U.S. Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, D-Hawaii, formally launched her 2020 presidential campaign in Waikiki on Saturday.

Stressing “service over self,” Gabbard said it was a guiding principle understood by the nation’s founders. At its core is a nation that values the individual over the powerful regardless of background and status.

“But today that vision seems like a far off dream, where hatred and divisiveness have cast a dark shadow across our country,” she said. “We are being torn apart by powerful self-serving politicians and greedy corporations, people fomenting hatred, bigotry and fear, inciting conflict between us because of the color of our skin, the way that we worship, or the political party we might belong to.”

She continued: “This corruption of spirit is driven by greed and selfishness, and it is eroding the very fabric of our society and democracy itself. This is not who we are, America.”

Congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard announces her run for president.
Congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard officially kicked off her presidential campaign Saturday in Waikiki. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

Gabbard, 37, said the best in the nation is exemplified by military veterans who know what it means to put service above self, a phrase she repeated multiple times. A veteran herself, she promised to restore “dignity, honor and respect” to the presidency, and accused Donald Trump of spawning a “cesspool of corruption.”

Quoting as inspiration John F. Kennedy’s oft-cited statement “ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country,” Gabbard implied that she was doing just that by formally announcing her campaign for the presidency.

“We must heed this call to action today in a time in our history where it is so badly needed,” she said. “We must stand up. We must fight for the soul of our country.”

‘New Cold War’

Gabbard’s campaign aims to cast her as a warrior for peace, a veteran who has seen war up close and understands its terrible price. She warned that the world today is in a “new cold war” inching closer to a nuclear catastrophe.

Pointing to what she sees as Trump’s belligerent stance toward Iran and Venezuela, Gabbard said the president dishonors the sacrifices made by her fellow men and women in uniform by clamoring for “regime change wars.” The vast amounts of money spent on such wars could be far better spent on “urgent needs” here at home, she argued.

“The president’s most important responsibility is to serve as commander in chief,” said Gabbard. “I will do so as a soldier who understands the seriousness of this responsibility.”

Congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard announces her run for president with supporters holding signs at the Hilton Hawaiian Village.
Several hundred supporters gathered at the Hilton Hawaiian Village’s Great Lawn for the kickoff. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

To a lesser extent, Gabbard talked about domestic issues.

She pledged to work for “Medicare for all,” a clean and healthy environment and preservation of civil liberties at risk by “big tech.” She said she would stand up to “big Wall Street banks,” and reform a criminal justice system that is harsher on people who smoke marijuana than “Big Pharma” that has caused an opioid crisis.

Gabbard concluded her speech recalling the visits of Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr. to Hawaii. Both, she noted, recognized the islands as a special place, a diverse place, one where the spirit of aloha is ever present and powerful.

“This change that we need to see must begin in the White House, because the White House should be a beacon of aloha,” she said. “Respect, love and compassion for every American. Our nation was founded on the values and principles of putting service before self.”

The mood at the campaign rally of several hundred people on the Hilton Hawaiian Village Great Lawn was mellow, a stark contrast with Gabbard’s largely harsh portrayal in national and local media. Her campaign continues to be dogged by intense scrutiny largely absent in other presidential campaigns so far.

Congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard announces her run for president, embracing her dad Mike Gabbard and mom.
Gabbard’s mother Carol and father Mike joined her at the kick-off rally. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

Gabbard made no mention of negative news that has dominated her campaign since she informally announced nearly a month ago. Reporters this past week asking for one-on-one interviews with Gabbard were directed to a website asking them to fill out a request form.

“Please add interview request details to my list at this link — http://tulsi.to/press — and we’ll circle back after the launch,” campaign spokeswoman Erika Tsuji told this reporter via an email Wednesday.

At Saturday’s rally, Gabbard did not approach the scrum of cameras and microphones in the back, including the local TV stations, Fox and CNN. Several reporters braved the crowd of supporters clamoring around Gabbard after her speech, but entertainment music was loud and it was difficult to ask her much.

When pressed by some reporters about how her campaign was going and what she thinks of her competition, Gabbard replied that she was focused on her campaign and repeated her call for unity and aloha.

Gabbard is scheduled to campaign in Chicago and Iowa next weekend.

Inspiration For Local Girls

Among the Gabbard supporters in the audience Saturday was Mike Yoshida. Born and raised in Japan and now living in the Diamond Head area, he said he was an immigrant. He also said he leaned more right than left in politics.

