Reporters have practically run out of ways to describe Hawaii Congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard’s political ascension over the past few years.

The “meteoric rise” of the 35-year-old “Democratic media darling,” the first Hindu in Congress, has been “nothing short of spectacular,” as one news story after another has put it.

Following her surprising 2012 election win over former Honolulu Mayor Mufi Hannemann, Gabbard became a regular on cable TV news shows, the subject of national magazine features and the winner of an easy re-election campaign in 2014. She was unopposed in that year’s primary and won the general election with 76 percent of the vote.

Shay Chan Hodges, Democratic candidate for Congress, waves along Hana Highway on Maui.

Shay Chan Hodges, Democratic candidate for Congress, has been doing a lot of roadside waving.

Courtesy: Shay Chan Hodges

Gabbard also had $1.9 million in campaign cash on hand as of July 24 after spending nearly $100,000 during the first three weeks of last month on advertising, consultants, flights and other expenses, according to her Federal Election Commission reports. And the donations just keep coming in as she pursues a third two-year term representing Hawaii’s 2nd Congressional District, which includes Maui, Kauai, the Big Island and rural Oahu.

For all that, in Saturday’s primary she faces a determined Democratic challenger in Shay Chan Hodges, a 53-year-old grant writer and author on Maui who has scored political points by questioning Gabbard’s progressive chops and criticizing her unwillingness to debate.

Hawaii Elections Guide 2016

Chan Hodges is doing all she can with limited resources, much as her counterparts in other federal races in Hawaii have done in similarly lopsided contests against established politicians.

“If I do well on Saturday, it will demonstrate that the process can work if people run — and that’s the key. I definitely gave people a choice,” she said. “Sadly, and I’m sure this is the case throughout the country, incumbents just get re-elected.”

Chan Hodges has lived on Maui since 1992 and became politically active there two years later with a Rock the Vote campaign. She had $4,396 in campaign cash on hand as of July 24 after raising $7,318 this election period.

That’s afforded her some campaign paraphernalia, two trips to the Big Island and one to Oahu, but not much else in her first bid for elected office. Her husband, Ian Chan Hodges, former Maui Democratic Party chair and previous candidate for state Senate, has been helping out, too.

Congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard hugs supporter on the second day of the Hawaii State Democratic Convention held at the Sheraton Hotel. 29 may 2016.

Congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard hugs a supporter at the Hawaii State Democratic Convention in May.

Cory Lum/Civil Beat

She relied mostly on sign-waving along the streets and social media to get her message out, but she also went on the attack.

Chan Hodges cited what she sees as questionable items in Gabbard’s campaign finance reports, such as a trip last year to India paid for by that country’s government and costs associated with TV interviews and attending events, such as the Champions of Jewish Values International Awards Gala last May in New York that was hosted by conservative casino magnate Sheldon Adelson.

Gabbard spoke at the gala after accepting an award.

Hawaii's Congressional District 2, seen here in green, includes the neighbor islands and rural Oahu.

Hawaii’s Congressional District 2, seen here in green, includes the neighbor islands and rural Oahu.

Courtesy: U.S. Department of the Interior

Despite political analysts predicting another easy win for Gabbard, both in the primary and general election this fall, the congresswoman has fired back against Chan Hodges’ assertions and worked to raise more campaign money.

In a recent email blast to supporters, Gabbard asked for “a contribution of $3, or more if you can afford it, to help our campaign overcome these attacks and secure victory in Saturday’s primary.”

The email hits Chan Hodges for “dishonest political attacks,” saying she is “attempting to twist my record in Congress in a cheap attempt to win votes.”

In an interview Wednesday, Gabbard would not say what attacks were dishonest or how Chan Hodges was attempting to twist her record.

“I’m not going to get into repeating the attacks of my opponent,” she said.

Instead, Gabbard said she is responding with a positive campaign that focuses on the issues that matter most to the district’s roughly 700,000 constituents. She cited homelessness, affordable housing and the high cost of living as examples.

Gabbard said it’s “mind-boggling” that there’s such a dearth of affordable housing given the incredible need. She said she’s looking into ways to restrict the ability of people to flip homes that were intended to remain on the market as affordable housing.

The congresswoman launched a TV ad this week that said she “fights so hard because she cares so much.”

The ad highlights her support for the elderly, children, workers and “love of the aina (land).” It’s a visually appealing and polished message that provides a broad reach to voters her opponent can’t match.

