The fourth of five children, Gabbard was born in American Samoa and moved with her family to Hawaii at a young age. Her father, Mike Gabbard, serves in the Hawaii Senate, where he chaired the Agriculture and Environment Committee; he switched parties in 2007 because, he said, he thought he would have more influence as a Democrat. Her mother, Carol Gabbard, formerly served on the state Board of Education. Both made names in Hawaii politics as strong opponents of gay marriage, an issue that resulted in controversy for their daughter. Gabbard was homeschooled, and with her brothers and sister helped run a family restaurant. She graduated from Hawaii Pacific University with a degree in business administration.
At age 19, Gabbard and her father cofounded the Healthy Hawaii Coalition, an environmental-education nonprofit that teaches elementary students about the ways humans can positively and negatively affect the environment. In 2002, she won a seat representing West Oahu in the state House. At 21, she was the youngest woman ever elected to a state legislature. “A lot of people told me I was crazy and too young, but I really felt the need and passion to do more with my life and be able to make a positive impact for others,” she told National Journal.
While serving in the legislature, she enlisted in the Hawaii Army National Guard as a private. In 2004, her unit was activated for Iraq, but Gabbard was not given orders to deploy. Declaring, “No way would I stay home and watch 3,000 of my brothers and sisters deploy without me,” she withdrew from the campaign and voluntarily deployed with the medical unit for 18 months. At Fort McClellan’s Officer Candidate School in Alabama, she was the first woman to graduate at the top of her class. She deployed again in 2008, to Kuwait as a military police platoon leader training counterterrorism units. In between tours of duty, she worked as a legislative aide to Democratic Sen. Daniel Akaka. Elected to the Honolulu City Council in 2010, she said her proudest accomplishments included helping to legalize food trucks and organizing an environmental cleanup following a landfill overflow. She started her own film production company, Kanu Productions.
Gabbard was the first of six Democrats to jump into the race for an open House seat, touting herself as a fresh voice for Washington. Her chief primary opponent, who led for most of the race, was former Honolulu Mayor Mufi Hannemann. She called for subsidizing alternative energy projects to diversify Hawaii’s tourism-dependent economy, as well as making the state’s energy supply more secure. Her 55%-34% victory over the experienced Hannemann surprised observers. She easily won the general.
In the House, she has shown independence on the Armed Services Committee, a useful assignment for a lawmaker from Hawaii. She often collaborated with Republicans and grew critical of President Barack Obama’s foreign policy. One of her chief priorities has been to bring all troops home from Afghanistan. In 2014, she said that it “makes no sense” to pursue military action against the Islamic State, and she added that summer that the mission was “lost.” She criticized the Obama administration for failing to “recognize that this is about radical Islam.” She was one of 22 House Democrats who voted with all Republicans to condemn the Obama administration for failing to notify Congress of the exchange for Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, who had abandoned his unit in Afghanistan.
With Republican Rep. Martha Roby of Alabama, Gabbard warned in a letter to other House members in 2015 that Pentagon spending cuts scheduled to take effect later that year would “undermin[e] our national security, local economies, and the livelihoods of military families.” She was a co-founder of a bipartisan House caucus to assist veterans’ transition to civilian life. In October 2015, Gabbard was promoted to major in the National Guard.
Gabbard praised the election in 2014 of Prime Minister Narenda Modi of India, and met personally with Modi in New York and then in New Delhi. On the House Foreign Affairs Committee, she worked with Republicans in 2015 on legislation to toughen economic sanctions against North Korea. In 2016, she was one of three House members who voted against a resolution that condemned the Syrian government for war crimes, on the ground that it could result in U.S. military action. On domestic issues, Gabbard joined a bipartisan “No Labels” group of about 70 House members seeking common ground on fiscal policies. “Millennials care less about party labels and blind partisanship, and care more about getting things done,” she said. Gabbard also gained attention for joining some Republicans in the House gym for regular sessions of “CrossFit” and circuit training.
In February 2016, Gabbard resigned as a vice chair of the Democratic National Committee and endorsed Sanders. She praised him for understanding “how and when we use our military power—and just as importantly, when we don’t use that military power.” Earlier, she criticized the DNC’s scheduling of presidential debates for favoring Hillary Clinton. At home, Gabbard has coasted to reelection.
Gabbard’s dealings with President Donald Trump have run the gamut. During his post-election transition, she met with him at his New York headquarters, reportedly to discuss serving as the U.S. representative to the United Nations. They discussed their common ground on the Islamic threat and the need to revamp military interventions overseas. In January 2017, on a fact-finding mission to Syria, she unexpectedly met with President Bashar al-Assad. She was widely criticized by members of both parties for giving credibility to a leader whose forces have killed hundreds of thousands of Syrians and caused millions of refugees. Gabbard responded that the United States should focus on the more immediate threat from the Islamic State and end its talk of “regime change” in Syria, which she said could lead to conflict with Russia. Later, she said she was “skeptical” that Assad had launched chemical weapons on the Syrian people and she criticized Trump’s limited military response, which resulted in more second-guessing from Democrats. Her hostility toward Trump grew when she said in April 2017 that she was “doing my homework” on impeachment.
Her political independence led some political observers to conclude that Gabbard appealed to Trump voters, plus those who supported Sanders. “Never before have we seen a Democrat who has managed to receive praise from Bernie Sanders and Steve Bannon at the same time,” Democratic contributor Michael Starr Hopkins wrote for The Hill newspaper in November 2017. “Gabbard has made clear that she is indebted to no one and unwilling to be just another Democrat.” In signs that she was exploring a run for president, she spoke at a Democratic fundraising event in Iowa in October 2017, visited political organizers in New Hampshire in September 2018 and worked on a book for publication in 2019.
In January 2019, Gabbard said in an interview with CNN, “I have decided to run.” At that time, she had unusual conflicts with other Democrats. In an op-ed for The Hill, she criticized politicians who have “weaponized religion for their own selfish gain, fomenting bigotry, fears and suspicions based on the faith, religion or spiritual practices of their political opponents.” Without naming them, she referred implicitly to two Democratic senators—Kamala Harris of California and her home-state colleague Mazie Hirono—who had raised questions about a judicial nominee membership in the Knights of Columbus, a Catholic service organization. When other Democrats attacked her earlier comments that were critical of gay rights, Gabbard said that her views had changed and she apologized for having “said and believed things that were wrong, and worse, they were very hurtful to people in the L.G.B.T.Q. community.” A lengthy profile in the New Yorker in November 2017 wrote that she had a “stubbornly personal approach” to politics.
Some Hawaii Democrats seized on her national ambitions to step up interest in her House seat. State Sen. Kai Kahele announced his candidacy in January 2019. According to the Hawaii elections office, Gabbard could simultaneously run for president and for her seat in Congress. Reality might force her to choose.
This profile is provided by The Almanac of American Politics. For more information, visit www.thealmanacofamericanpolitics.com