Sherry Alu Campagna doesn’t care that U.S. Rep. Tulsi Gabbard is one of Hawaii’s most popular politicians.

She says the congresswoman is out of touch with her district and needs to do more to address local issues rather than pump up her own profile on the national stage.

If Campagna’s message delivers, she could be the first Native Hawaiian woman elected to Congress.

Sherry Campagna portrait at Coffee Talk. 24 july 2018
Sherry Campagna faces one of the toughest challenges in the 2018 Democratic primary — unseating Hawaii’s most popular politician. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

“A House representative’s primary job is to work amongst, live amongst and activate amongst the people of their district,” Campagna said. “If you have a representative that is doing some work for the district, but is at the same time spending a lot of time in other places you have to wonder: Do they mean to take care of me forever? Or are they on to something bigger and better?”

Campagna, 47, is Gabbard’s main challenger in the Democratic primary for Hawaii’s 2nd Congressional District, which covers rural Oahu and the neighbor islands. She lives on the Leeward Coast and has a family farm in Hilo.

She faces a daunting, uphill challenge.

Gabbard, 37, was elected to represent the 2nd Congressional District in 2012 and since then has become one of the state’s most recognizable politicians. She’s gained a national following, particularly among Bernie Sanders supporters, and has seen her name mentioned as a possible 2020 presidential contender.

Gabbard’s campaign did not respond to Civil Beat’s requests for an interview for this story.

In recent months, the congresswoman pushed legislation that aims to reform federal marijuana laws, improve election security by requiring paper ballots and better monitor the health of veterans exposed to toxic chemicals from open burn pits in Iraq and Afghanistan.

According to the Civil Beat Poll, Gabbard leads Campagna 69 percent to 16 percent with only 15 percent unsure.

“Everyone knows Tulsi’s name whether they are in favor of her, not in favor of her or somewhere in between,” said Neil Abercrombie, who spent nearly 20 years representing Hawaii’s 1st Congressional District before being elected governor in 2010.

The same can’t be said about Campagna or the other candidate running in the Democratic primary, Anthony Tony Austin, a small business owner from Kahaluu, who’s not run a visible campaign.

Federal campaign spending records show Gabbard has raised $1.2 million during this election cycle and has more than $2 million in her campaign coffers.

Campagna has only raised about $27,000. Austin, meanwhile, reported raising $555.

“The odds against such people are astronomical,” Abercrombie said.

That doesn’t mean Gabbard is invincible, he added.

The fact that Gabbard faces a challenge at all is an indication of at least “some disquiet” among certain groups who find Gabbard to be too disconnected from her district. Abercrombie said that’s a fixable problem so long as Gabbard is willing to communicate better on the issues.

“This wouldn’t even be a question if there was not a significant or discernible feeling in the community that she doesn’t communicate as broadly or deeply as she should,” Abercrombie said.

Stressing Local Issues

Campagna is an environmental scientist who founded her own consulting company. She’s done work as a land planner and on environmental permitting and remediation. 

She is a mother of four, two of whom came to her family through foster placements. In recent years she’s advocated for improvements to the state’s foster care system, and was a named plaintiff in a pair of class action lawsuits against the state to seek better pay for foster parents.

One of Campagna’s biggest concerns is that Gabbard is more interested in grooming her image on the national stage than paying attention to issues in her own district.

Campagna points to Gabbard’s June visit to Flint, Michigan, to meet with people there who were reeling from lead contamination in their drinking water.

She said at the same time Gabbard was in Flint, the Hawaii water commission ordered Alexander & Baldwin — one of the state’s largest landowners — to restore stream flows in East Maui that had been part of a decades-long battle over Native Hawaiian water rights.

Campagna said Gabbard didn’t acknowledge the ruling and instead remained focused on Flint.

A similar situation played out in 2016 when Gabbard traveled to the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation in December 2016 to protest against an oil pipeline that threatened the tribe’s water supply.

