LANAI CITY, Lanai — Despite heavy rain, about 100 people sloshed through the puddles to the community center in this tiny town for a chance to hear U.S. Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, who has become something of a media celebrity on national TV networks.
The Democrat who represents Hawaii’s 2nd Congressional District, which includes rural Oahu and the outer islands, has gotten a lot of attention for her controversial and passionate views on the U.S.’s increasing involvement in the Syrian crisis.
But on Thursday, Gabbard’s constituents asked more questions about their own bread-and-butter issues than conflicts half a world away.
For Lanai, which has about 3,000 residents and only about 30 miles of paved roads, 100 people is a big turnout. But whereas the audience members who greeted Gabbard in Kailua-Kona on Tuesday were effusive in their enthusiasm for their congresswoman, the mood in Lanai during the 90-minute question-and-answer session was respectful and cordial, but subdued.
Lanai has been passing through unsettled times ever since the disappearance of the pineapple industry, its longtime economic engine. In 2012, the island was purchased by Silicon Valley software magnate Larry Ellison, who bought 98 percent of Lanai’s land area in a single transaction. It left the people of Lanai, including about 14 percent who are at least partly Native Hawaiian and many others whose families have lived on the island for generations, under the control of a billionaire from the mainland.
The previous owners had turned Lanai into a tourist destination, with two major resorts. Ellison closed one temporarily for a major renovation, and earlier this year his company announced it would shutter the other for longer than planned before reopening it as a wellness facility. The company found jobs of one kind or another for the displaced workers, but it added to the unease and uncertainty of the people trying to make a living on the island.
That longing for a sense of place, of multiple generations living together in harmony, was palpable on Lanai. Gabbard was greeted soon after she arrived by a chorus of children from the Lanai Performing Arts Center singing “Circle of Life” from the “The Lion King.” They high-fived the congresswoman after their performance.
Some of the issues that have brought Gabbard national attention — notably, the U.S. involvement in Syria — arose in the Lanai discussion as well, but other things seemed to have higher prominence in the minds of her constituents. One questioner raised the issue pointedly, asking why she was giving Syria priority over local issues.
Gabbard said that when the United States spends a lot of money on defense it has less money to spend elsewhere.
“When we are faced with ever-decreasing resources because your tax dollars are being spent, by the billions and billions” on overseas wars, what is happening there has direct consequences for fixing roads and improving schools, Gabbard said.
The residents asked about invasive species, science education for students, the lack of affordable housing, problems with the Department of Veterans Affairs, the lack of federal support for agricultural business development assistance for people who are farming small parcels of land and the need to improve vocational education for local students geared to meeting the epicurean needs of upscale tourists.
As Gabbard prepared to leave, some attendees said they wished there had been more that she could have told them that was directly relevant to their lives.
“I think it was okay,” said Margaret Peary, a substitute teacher who runs a nanny business targeted to affluent visitors. “I’m delighted she took the time to come and visit our small island … we have a congresswoman who actually came to this island.”
Stay Up To Date On The Coronavirus And Other Hawaii Issues
A Kailua girl, Kirstin Downey is a special correspondent for Civil Beat. A longtime reporter for The Washington Post, she is the author of "The Woman Behind the New Deal," "Isabella the Warrior Queen" and an upcoming biography of King Kaumualii of Kauai. She can be reached at email@example.com.