Chan Hodges has produced two ads of her own, distributing them via social media. They discuss her background, raising her family with her husband, and sharing in the struggles that others in the community face, like being able to pay bills on time.

Chan Hodges and political insiders have questioned Gabbard’s political aspirations, particularly with the massive fundraising effort. Is it really just to secure another term in the House, or does she have her eye on a bid to unseat Sen. Mazie Hirono in 2018?

“This seat is a stepping stone to other things,” Hodges said.

Gabbard said she’s focused for now on securing another term in the House, and doesn’t know what she may want to do beyond that.

“Part of running a strong campaign is making sure you have the resources to make sure you stay in a strong position,” she said, adding that she also is using some campaign contributions “to elect other like-minded Democrats to Congress” to build strong relationships necessary to get work done in Washington, D.C.

Gabbard’s outspoken support for Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders in the presidential primaries may put her on the outs with Hillary Clinton if she defeats Republican Donald Trump on Nov. 8.

But a story last month in The Daily Beast indicated there might be a spot for Gabbard in a Trump administration. The article noted she regularly appears on the conservative Fox News channel and has taken issue with President Barack Obama for not using the term “Islamic extremism” to describe America’s enemy.

Shay Chan Hodges, seen here striking with airline pilots along with Rep. Angus McKelvey, who supports Hodges, says she's been involved in her community for more than 20 years.

Chan Hodges joined picketing airline pilots along with Rep. Angus McKelvey, who supports Chan Hodges.

Courtesy: Shay Chan Hodges

The congresswoman was also one of just 47 Democrats in the 435-member House who supported a bill that would make it significantly harder for refugees to enter the United States, and was the only Democrat who opposed a resolution that denounced the atrocities against civilians by Syrian President Bashar al-Assad of Syria.

In a statement explaining her opposition, Gabbard said it’s “a War Bill—a thinly veiled attempt to use the rationale of ‘humanitarianism’ as a justification for overthrowing the Syrian government of Assad. Similar resolutions were used in the past to legitimize the regime change wars to overthrow the governments of Iraq and Libya.”

Gabbard has raised concerns with Clinton’s “interventionist foreign policy,” which she said drains money that could be better put toward domestic infrastructure, education and health care.

“I’m going to look at each issue based on its merits and not throw it in the trash just because there’s an ‘R’ next to it,” she said.

“It’s about how and where can I best be of service, and where can I make the most impact.” — Congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard

She pointed at her bipartisan efforts to pass a bill to help fund programs for Native Hawaiians and a separate measure to address the abuse of children by their parents who are in the military.

She introduced Talia’s Law last year to mandate reporting of child abuse, which she said cleared the House in February due to her working relationship with House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, a Republican. The law is named after Talia Williams, a 5-year-old who was beaten to death in 2005 by her father when he was stationed in Hawaii.

Asked where she sees herself several years from now, Gabbard said the short answer is she doesn’t know.

When she won a seat in the state Legislature at age 21, Gabbard said, she didn’t even consider the notion of running for higher office. The whirlwind rise to where she is now has her focused on the present.

“It’s about how and where can I best be of service, and where can I make the most impact,” she said.

Her criticism of Trump has been mostly limited to saying she doesn’t know where he stands on issues and is unpredictable. She was incensed, however, by Trump’s statements last week that tied the Philippines and several other countries to being homes for terrorists.

“We’re letting people come in from terrorist nations that shouldn’t be allowed because you can’t vet them,” he said at a rally in Portland, Maine. “There’s no way of vetting them. You have no idea who they are. This could be the great Trojan horse of all time.”

Gabbard noted how Filipino soldiers fought alongside Americans in World War II and continue to contribute to not just national security but also the culture of the United States, especially in Hawaii, which has one of the biggest Filipino populations in the country.

“It just showed incredible ignorance and a complete lack of understanding,” Gabbard said of Trump’s comments.

But Gabbard’s own foreign policy views are being criticized by Hodges.

Chan Hodges noted the fear the congresswoman induced, inadvertently or not, in her response to a question in her Civil Beat Candidate Q&A.

“Putting aside the fact that Hawaii’s people could be obliterated by nuclear attacks coming from North Korea, China, or Russia, the most important issue facing our state is the cost of living,” Gabbard wrote.

Congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard at MV22 hangar opening ceremonies held at Marine Corps Base Hawaii. 19 july 2016.

Gabbard, seen here during the MV-22B Osprey hangar opening in July atn Marine Corps Base Hawaii in Kaneohe, has made foreign policy a top priority.

Cory Lum/Civil Beat

Chan Hodges dinged Gabbard for dodging requests to debate, noting that the congresswoman went on national TV last October to call for more debates between Sanders and Clinton.

“We’ve got to have more opportunities for people to present their vision for our country, their plans, and to be held accountable for the positions that they’re taking,” Gabbard told MSNBC.

The congresswoman eventually stepped down from her post as vice chairwoman of the Democratic National Committee to endorse. But she never agreed to debate Hodges.

“I wanted to talk to her about who she really is and what she really believes,” Chan Hodges said.

She also questioned just how progressive Gabbard is, despite her support for Sanders.

Shay Chan Hodges talks to supporters at the Maui Economic Opportunity senior fair.

Chan Hodges talks to kupuna at the Maui Economic Opportunity senior fair.

Courtesy: Shay Chan Hodges

The LGBT Caucus of the Hawaii Democratic Party has endorsed Hodges sent out messages of strong support for her.

Gabbard has said her initially conservative views on gay marriage and other social issues, such as abortion, underwent a “gradual metamorphosis” after her deployments to Middle Eastern countries operating under oppressive regimes.

“I wanted to talk to her about who she really is and what she really believes.” — Shay Chan Hodges

Chan Hodges criticized Gabbard for not co-sponsoring legislation to ban assault weapons, which 149 other Democrats signed. She started a petition to try to pressure the congresswoman to do so after the massacre in June at an Orlando nightclub; there were 282 signatures on the petition as of Wednesday.

Gabbard supported other gun-control measures, which Chan Hodges portrayed as weaker. Gabbard says on her campaign website that she has “long called for reinstating a federal ban on military-style assault weapons.”

Chan Hodges also faulted Gabbard for not spending more time in the district getting to know the needs of her constituents.

Tulsi Gabbard talks to kupuna during a meeting with the Kailua Seniors Club, Wednesday.

Gabbard talks to kupuna during a meeting with the Kailua Seniors Club this week.

Courtesy: Tulsi Gabbard

The congresswoman said her office communicates daily with constituents via social media, conducts outreach through her representatives on each island, hosts telephone town hall meetings and sends regular email newsletter updates.

“Since taking office in 2013, Tulsi has conducted more than 700 community forums and meetings throughout her eight-island district and has held more than 450 meetings with Hawaii constituents visiting Washington, DC,” Gabbard’s spokeswoman, Erika Tsuji, said in a statement. “Tulsi and her staff respond to thousands of constituent emails and letters every week—more than 150,000 since taking office—averaging more than 43,000 annually.”

Gabbard was on Oahu on Tuesday, meeting with Kailua Seniors Club members about their concerns over Medicare not covering hearing aids. According to a campaign news release, she told them about a bill she cosponsored, the Seniors Have Eyes, Ears, and Teeth Act, which would expand Medicare coverage to include eyeglasses, hearing aids and dental care.

Back on Maui, Chan Hodges said if she’s elected she’ll continue to fight for her community, the district and state as a whole. She pointed at how she successful advocated for a law at the Legislature two years ago that provided an exemption so child-care providers could operate on agricultural land.

“On the one hand, it was an economic issue about parents being able to work,” Chan Hodges said. “But it was also a pro-farming issue about having kids being taken care of in this environment.”

Shay Chan Hodges says the district's constituents need someone who represents their views.

Chan Hodges says the district’s constituents need someone who represents their views.

Courtesy: Shay Chan Hodges

Much of Chan Hodges’ work was with mobilizing the parents and child care providers to testify on the bill, keeping their morale up during the legislative process and ensuring the message got through to lawmakers.

“In Hawaii, of course both parents have to work. You can’t survive otherwise,” said Chan Hodges, a mother of two boys. “I know what working families are going through.”

Chan Hodges said she can’t predict what will happen Saturday.

“I definitely have gotten a lot of support from people who have reached out to me from all over the state saying they are concerned and they want to be represented,” she said. “I don’t know how worried she is about me running but I don’t think she expected to have anyone running against her.”

Learn more about the candidates in Civil Beat’s Q&As here.

About the Author