“She’s like me, she doesn’t just go with the flow,” said Yoshida. “She is for liberty and justice for Americans.”

He thinks Gabbard is better than most of the other Democrats in the field, and he noted that the greatest presidents — Ronald Reagan and Abraham Lincoln, in his view — were Republicans.

“We must heed this call to action today in a time in our history when it is so badly needed.” — U.S. Rep. Tulsi Gabbard

“She has a great chance,” said Yoshida.

Also attending the rally was Honolulu City Council member Kymberly Pine, who previously has been elected as a Republican, and Democrat Matt LoPresti, a former state representative. Both said Gabbard’s campaign is an inspiration to their young daughters — in Pine’s case, a 3-year-old, and in LoPresti’s, girls ages 5 and 9.

Kealii Lopez, chair of the Democratic Party of Hawaii, showed up to express support for the fact that someone from her party in Hawaii is running for office.

“Hawaii has a lot to offer,” she said. “Our job, no matter which candidate, is to get Trump out of office.”

On The Defensive

Gabbard was first elected to Congress in 2012. She has served on the Homeland Security and Foreign Affairs Committees in Congress, and is currently a member of the House Armed Services and Financial Services Committees. Gabbard also serves in the Army National Guard and has twice been deployed to the Middle East.

In 2016, she made headlines by stepping down as vice chair of the Democratic National Committee and endorsing U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders, an independent from Vermont, over former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in the presidential primaries.

Gabbard first announced her own presidential candidacy on CNN on Jan 11. Within days, she found herself on the defensive for past positions she held on gays and lesbians.

The congresswoman released a 4-minute apology, stating, “In my past, I said and believed things that were wrong, and worse, they were very hurtful to people in the LGBTQ community and their loved ones.”

As more negative press coverage followed, including about Gabbard’s visit to meet with the leader of Syria and her accusation that two U.S. senators had engaged in anti-Catholic bigotry, Gabbard’s campaign released a short video Jan 24. Titled “For the Country We Love,” it promotes a message of peace and aloha while prominently featuring her in military uniform.

“It is with a heart full of aloha that I ask you to join me in building a movement for peace at home and abroad that will fulfill the promise of America for freedom, justice, equality and opportunity for all,” Gabbard said in a press release announcing the video.

Still, more bad press surfaced leading up to Saturday’s launch.

Politico reported earlier this week that Gabbard’s campaign was in “disarray,” noting that her campaign manager and a consulting firm were expected to depart after the official kickoff. But the campaign downplayed the departures.

In the meantime, other Democrats with higher profiles entered the race, including U.S. Sen. Kamala Harris of California. Harris along with U.S. Sen. Mazie Hirono, Democrat of Hawaii, were the targets of Gabbard’s anti-Catholic criticism. And Hawaii state Sen. Kai Kahele announced that he would run in the 2020 Democratic primary for Gabbard’s 2nd Congressional District seat.

Crowded Field

Gabbard’s campaign kick-off comes as the Democratic presidential field is poised to become the largest in history. As of Thursday, there were nine candidates in the race with almost 20 more waiting in the wings. They include Sanders and former Vice President Joe Biden.

Gabbard’s name is thus far not on anyone’s list of top contenders. Politico Magazine, for example, praised Harris and U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Massachusetts, for their campaign chops this week while Gabbard’s campaign was deemed “a dumpster fire.”

Tulsi Gabbard merchandise, such as this yard sign, are now available for purchase via her presidential campaign. 

And, while Gabbard has about $2 million in campaign cash from her House races, which she can use in her presidential campaign, Warren, Sanders and U.S. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-New York, each have about five times that amount of campaign cash on hand.

Harris leads in other ways, too. Since the 2018 midterms, she has taken the most campaign trips to early 2020 voting states like Iowa and New Hampshire. Beto O’Rourke, the former Texas congressman who is mulling a run, has made the most trips of undeclared Democrats.

And Gabbard’s campaign continues to receive intense, mostly unflattering media coverage.

On the same day as the “Tulsi 2020” rally and kickoff, for example, NBC News reported, “The Russian propaganda machine that tried to influence the 2016 U.S. election is now promoting the presidential aspirations of a controversial Hawaii Democrat who earlier this month declared her intention to run for president in 2020.”

Gabbard spokeswoman Tsuji told NBC News it was “ridiculous” to suggest Russia supports Gabbard, adding that the congresswoman public denounced Russia’s meddling in the 2016 presidential election.

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