KAILUA-KONA, Hawaii Island — U.S. Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, the maverick who represents Hawaii’s 2nd District, has gotten a lot of criticism from some national Democratic Party leaders, who have recently gone so far as to urge her constituents to vote her out of office.
But Democratic voters in Kailua-Kona apparently have not received the memo that Gabbard is off the team.
On Tuesday night, Gabbard held the first of seven town hall gatherings she has scheduled throughout the islands in the next two weeks, meeting with her constituents in a run-down building without air conditioning that serves as the Kealakehe Intermediate School’s cafeteria and auditorium.
More than 400 people showed up to hear her speak and ask her questions about policy issues in Washington.
Political discourse in the nation has become increasingly raucous and rude, and many members of Congress have encountered hostile constituents during their trips home. But the mood on the Big Island was polite, orderly and affable. Gabbard said some controversial things, but no one jeered or shouted a rebuttal.
She got a standing ovation upon arrival and when she started to speak. The crowd frequently applauded throughout the event.
“He essentially stabbed his supporters in the back.” — Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, referring to President Trump
Gabbard spoke for 10-15 minutes, then took questions. Sherry Bracken of Hawaii Public Radio served as moderator. About 100 people had submitted written questions and about 10 were given the opportunity to ask their questions publicly.
They wanted to know about the chances for salvaging the most valuable parts of the Affordable Care Act, efforts to eradicate mosquito-borne diseases, the prospects for meaningful reform at the Department of Veterans Affairs and efforts to block further encroachment by invasive species.
Gabbard repeated what she has said in media interviews, that she does not believe that the United States should become involved in what she called “regime-change wars.” Many in the audience appeared to agree.
Gabbard said that Trump had ended up doing exactly what he had told his supporters he would not do in Syria by escalating U.S. involvement.
“He essentially stabbed his supporters in the back,” Gabbard said.
One questioner pressed Gabbard about who else might have been responsible for the chemical attack in Syria.
“If Assad didn’t do it, who had the capacity and the motive to do so?” he asked.
Gabbard said she did not know.
Father John A. Schroedel, a priest at St. Juvenaly Orthodox Mission in Kailua-Kona, rose to thank Gabbard for speaking out about Syria, saying he has many colleagues who work in refugee camps in the war-torn country, and they agree with Gabbard’s analysis of the situation there.
“It’s all true,” he said. “I want you to know it’s all true.”
One woman asked Gabbard what she thought of the new regional director for Veterans Affairs.
Gabbard said she hadn’t had a chance to meet her yet but that getting a permanent director was an improvement. Over the past year, she said, the VA has had 12 or 13 temporary directors, “some staying as little as a week,” she said, which has left the agency without stable leadership.
Gabbard called the Republican’s recent, failed health care proposal “a terrible bill,” and said Republicans are considering another measure now to replace Obamacare. As she was leaving Washington on Thursday to return to Hawaii, House Republicans said they were making progress on a replacement bill and might call their colleagues back to Washington to vote it up or down, she said. She said she thought it would be impossible to craft an adequate measure so quickly.
The budget process in Washington has stopped working, she said.
“The government is funded through April 28, and Congress is scheduled to go back on April 24,” she said. “Need I say more?”
Some people thanked her for her willingness to work in Washington at a time when many are dispirited about the political gridlock and acrimony in the nation’s capital. Gabbard said that Trump’s election has caused more people to pay attention to what happens in Washington, which she indicated was part of the reason so many people came to hear her speak.
“The good news is all of you are here and we are in this together,” she said.
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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 firstname.lastname@example.org.