WASHINGTON — Tulsi Gabbard, rising star in the Democratic Party?

Just a few months ago, that might have made sense only if you were talking about the Democratic Party of Hawaii.

But that was before a dramatic come-from-behind victory in her primary race against Mufi Hannemann, a speaking engagement alongside former Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi at the national convention in Charlotte, and a whirlwind tour with Capitol Hill power brokers here in Washington this week.

“Tulsi Gabbard is a rising star who has devoted her life to public service,” Pelosi, now the House Democratic leader, said in an statement emailed by her office Wednesday after the two women met.

South Carolina Rep. James Clyburn, assistant minority leader and the House’s third-ranking Democrat, told Civil Beat he meets regularly with candidates, including three or four alone Tuesday, the day Gabbard stopped by. But, he said in a Wednesday phone interview, “you tend to see the ones with the great potential, and she’s certainly in that group.”

Even if you take Pelosi and Clyburn (and CNN and the Los Angeles Times) at their word, what does that mean — for Gabbard, and for her would-be constituents in Hawaii?

‘It’s About Hawaii’

“You’re asking about what does that mean? It means, it’s about Hawaii,” Gabbard told Civil Beat as she hustled to Clyburn’s Capitol office Tuesday. “It has always been about Hawaii, and the opportunities that I’ve had to represent Hawaii on this national stage and to showcase Hawaii is what has been incredible.

“And that’s the focus and the lens that I’m looking at all of these opportunities and these things that have come up through, is how can I best be the voice for Hawaii, develop relationships, let people here know what the concerns are for people back home in Hawaii, and see how we can work together to address those concerns.”

Boilerplate perhaps, but there could be some truth to it. Being viewed as an up-and-comer could put Gabbard, who is 31, on a leadership track and give her more influence than would normally be afforded to a freshman lawmaker in what many believe is likely to remain the minority party following the election. And that extra influence could benefit the islands.

That’s particularly important because Hawaii’s representatives are in their 60s and its senators in their 80s — one of the oldest delegations by age. The Dan Inouye model — starting in Congress young and building seniority and power — has been a major boon for Hawaii.

Clyburn declined to speculate on whether Gabbard could quickly climb the ranks in Congress, noting that she still has a general election race ahead of her. She will face little-known and lightly funded Republican nominee Kawika Crowley, subject of a recent Q&A with Civil Beat’s Chad Blair.

If Gabbard does prevail, much of her future depends on what she wants for herself and what happens her first few months in office, Clyburn said. The path he took to leadership included a stint as president of his freshman class in the 103rd Congress (1993-1995) and, later, a turn as chair of the Congressional Black Caucus.

One early indication of influence would be the committees to which a member is assigned. Everybody coming to Congress, Clyburn said, wants to score a seat on either Ways and Means or Appropriations. But those seats are hard to come by, and even harder to come by for freshmen members of the minority party.

“She didn’t discuss committee assignments with me at all,” Clyburn said. Asked where he thought she might land, he said, “I think that anybody coming to Congress from Hawaii, the unique relationship and the unique role that Hawaii plays and the history that it has in the defense of this country, I would think that Armed Services, Veterans Affairs, that kind of thing would all bode well for her.”

Colleen Hanabusa sits on the Armed Services Committee, as did Neil Abercrombie before her.

But neither Abercrombie nor Hanabusa were talked about so glowingly as rising stars during their initial runs for Congress. What makes Gabbard special to Democratic leaders?

Public Service and Unique Demographics

Gabbard, a captain in the Hawaii Army National Guard who served two tours in the Middle East, made her military service a central tenet of her campaign. So did VoteVets.org, a veterans organization that spent more than $300,000 helping her beat Hannemann.

And it was that military service that Gabbard focused on in her remarks at the Democratic National Convention last week.

