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As of last week, a total of 40 U.S. senators and representatives have announced that they will not run for re-election in 2014. That represents about one in every 11 incumbents sent to the nation’s capital.
Reasons vary but intractable partisan gridlock is a dominant explanation. It’s contributed to Congress’ abysmal approval rating of just 13 percent, well below the historical average of 33 percent.
Here at home, though, Rep. Tulsi Gabbard announced her bid for a second term last month. Despite the lousy track record of accomplishment for the 113th Congress, she looks forward to serving in the 114th.
“This past year, in spite of a bitterly divided Congress, we have overcome tremendous odds to deliver real results for the people of Hawaii,” she said in a Jan. 22 email to supporters.
With more than $800,000 in cash sitting in her campaign coffers, no credible Democratic primary challenger on the horizon and only token Republican opposition in the general election, Gabbard, who turns 33 in April, has quickly established herself as the invincible Hawaii incumbent.
Most folks in Hawaii pay little attention to what their congressional delegates do. Though he was elected governor in 2010, it’s likely that few voters could explain what Neil Abercrombie did during his 20 years in Congress.
In many ways, Hawaii has been lucky with the congressional leaders we’ve elected. They haven’t embarrassed us with drug busts and corruption prosecutions; they’ve not been fodder for late night TV comedians and the tabloids. The late Dan Inouye and Patsy Mink were even (briefly) considered presidential or vice presidential material; the Legislature has set aside money to honor them with works of art.
Gabbard is poised to fill their shoes but by following her own unique path.
Like Inouye, she is a military veteran, but unlike him she is already close to being a national figure in only her first term in office. She’s an increasingly familiar face on the Sunday political news programs. She works out at the gym with Republican Paul Ryan and tweets with rising Democrat Cory Booker.
She also posts Instagram selfies from Maui, Manhattan and even the Sea of Galilee.
She has also grown into her role.
As Civil Beat contributor Adrienne LaFrance observed in her analysis of Gabbard’s first re-election ad, “This time around, Gabbard is more confident in front of the camera. It makes sense. She’s had plenty of opportunities to practice since moving to Washington. The congresswoman is making a name for herself as a rising star in the Democratic party.”
“Soldier. Veteran. Surfer. Small biz owner. Member of Congress. Doing my best to be of service,” says one of her two tweeter profiles.
As Civil Beat has previously reported, the young representative travels a lot, both for her office (Hawaii is 5,000 miles away from D.C., of course; the government covers the airfare) and for personal and party fundraising efforts.
Her fourth quarter filing with the Federal Election Commission shows she spent thousands of dollars from her campaign for dozens of plane and train tickets.
Asked about the trips, her campaign told Civil Beat via email last week that the travel expenses are “normal” but declined to elaborate. Her FEC filing offers more specifics: $511 for a room at the Hotel Palomar in Chicago, for example, or $3,795 in catering at Amber India Restaurant in San Jose, perhaps for a fundraiser (it’s not clear from the filing).
Other expenses suggest her commitment to building on her political success: $15,000 to a fundraising consultant and a similar amount to an online communications strategy group, both based in D.C.
Gabbard has raised almost $900,000 for her re-election, a third of it in the October-December period. More than $220,000 of the $317,000 in fourth-quarter receipts came from individual contributions, many of them the usual suspects in Hawaii business, labor and legal circles.
About one-fifth of her recent contributions came from political action committees of companies like Matson Navigation and First Hawaiian Bank, labor groups such as the American Federation of State County & Municipal Employees, and defense interests that include Boeing and BAE.
Benefiting from her status as the first Hindu-American member of Congress, she also received funds from the Hindu American Political Action Committee. Big PAC contributors include Off the Sidelines which has given Gabbard a total of $10,000; the PAC was set up by Kirsten Gillibrand, the U.S. senator from New York, to be “a call to action to women to make their voices heard on the issues they care about.”
Gillibrand introduced the Military Justice Improvement Act, designed to remove decision-making from the armed forces’ chain of command in sexual assault investigations and turn it over to military prosecutors. Gabbard is a co-introducer of the House version, which is co-sponsored by Rep. Colleen Hanabusa; Sens. Mazie Hirono and Brian Schatz are co-sponsoring Gillibrand’s bill, which could receive Senate debate this week in Washington.
Gabbard’s military experience is core to her professional and personal background and at the forefront of her legislative activities.
On Friday, Gabbard used her House email to share how she recently met Staff Sergeant Mary Valdez in Hawaii, who Gabbard described as “an awe-inspiring warrior.” Gabbard continued:
“Just weeks before she redeployed to Afghanistan, she was sexually assaulted by a fellow Soldier. She came forward, pressed charges, took her perpetrator to trial, where he was acquitted. He continues to serve in our US Army today.
She didn’t get justice — not by a long shot. Like so many of the 26,000 men and women who were sexually assaulted in our military last year alone, she lives with the knowledge that her attacker is still in the Army.”
Gabbard’s email does not explain why the alleged perpetrator was acquitted, but the implication is that, if the Military Justice Improvement Act were law, there might well have been a different outcome.
In many ways, another Hawaii Army National Guard member, state Rep. Mark Takai, hopes his military experience will help him to succeed Hanabusa in the 1st District seat so he can serve alongside Gabbard in the 2nd District. (Takai has contributed $2,600 to Gabbard this election cycle.)
Six months from now, Takai will either be on his way to a general election contest against a Republican or he will be a spectator as another Democrat becomes the general election frontrunner following the August primary. The same goes for either Schatz or Hanabusa: The winner of that race will fill the remaining two years of Inouye’s six-year term. In 2016, that seat is up again, and in 2018 Hirono must decide to run again or retire.
As Hawaii’s congressional delegates come and go, and as new candidates enter the picture, Tulsi Gabbard — based on her fundraising strength, rising profile and re-election prospects — will still be in the picture. Perhaps dominating the frame.