Congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard is many things. A combat veteran. A Hindu. A national media darling.

She’s also the Democratic candidate running to represent Hawaii’s 2nd Congressional District for another two years.

The race has received scant attention, though, as less lopsided contests and controversial ballot measures have dominated the political discourse.

Gabbard at Civil Rights talk

Congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard, seen here at AFGE’s annual legislative conference last year, is seeking election Tuesday to a second term in office.

AFGE

In her first shot at a congressional seat in 2012, Gabbard had to get by former Honolulu Mayor Mufi Hannemann in the Democratic primary.

Hannemann, practically a household name, led in the polls early in the race but Gabbard pulled off a shocking 54 percent to 34 percent victory before cruising to a crushing win in the general election with 77 percent of the vote against Republican Kawika Crowley.

Gabbard, 33, was unopposed in the primary this year and faces Crowley again in the general. She’s expected to defeat him by a similarly huge margin. Civil Beat’s latest poll had Gabbard 50 percentage points ahead.

But the lack of competition doesn’t mean Gabbard deserves a free pass. Her record the past two years and plans for her next term are undeniably important, especially to her roughly 700,000 constituents on the neighbor islands and rural Oahu.

Freed from having to campaign hard for her own re-election, Gabbard has been busy helping other candidates, making a litany of public appearances and occasionally weighing in on national and international events.

A review of her campaign spending records shows she and her political action committee have spent thousands of dollars helping fellow Democrats in Hawaii and on the mainland win hotly contested elections.

The day after state Rep. Mark Takai beat six other candidates in the Aug. 9 primary, Gabbard’s PAC gave his campaign $2,600. Takai is tied in the polls with Republican Charles Djou, who served in Congress for seven months in 2010 and is a former Honolulu City Councilman and state lawmaker.

She gave $1,000 apiece to congressional candidates Ami Bera (California), Carol Shea-Porter (New Hampshire), William Enyart (Illinois), Cheri Bustos (Illinois), Dan Maffei (New York), Elizabeth Esty (Connecticut), Patrick Murphy (Florida), Pete Gallego (Texas), Julia Brownley (California), Ann Kirkpatrick (Arizona), Ann Kuster (New Hampshire), Ron Barber (Arizona), Tim Bishop (New York)

While Gabbard has spent some money helping other candidates, she’s stockpiled even more in her own campaign account. There’s been speculation that she may run for the Senate in an upcoming election, but she has not revealed what her long-term plans are as far as which elective office she might seek in the future.

In all, Gabbard has received $1.6 million this election cycle and spent $656,000. She had $1.06 million cash on hand as of Oct. 15, according to her pre-general report with the Federal Election Commission.

She’s received $440,757 from PACs, but one of her most recent fundraisers was organized by Indian-Americans last month in Chicago. As the first Hindu elected to Congress, she has consistently received strong support, financial and otherwise, from Hindus, particularly Indian-Americans.

Civil Beat first sought an interview with Gabbard in mid-September to talk about what she’s done in office so far and what her plans are going forward. Her press secretary, Heather Fluitt, told us Sept. 29 that “we are going to pass for now,” but would be open to revisiting the request later in the year when her first term was closer to being over.

We renewed our request for an interview, emphasizing the importance of getting this information to voters before they head to the polls. On Oct. 13, Fluitt agreed to get us written responses to our questions. That’s never Civil Beat’s preference, but we consented in the interest of getting at least some information out to voters before Election Day.

Responses to our questions arrived Oct. 24.

Here are excerpts:

What are your top three accomplishments in office thus far?

1. At the peak of the VA crisis, it was clear that our veterans needed immediate access to physicians and that it was simply not acceptable to wait for all the systemic problems with the VA to be fixed before we addressed health care access. I introduced bipartisan legislation allowing veterans immediate access to private physicians, and advocated nationally, calling for this immediate change to allow for this access. Our efforts were successful. We passed bipartisan VA health reform legislation into law in record time, which included a provision, based on my proposal, to allow veterans access to private health care. It was rewarding to see the results of such quick action for our veterans. This outcome underscored the importance of developing strong partnerships within Congress, and having a national platform to advocate for specific issues, to deliver real results for Hawaii and our nation.

