The Hawaii State Teachers Association on Tuesday endorsed U.S. Rep. Tulsi Gabbard challenger Sherry Alu Campagna in the 2018 Democratic primary race, a turnaround from two years ago in which the teachers’ union backed the incumbent Hawaii congresswoman.

In a news conference, HSTA President Corey Rosenlee said Gabbard “has not defended human and civil rights during her time in Congress,” criticizing her failure to condemn Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad for chemical attacks on his people and her visit with al-Assad.

“HSTA strongly believes in high quality schools for all children as well as human and civil rights,” Rosenlee said. “We believe that Sherry Campagna will fight for the equality for all people.”

Sherry Campagna appears with HSTA members at a May 22 press conference announcing the union’s endorsement of her challenge to U.S. Rep. Tulsi Gabbard in Hawaii’s 2nd District Congressional race.

Suevon Lee/Civil Beat

Rosenlee said the HSTA’s endorsement of Campagna — an environmental scientist and small business owner from Kaneohe who is a first-time political candidate — was “not just an anti-Tulsi vote.” He noted Campagna’s support for a constitutional amendment to tax residential investment property to fund public education, lowering class sizes and increasing teacher pay.

“But I think that after seeing (Gabbard’s) continued lack of fighting for human and civil rights, that this was — for our members across the state — enough was enough,” he said.

In fact, Rosenlee said the HSTA had no significant issue with Gabbard’s stance on education issues. “When you only look at her education vote, she’s fine,” he told Civil Beat after the press conference.

The HSTA is the fourth-largest union in the state. It recently endorsed Gov. David Ige in his re-election bid in the Democratic primary against U.S. Rep. Colleen Hanabusa and Josh Green, a Democrat candidate for lieutenant governor.

Campagna, a commissioner on the Hawaii State Commission on the Status of Women and the Hawaii state chair for the 2017 Women’s March, said at the news conference she “never wanted to be a politician.”

“And I clearly am not a politician,” she said. “I have always had a place in my heart for advocacy and activism, and I enjoy the freedom that came with that.”

But the Honolulu-born mother of four, a military dependent and graduate of an Atlanta, Georgia, public high school, said she felt now was the time to step forward.

Calling the HSTA endorsement of her campaign “groundbreaking,” Campagna said she wants to address issues facing Hawaii’s 2nd Congressional District — an area covering primarily rural Oahu and the rest of the state — which she said has the “worst access to choices in education, healthcare and jobs.”

“To be the dark horse, the challenger, the outsider that literally rose from the grass and to be acknowledged for the work (by) HSTA, is truly profound.”

Harsh Criticism For Gabbard

According to a union email sent to teachers Monday, the HSTA decided to endorse Campagna for Hawaii’s 2nd Congressional District seat over Gabbard in part because the challenger has vowed to fight for more money for public education.

“She believes that a reliable funding stream for public education must be a top priority, and Hawaii should tax out-of-state residents who own investment properties here,” the HSTA email stated. “She also believes in lowering class sizes and increasing teacher pay.”

The state teachers union Monday endorsed the long-shot candidacy of Sherry Campagna over incumbent U.S. Rep. Tulsi Gabbard for Hawaii’s 2nd Congressional District.

Chad Blair/Civil Beat

But the HSTA email also levied harsh criticism at Gabbard for her trip to Syria to meet with its al-Assad, and her failure to condemn Al-Assad for his “genocidal chemical attack on his own people.” The union cited her stance on Syria as an example of how Gabbard has “has not defended human and civil rights during her time in Congress.”

According to the email:

“She was one of just three representatives, and the only Democrat who refused to condemn Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad’s genocidal chemical attack on his own people. After the attack, Gabbard traveled to Syria to meet with the genocidal dictator al-Assad without permission from the White House or Congress. Her trip was funded by a group with ties to al-Assad supporters and she only covered the expenses herself after the news media reported who paid for her trip.

“Then, after al-Assad bombed his people again, Gabbard continued to refuse to admit the attack had occurred. At the same time, she voted to practically ban Syrian refugees from coming into the United States after the Paris terrorist attacks, even though Syrian refugees were not involved in the attacks.”

Gabbard eventually reimbursed the funds for the trip, saying the whole scenario had become a “distraction from the important issue at hand.

In their endorsement of her challenger, the HSTA criticized U.S. Rep. Tulsi Gabbard for her stance on on Syria.

Anthony Quintano/Civil Beat

In contrast, the HSTA said Campagna is a “strong advocate for equality,” although the union didn’t provide any specific details beyond her association with the 2017 Women’s March or her position with the Hawaii State Commission on the Status of Women.

Gabbard has been a somewhat controversial figure in the Democratic party. She quit her post as the Democratic National Committee vice chair so she could endorse Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders for president in 2016 over former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and has been a critic of the party’s leadership.

But she remains one of Hawaii’s most popular politicians and has a significant national profile. So far in the 2018 election cycle, FEC data shows Gabbard has raised more than $1 million.

Campagna, on the other hand, is a relative unknown. Her campaign website describes her as part-Hawaiian, and an environmental scientist and small business owner from Kaneohe.

She doesn’t have a lot of name recognition or money in the bank. But the endorsement from the HSTA, which has 13,700 members, likely lends her long-shot campaign new energy.

Gabbard’s campaign spokeswoman Erika Tsuji did not immediately respond to Civil Beat’s request for comment Monday.

Listen to Civil Beat’s Pod Squad interview with Sherry Campagna on why she is challenging incumbent Rep. Tulsi Gabbard.

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