During an event, Gabbard was called out by a Native Hawaiian activist, who criticized her for not being present in her own district, where indigenous groups were fighting over everything from Maui water rights to the construction of the Thirty Meter Telescope on Mauna Kea.

“Unfortunately, the voters of rural Hawaii are so used to career politicians coming in and using this seat as a jumping off point that they’ve basically forgotten or are unaware of what responsibilities a House representative has,” Campagna said, noting that Gabbard’s predecessors in the House, including current U.S. Sen. Mazie Hirono and former U.S. Rep. Ed Case, tried for higher office.

Anti-War Foreign Policy Wonk

Gabbard was elected to the Hawaii Legislature at the age of 21, served briefly on the Honolulu City Council and, after defeating five other Democrats in an upset primary victory, won election to Congress in 2011.

Her growing national profile has fueled a lot of speculation about her political ambitions.

Congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard speaks during the 2018 Hawaii Democratic Convention held at the Hilton Waikaloa in Kona, Hawaii.
Congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard, speaking during the 2018 Hawaii Democratic Convention in Kona, has raised more than $1.2 million dollars during this election cycle. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

She’s a prolific fundraiser, who’s been able to distance herself from both establishment donors in Hawaii and national organizations with influential political action committees. For instance, in 2017 she announced she would no longer accept PAC money.

Gabbard is also writing a book, something that many believe is an indication that she wants to try for higher office. 

The congresswoman has aligned herself with the progressive wing of the Democratic Party that’s loyal to Sanders. She was once considered a rising star within the party and was even named as the vice chair of the Democratic National Committee.

She quit that post, however, after a series of public spats with party leadership, including over the lack of primary debates. When she resigned, Gabbard announced she was endorsing Sanders for president over former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.

Congress woman Tulsi Gabbard greets veterans gathered for training and press conference at Cannonball field near the camp. 4 dec 2016
Gabbard, seen here greeting veterans and other activists during the Standing Rock protests in North Dakota, has built a significant national following. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

Gabbard has made a name for herself by speaking out about U.S. foreign policy, particularly in opposition to military intervention and what she describes as “counter-productive regime-change wars” in the Middle East.

The congresswoman, however, received a lot of criticism when she revealed she took a secret trip to Syria, where she met with President Bashar al-Assad, a dictator U.S. officials say has used chemical weapons against his own people, including women and children.

Gabbard had questioned whether Assad was behind the chemical attacks. She also voted with the House GOP in 2015 to make it harder for Syrian refugees to enter the country.

She’s also taken a stand against the National Defense Authorization Act, or NDAA, which is a critical piece of legislation for the military and its presence in Hawaii.

This year, for example, she was the only member of the House Armed Services Committee to vote against the legislation. At the same time, she worked in the background as an advocate for beefed up military defenses in Hawaii. 

 In a recent article in The Garden Island newspaper on Kauai, Gabbard said the cost of living and the lack of affordable housing are two of the biggest issues facing the islands.

“That’s what’s driving a lot of the homeless issues, it’s what’s driving so much of the hardship that people here are facing, and the decisions their kids are facing on whether they can even stay here to live,” Gabbard told the Garden Island.

She told the newspaper that using federal money to pump up local infrastructure is one way to help reduce the strain.

Involved In Women’s Issues

Campagna faces an nearly insurmountable political challenge — unseating an incumbent politician whose approval rating in a Civil Beat poll conducted in May was 61 percentThe only other political figure to poll that high was Hawaii-born former president Barack Obama.

Campagna has made headway, however.

In May, she was endorsed by the 13,700-member Hawaii State Teachers Association — the fourth largest union in Hawaii — in large part due to Gabbard’s views on Syria. The union was blunt in its criticism, saying in a press release, “Gabbard hasn’t defended civil rights.”

Sherry Campagna’s long-shot campaign to unseat Rep. Tulsi Gabbard got a shot in the arm in February when she was endorsed by the Hawaii State Teachers Association. Suevon Lee/Civil Beat

Campagna, meanwhile, was lauded for her involvement in the national Women’s March on Washington, in which she was a lead organizer for the state of Hawaii. She’s also a commissioner on the Hawaii State Commission on the Status of Women.