2. It’s because of my early emphasis on the importance of building relationships based on respect and aloha with members of Congress on both sides of the aisle that made it possible for me to successfully pass the very first bill I introduced in Congress, called the Helping Heroes Fly Act. This legislation, which eases the pain, stress or embarrassment that severely wounded or disabled veterans were previously experiencing going through airport screenings, passed unanimously and was enacted by President Obama in August 2013.

3. I had heard from numerous veterans on Hawai’i Island that they were unable to purchase a home, because they couldn’t access their earned benefit of a VA Home Loan guaranty. My team and I brought state and federal stakeholders together to eliminate the bureaucratic obstacle, and successfully restored access to VA home loans for veterans on Hawai’i Island.

What do you hope to achieve in your next term and why?

I’m very concerned about another economic crisis. The largest financial institutions, whose risky bets caused the deepest recession in a generation and wiped out the savings of millions of families in Hawaii and across the nation, are bigger now than ever before. We need to rein in the “too big to fail” banks and strengthen our financial security by reinstating the protections provided by the Glass-Stegall Act, isolating traditional banks offering checking and savings accounts from riskier activities, ensuring the American people will never again be the backstop for Wall Street gambling. I have co-sponsored legislation reinstating the Glass-Stegall Act, and will continue to push for its passage.

Strengthen our economy by working with stakeholders in the private sector to identify barriers to innovation and entrepreneurship, and cut the red tape that may hold them back from creating jobs and growing our economy …

Refocus our national security strategy to put the safety of Americans above all else, especially distractions of nation-building and regime change. We need to stay clear-eyed about how we eliminate terrorists who threaten us, and utilize our highly skilled special operations forces, work with and support trusted foreign partners to seek and destroy this threat, and temporarily suspend visa waivers for countries with large numbers of citizens known to be fighting for terrorist groups like ISIL, until these threats can be tracked and prevented from entering the U.S. The Pentagon and our entire national security apparatus, needs to stay focused on the mission of keeping our people safe from Islamic extremist threats, a belligerent, nuclear-armed North Korea, and other emerging threats around the world.

Continue to closely monitor and push for reform at the VA, and ensure the agency is recommitting itself to its core mission of serving our veterans and their families in an efficient and timely manner …

What do you think about the U.S. military action so far against ISIS. Appropriate? Effective?

We have to stop thinking of the Middle East in a simplistic way, because there’s nothing simple about it. In the 1900s, colonialists arbitrarily carved up the map to create countries now known as Iraq, Syria, Kuwait, Lebanon, Jordon, and Palestine. Those lines separated people without considering natural boundaries based on ethnic and religious differences, and the result has been chaos.

It could take years or even decades to happen, but there’s a shift of borders gradually taking place in the region based on how people identify themselves religiously and ethnically. The problem is that both the Bush and Obama administrations have tried to artificially keep these groups glued together, even as they are dividing themselves ethnically and religiously, trying to hold it together with one central government. We have to stop doing that–it’s only exacerbating the problem.

Instead of the United States continuing to try to use its military might to keep the Kurds, Sunnis, and Shias together as one entity, like a forced marriage, we need to accept the reality that they don’t want to have that kind of American model government and country. Instead, we should facilitate their having three separate areas for three separate autonomous self-governing regions. This is the only long-term solution, and the only way to defeat ISIL …

We need to hit ISIL hard and fast militarily. This will require more airstrikes and giving the Kurds the heavy weaponry and the air support that they deserve since they are, in fact, our “boots on the ground.”

In the short term, should Hawaii continue to expect cuts to the military presence here? What can and should Hawaii do to respond? Is the “pivot” toward Asia likely to change this recent trend of cuts?

