There is no 2020 Democratic presidential hopeful quite like Rep. Tulsi Gabbard. The Hawaii congresswoman has many firsts to her name: She is one of the first two female combat veterans ever to serve in Congress, the first Samoan-American voting member of Congress, the first Hindu congressperson, and now, the first female combat veteran ever to run for president.
Gabbard has represented Hawaii’s second congressional district since 2013, and has served on the Armed Services, Homeland Security and Foreign Affairs Committees with an eye on ceasing regime change wars and preventing nuclear warfare. Having witnessed firsthand the cost of battle during her two tours of military service in the Middle East, Gabbard, now a major in the U.S. Army National Guard, has centered her vision for America on peace and safety.
Although Gabbard is three polls short of qualifying for September’s debate(s), she is still very much a viable candidate. She was the most-searched candidate following the second round of Democratic debates, during which she created a much-needed viral moment by attacking Sen. Kamala Harris’s record on criminal justice during her tenure as California’s attorney general. On Friday, Gabbard’s campaign announced that she had surpassed the 130,000-donor requirement to enter the next round of debates.
Now, she hopes to increase the momentum of her campaign in part by appealing to voters across the racial and cultural spectrum. To that end, Gabbard joined ethnic reporters from across the country in a teleconference last Friday, which was coordinated by Ethnic Media Services and India Currents, an Indian-American magazine.
Gabbard began by speaking about her upbringing in Hawaii, the only state that has always had a majority-minority population. As a result of their uniquely diverse surroundings in the Aloha State, Gabbard says she and her friends did not even realize they were minorities until they came to the mainland. It was only after leaving the island that Gabbard came face to face with “the prejudices and the racial inequalities and injustices that still unfortunately exist today.”
In response to the divisiveness that still plagues America, Gabbard has brought her Pacific Islander identity front-and-center in her presidential run, making the spirit of “Aloha” the heart of her campaign. “Aloha,” she said, means so much more than “Hello” and “Goodbye.”
“Basically, when you greet someone with ‘Aloha,’ you’re saying, ‘I come to you with an open heart and with respect and love,’” Gabbard said. “When we come to each other in the spirit of ‘Aloha,’ it gives us the opportunity to bridge and heal these divides that unfortunately are tearing us apart as people, tearing our country apart.”
Gabbard then shared a favorite quote from Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s 1959 address to the Hawaii House of Representatives:
“[We] look to you for inspiration and as a noble example, where you have already accomplished in the area of racial harmony and racial justice what we are struggling to accomplish in other sections of the country, and you can never know what it means to those of us caught for the moment in the tragic and often dark midnight of man’s inhumanity to man, to come to a place where we see the glowing daybreak of freedom and dignity and racial justice.”
It is these principles, Gabbard said, that have motivated her to put service before self as a soldier and a public servant, and that inspired the vision of leadership she wants to bring to the White House.
“I often look back to this quote because it really points to the path that we have forward as a country, especially given the current president who is dividing our country and undermining our democracy and our freedoms by fomenting racism and bigotry,” Gabbard said. “As we look to this path forward, we look to these words of Dr. King, we look to power of the ‘Aloha’ spirit that can unite us, and that reminds us about how connected we are and that we are strongest when we stand united.”
Gabbard then began taking questions from members of the media. The first question came from call moderator Jaya Padmanabhan of India Currents, who asked the congresswoman how she plans to rise to the presidency at a moment when Mr. Trump has completely redefined what a president can say and do.
Gabbard reiterated her message of unity, saying it is all about “understanding the values and principles that bring us together, that cross party lines, that cross racial divides, that cross religious differences, that cross all of these different things that this president is unfortunately using to tear us apart.”
The conversation then turned to foreign policy concerns, as Gabbard was asked how she would prevent a second arms race considering the United States’ recent withdrawal from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, a longstanding disarmament agreement signed in 1987 by President Ronald Reagan and Soviet General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev.
Gabbard, who strongly supports nuclear disarmament, said the U.S. must negotiate to protect the INF and START treaties and abandon any “thinking wrongly that a nuclear war can be won, which is absolutely false.”
“A nuclear war leads to one conclusion – the total annihilation and destruction of humanity and our planet,” Gabbard said.
As president, she said she would engage in global negotiations to strengthen these critical treaties, rather than withdraw from them at the first sign of a problem. It is only by having “the courage to meet with adversaries or dictators or potential adversaries,” she said, that America can scale back the nuclear proliferation Trump has enabled.