“I did not see her presentation at the convention, but I heard about it, and I read her background,” Clyburn said. “There’s something about a person feeling moved enough to sacrifice his or her own personal ambitions to further the greater good, which is what she did, as a legislator with almost certain re-election to go off and serve her country and serve two tours, as she did, and come back and run for City Council.

“I can see a scenario in which that would endear her to a lot of people. She’s certainly committed to public service and she is willing to work hard,” Clyburn said.

Pelosi cited the same line on Gabbard’s résumé in her praise, saying, “When she stepped down from elected office so she could deploy abroad, she demonstrated her values and her patriotism.”

“Tulsi’s participation in the presentation of the House women at the Democratic National Convention was a sign of the respect she already commands among her soon-to-be colleagues,” Pelosi said. “She spoke beautifully from her unique perspective of having worn our nation’s uniform and understanding the service and sacrifice of our troops and our veterans.”

Gabbard said her first thought after the primary election was that there was still work to be done, but some supporters encouraged her to head to the DNC to network with future colleagues.

“And when Leader Nancy Pelosi called me on my cell phone and said, ‘Hi, this is Nancy Pelosi. Would you consider coming and we’d be honored to have you join us,’ it was, OK, let’s buy the plane ticket,” Gabbard said.

“To say that not many candidates get that opportunity is kind of [under]stating it,” she said. “If you look at how many Democrat candidates for Congress there are across the country and there were two of us on the stage, I think that speaks volumes for what that means to Hawaii should I have the opportunity to represent Hawaii as a congresswoman.”

Gabbard said her convention appearance was designed to represent veterans, military and military families on a national stage, to communicate on a variety of different issues of great concern to the country, and also to “show the next generation of leadership.”

That she’s a veteran is the highlight of Gabbard’s bio, but there are other factors that play a role as well. She’s young and telegenic. She’s also of Samoan ancestry, and would reportedly be the first Hindu elected to Congress.

“Tulsi is proud of her roots and the unique perspective, traditions, and diversity of her home state,” Pelosi said in her statement.

Asked how diversity might help Gabbard in Congress, Clyburn said, “I think that everybody looks at Hawaii as being a state that almost by definition will send a minority. I think Neil Abercrombie might be a rare exception, but if you’re coming from Hawaii, people expect you to have some sort of non-Anglo Saxon background, and I don’t see where that would hurt by any means. In some quarters, it probably will help. But I always tell people those sort of things wash out, they tend to neutralize each other.”

Clyburn said there’s a more important factor in determining how far Gabbard rises: what she does in Congress.

“What really matters is how you conduct yourself, how you act and interact, and how you use your talents and if you’re willing to make the kind of sacrifices that are needed for the caucus to operate while you pursue your goals and objectives,” he said.

The trick for new members is finding a balance between personal ambitions and the best interest of the party.

This Week and Beyond

In addition to Pelosi and Clyburn, Gabbard already met with New York Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, who helped her raise money in the month leading up to the Hawaii primary. Gabbard is also scheduled to chat with Debbie Wasserman Schultz, a Florida representative and chair of the Democratic National Committee, before the end of the week. The schedule’s been jam-packed with other sit-downs.

“The conversations I’m having are, you know, [Pelosi] asking what is happening in Hawaii, what do people care about, what are the things they’re talking about. How is my race going, how is Mazie Hirono‘s race going, and really a genuine interest in how they can be helpful there,” Gabbard said.

“What I have been encouraged by is a very genuine welcoming amongst the members as well as every single one of them who I have met, literally from Connecticut all the way to California, extending their hand to see how they can be of help. And I think those relationships are critical, especially for a state like Hawaii where we only have two members here in a 435-member [House].”

Gabbard, for her part, refused to speculate about the role she hopes to have in the 113th Congress.

“I still have a race, so I’m not taking anything for granted,” she said.

Asked if she was spending any time between meetings this week looking for a place to live, she laughed.

“No, literally and seriously, bachi is real, and I have a race to win in November. Meanwhile, I’m crashing at a friend’s house.”

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