Many communities across the country are facing, and will continue to face, cuts to their local military presence. In Hawaii, we have to consider the broader impact that these cuts will have, both on our stated commitment to the Asia-Pacific region and on our local economy. We need to make a collective case for why Hawaii is so critical to national U.S. interests and priorities in the region, which is actually pretty simple. Hawaii is a gateway to the Asia-Pacific region, and the military’s presence in our state provides security and assurance to our allies in a part of the world that the United States heavily relies on to be stable and peaceful. Without a strong military presence in Hawaii, we will weaken our nation’s ability to defend against security threats from places like North Korea, distance ourselves from our partners like Japan and South Korea, and ultimately send a message to the world that we aren’t taking our commitment in the region seriously. We cannot let that happen …

What have your first two years in D.C. been like? What you love about it? What do you hate about it?

I love having the opportunity to share the spirit of aloha. Every day I have the privilege of doing my best to be of service to the people of Hawai‘i and our country.

What I hate about it is that it’s not Hawaii. The weather is terrible, but even worse than that is the divisive partisanship and putting party before country.

How difficult is it to work in a GOP-dominated House? How is it working in such a highly polarized environment as the US Congress?

It’s hard, but it’s not impossible. I feel I’ve developed a reputation as a person who puts country ahead of party. It can be difficult when people see themselves as Democrat or Republican before they see themselves as Americans. For example, I was invited to go on an official trip to meet with leaders of China, Japan, and South Korea. Because the Republicans are the majority party in Congress, they are the ones who organize these delegations. When asked if I would like to go, I thought, “Wow, this is a great opportunity to develop long-lasting relationships with key leaders in these countries, and to share with them the concerns of Hawai‘i’s people, including the threat of North Korean nuclear weapons.”

Later, I was astonished when a Democrat came up to me expressing disappointment that I would be going on a trip with Republicans. I was stunned that anyone would even consider not taking advantage of such an opportunity simply because the delegation was Republican-sponsored. I will never allow partisanship to interfere with my ability to serve the people …

What are the most important things that President Obama can get done in his final two years in office given the balance of power in D.C.?

It’s not too late for President Obama to become the economic populist that I know he can be. I’m hoping he will work with me and other economic populists in the US House from both sides of the aisle as well as our partners in the US Senate, like Senator Elizabeth Warren and Senator Ron Wyden.

President Obama was elected in the midst of one of our biggest economic crises in decades, caused in large part by the banks that were “too big to fail.” All attempts to fix this problem, including the Dodd-Frank bill, have failed and, at best, have been like patching a dam with band-aids. Sooner or later, the dam is going to burst again if we do not change the fundamental problem in our banking system.

The problem is that the big banks are bigger than ever. If they were too big to fail before, then they are way too big to fail now. When the next banking crisis hits, the economic devastation will make the 2008 problem seem like a pinprick. The President needs to hold those responsible accountable, rein in “too big to fail banks,” and strengthen our financial security by reinstating the protections provided by the Glass-Stegall Act …

Where do you see yourself 10 years from now?

I don’t look that far ahead in my personal life. However, I do try to look that far and much further ahead in regard to issues facing our state and country.

There are many issues which we need to focus on now, in order to set our country and the American people up for success in the future. For example, I’m concerned about the disappearance of our middle class, and the widening gap between the haves and have-nots; we must strengthen our nation’s finances to support greater economic growth and opportunity; ensuring our next generation of leaders have access to quality education; making sure that our kupuna can count on their social security check, and are able to get quality, affordable healthcare; the increasing threat of Islamic extremists, and the possibility of their taking control of Pakistan’s nuclear weapons; climate change and the protection of precious water aquifers, natural resources, and environment; building greater energy security and independence through renewable, sustainable sources; protecting our country from terrorists while simultaneously safeguarding our civil liberties; and more.

  • Stay plugged in to campaigns and candidates this election season with Civil Beat’s Hawaii Elections Guide 2014, your source for information on federal, state and local elections. Click here for a list of candidates with links to their views on questions and issues posed by Civil Beat.

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