Teresa Shook, the Maui woman who’s credited for launching the nationwide movement against President Donald Trump, is a Campagna supporter.

She said they became close in the lead-up to the Jan. 21, 2017, march on Washington. Campagna, she said, was a terrific organizer who was able to judiciously weigh the many different perspectives that were coming together.

“As you might imagine when a grassroots movement just explodes like this you have a lot of women with a lot of different opinions,” Shook said. “It was chaotic and she was just unflappable.”

Shook’s views of Gabbard were not as glowing. She said Gabbard’s unorthodox style doesn’t sit well with her, especially when it appears she’s not following along with other Democrats.

“As a politician, especially in the current political environment, we need to have people who are responsive to their constituents and who will listen and have an open door policy,” Shook said. “So it concerns me that she’s not more responsive to the people who voted her in.”

John Hart, chairman of the Department of Communication at Hawaii Pacific University, said Campagna is doing a good job of tapping into voter discontent in Hawaii’s 2nd Congressional District.

But the concern — that Gabbard is somehow more interested in making a name for herself on the national stage — doesn’t appear to be resonating with a majority of likely voters.

“Everyone knows Tulsi’s name whether they are in favor of her, not in favor of her or somewhere in between.” — former Hawaii Gov. Neil Abercrombie

“Her constituents appear to be happy with the fact that for a rural Hawaii district in the middle of the Pacific they have a very high profile representative who gets a lot of media coverage,” Hart said. “I think anytime you have one of your officials who gets that level of publicity most people are going to be happy with it.”

Still, he said the fact that Campagna was able to pick up a major endorsement from the HSTA is “a shot across the bow for the people who feel they’re being ignored.”

Gabbard Balks At Debates

If elected, Campagna said she would focus on a number of issues related to island sustainability, including seeking out more funding from the U.S. Department of Agriculture to help local farmers grow more food. As it stands, it’s estimated Hawaii imports 80 to 90 percent of its food.

Campagna said she also wants to get the U.S. Defense Department to audit how much money it provides to the state education system through impact aid.

She said studies have shown that the amount of money the federal government provides is only a fraction of what’s needed to absorb and educate military dependents.

Another concern relates to how much money the U.S. government pays to lease ceded Hawaiian lands. For instance, the military has a 65-year lease for about 23,000 acres of state land on the Big Island that’s used as part of the Army’s Pohakuloa Training Area.

The lease, which was entered into in 1964, expires in 2029 for the total price of $1.

Campagna says she thinks the state could get a better deal on such agreements, and that the extra funds could be used to benefit Native Hawaiians.

“I have to question the sanity of $1 a year,” Campagna said. She dismisses concerns that the military would uproot if the state drove a harder bargain.

“I don’t think it needs to be $1 or $50 bazillion,” she said. “I think there’s some reasonable sum in the middle.”

Campagna, who is part Native Hawaiian, says she want to ensure that the interests of Native Hawaiians are considered in Washington. But she also said she wants to assure others in her district that they will not be forgotten.

One issue that’s grabbed her attention recently is sand mining on Maui, where there’s concern contractors are digging up ancestral burial grounds containing iwi kupuna, or bones.

Campagna says she’s been frustrated by Gabbard’s refusal to debate. Gabbard’s campaign has declined to do so, telling Hawaii News Now that she wouldn’t do one-on-one debates because “she continues to communicate directly with voters across the district.”

She hasn’t accepted a challenge to discuss her record with an opponent since first being elected to Congress in 2012. Some critics have contrasted Gabbard’s stance with her own calls for more Democratic primary debates in the lead-up to the 2016 presidential election.

Hart said that while he would like to see popular incumbents such as Gabbard open themselves up to debates, he doesn’t see the issue causing an electoral stumble.

“You have an extremely likable candidate who’s running with extremely high positives, so she can afford to stay out of the fray,” Hart said. “Her constituents like her. It’s as simple as that.”

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