Pilar Marrero of La Opinion asked Gabbard what she believed to be America’s role in Central America’s massive refugee movement, as well as the crisis in Venezuela.
Gabbard expressed the importance of learning from America’s past mistakes, citing the fact that many of the countries people are fleeing from are suffering from “short-sighted” and “failed” U.S. attempts at intervention.
“I think there is a very positive role that the United States can play in trying to help stabilize the situation and help empower people in these countries to deal with the challenges that they’re facing,” Gabbard said.
She added that the next administration must undo Trump’s move to cut off aid for several of these countries, which has removed the necessary resources for them to achieve total sovereignty and self-determination. Moreover, she said Trump made a mistake by withdrawing from the United Nations Human Rights Council, the UN’s refugee agency. Gabbard said she would re-engage in positive efforts to improve the lives of people around the world.
Next, Joe Orozco of Hoopa Tribal Radio asked about the federal government trust responsibilities of the Bureau of Indian Affairs. The BIA, he said, does not have programs to support local media like radio and newspapers, which are crucial to a “healthy democratic society.” How would Gabbard get radio and newspapers added as “budgeted trust responsibilities that support their operations, implement wages, and training needs?”
Gabbard concurred with Orozco’s sentiment that local media is a key player in making sure that everyone’s voice is heard and bringing about necessary change. She talked about the time she has spent visiting different reservations and tribal communities, including two visits to Standing Rock, North Dakota, where Native Americans protested the building of a fossil fuel pipeline through tribal lands in 2016.
In order to make amends for all the wrongs this country has committed against indigenous people, Gabbard said, media outlets must continue to have support so they can amplify the voices of their communities. She promised to find ways to support these outlets as president.
The last opening question turned back to international relations. Arab American News reporter Hassan Abbas asked about Gabbard’s strategy for peace in the Middle East.
Gabbard once again emphasized the importance of engaging with leaders across the world, including those with whom we have little or nothing in common. Furthermore, she said the United States must stop trying to be “the world’s police,” which has only proven costly. She cited mass destruction and the exacerbation of the refugee crisis caused by regime-change wars in the Middle East.
Gabbard was especially concerned about the Trump administration inching closer to war with Iran, despite its claim that this is not what it wants.
“Every single thing that they do toward Iran points directly toward a path to war, beginning with tearing up the Iran Nuclear Agreement, closing off diplomatic ties, further escalating crippling sanctions, and strangling the economy of the people there,” she said.
All this, combined with deploying more U.S. troops to the region, may be “leading up to a war that would be far more devastating than anything we saw in Iraq, and further exacerbate the refugee crisis that already exists because of these conflicts and regime-change wars across the Middle East.”
There is no one-sentence answer to peace, Gabbard concluded, but it begins with cooperation, not conflict. The U.S., she said, must build relationships and treat people across the world who are affected by its foreign policy with respect and dignity.
When the opening questions were finished, Gabbard went on to take questions from other participating press members. She defended her attack on Sen. Kamala Harris’s record, warned of the danger of escalating trade war tensions with China, called for U.S. leadership on the global fight against climate change, and expressed the importance of safeguarding American election systems from foreign interference.
Near the end of the conference, Gabbard circled back to the theme of “Aloha” and told a personal story about how she has used that principle to reach across the aisle to congressional Republicans. The first thing she wanted to do after being sworn-in to congress was figure out a way to connect with her colleagues on both sides.
“I called my mother and I said, ‘Hey, can you make 434 boxes of Hawaiian macadamia nut toffee that I can give to all of my soon-to-be new friends?’” Gabbard recalled. “She thought it was a great idea. I said, ‘Wait, I have one more request. Can you make another 435 bigger boxes of toffee for the staff of every single member of Congress?’”
As her mother began preparing the toffee, Gabbard wrote handwritten messages to every one of her new colleagues. Once she delivered these “little gifts of ‘Aloha’”, something amazing happened — senior leaders of the Republican Party approached Gabbard not only to express their gratitude for the toffee (and ask for more) but to ask how they could personally help address the concerns of the people of Hawaii.
“Building that foundation where we can disagree on many things but recognize each other as people, that’s how we begin to bridge these divides, to heal our country and to stay focused on that which unites us,” Gabbard said. “This is the kind of leadership that I’ll bring to you and to the country as president.”