Congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard is not alone. In the past half-century two other Hawaii residents have campaigned to be their party’s presidential nominee.
All three have said they wanted to deliver a message other candidates were not articulating.
Congresswoman Patsy T. Mink was drafted by her Oregon supporters to run in their state’s Democratic presidential primary in 1972 as an anti-Vietnam War candidate.
Honolulu real estate developer and conservative radio station owner David Watumull, heir to the G.J. Watumull real estate fortune, ran in New Hampshire’s Republican presidential primary in 1968.
Four years earlier, a group of Republican delegates had placed the name of Hawaii Sen. Hiram Fong (the first non-Caucasian ever considered) in contention at the 1964 GOP national convention, but Arizona Sen. Barry Goldwater got the nomination that year.
And of course, the person most associated with Hawaii and the presidency is Barack Obama. But he was never a Hawaii politician and had long since quit being an island resident when he first ran in 2008.
Sheila Watumull says her late husband entered the race for the Republican presidential nomination after he found out how easy it was to get on the primary ballot in New Hampshire. No registration fee was required, just signatures from 100 New Hampshire registered voters.
“He was shocked that it took so few signatures. He said, ‘Let’s do it.’” she said.
Three days after they had married at Kawaiahao Church in Honolulu, they left for Manchester, New Hampshire, arriving in a snowstorm in late-February 1968 with three hula dancers brought along from Hawaii to draw attention to the campaign.
“It was cold, snowy, freezing,” Sheila Watumull recalls. “I thought, ‘Oh my God. The dancers were freezing their butts off.'”
David Watumull said in newspaper interviews he never expected to win but was in the race to discuss issues that were being ignored by the leading Republican candidates. He also saw it as a way to promote his radio station, KTRG.
“I don’t pretend to have as much of a chance as Nixon or (George) Romney but I figure if I tell the truth to people I might be able to bring home some points,” he said in a newspaper interview.
Watumull was an ultra-conservative who considered the rest of the GOP field too liberal.
He argued the Joint Chiefs of Staff should be given the power to “bring the Vietnam war to the earliest and most honorable conclusion” and if they couldn’t end the war militarily, for the U.S. to start pulling out.
Watumull also called for maintaining the gold standard to back the U.S. dollar, an end to deficit spending and a return to home rule.
One of nine candidates on the GOP ballot, he got 161 votes while primary winner Richard Nixon took 80,666 votes. Watumull then ended his campaign.
The war, which Sheila Watumull said saddened her husband so deeply “that sometimes he would cry,” lasted another seven years.
Hawaii Congresswoman Patsy T. Mink’s stand on the Vietnam War was more absolute than Watumull’s: End the war now.
In her fourth term in 1972, she was drafted by a group of her supporters to run in the Oregon presidential primary. They were angry that the front-runner, South Dakota Sen. George McGovern, was backsliding in his speeches on the importance of terminating the war and was focusing instead on improving the economy.
Mink was concerned too, calling that “extremely disturbing.” In an interview with the Associated Press on May 14, 1972, she said, “The very fact that the war was not on the front page does not diminish the cruel fact that the war was still going on.”
She said it was never her intention to run for president but she joined the race out of respect for the hard work of the Oregon activists who had rounded up the necessary 4,000-plus signatures to get her on the ballot.
Gwendolyn “Wendy” Mink, Patsy Mink’s daughter, wrote in an email to Civil Beat: “Anti-war and feminist activists in Oregon hungered for an alternative to George McGovern to carry the banner for peace in Vietnam as well as to normalize the candidacies of women for the highest levels of government service.”
Wendy Mink is an independent scholar based in Washington, D.C. At the time of the Oregon primary she was 20 and in her second year at the University of Chicago. She said she signed up for Tuesday-Thursday classes so that she could go to Oregon on weekends and on her spring break to help her mother campaign before the May 23 primary.
She said that her mother thought running against the political heavyweights of the day was energizing: “The chance to work with people of deep conviction and passionate hope; and it was illuminating to discuss policy and principles with people she did not ordinarily encounter.”
Patsy Mink’s Oregon supporters did not expect her to win outright but were hoping to win some delegates to take a strong message to the national convention about ending the war.
The Oregon primary offered more than just a chance to speak out against the war.
Wendy Mink said that to her mother, it was also about “assuring the fair representation of women in party-decision making.” Patsy Mink had been working to change Democratic Party rules to increase the participation of women, minorities and youths in the delegate selection, platform and nominating process, and to nominate a woman as a vice presidential candidate.
Mink got 2%, or 6,322 votes, to McGovern’s 50%, or 199,327 votes.
At first, she said she was disappointed that so few had voted for her, but later she told a reporter, “I have no regrets. It was a very exciting experience and one that does not come too often in one’s life.”
Mink was an active candidate only in Oregon.
This past week, Tulsi Gabbard has campaigned in Iowa and New Hampshire, using her presidential candidacy as an opportunity to stress her own anti-war message.
In an email Sunday night, she said: “I am running for president to end regime change wars, work to end the new cold war and nuclear arms race and reinvest the trillions of dollars wasted on these wars back to the pockets of the American people and needs of our communities.”
Gabbard’s presidential campaign mantra has been to shift the war money to domestic needs such as universal health insurance, rebuilding the nation’s infrastructure, resolving the homelessness crisis, addressing climate change and reducing debt for college students.
She is mentioned in The New York Times as among the underdog candidates “who have grown skilled at presenting their campaigns in altruistic terms, suggesting that finding a platform for a worthy cause is a reward tantamount to winning.”
Gabbard is near the bottom of most polls among the some 20 Democrats in the race and her fundraising compared to the frontrunners has been paltry. In the first quarter of this year, she raised $1.9 million in donations compared to Bernie Saunders’ $18.2 million.
But unlike Mink, who struggled to get national TV coverage in 1972 when three networks controlled most of the airtime, Gabbard has the benefit of today’s 24-hour cable news cycle and glut of media outlets hungry for content.
And Gabbard’s opportunities to promote her platform are about to expand because she has reached the threshold of 65,000 individual donors to allow her to be one of the candidates in the party’s national TV debates this summer.
Gabbard declined to answer what it would take for her to abandon her presidential bid and concentrate instead on running for re-election in the 2nd Congressional District, where state Sen. Kai Kahele is gaining traction as a candidate.
Asked whether she sees her presidential bid boosting her resume, Gabbard said, “I don’t see politics as a career. I never have. So I can’t relate to this question. I see it as an opportunity to be of service. I see public service as a contribution, not a career.”
Career benefit or not, each of Hawaii’s residents who has run for president, even if in only one primary, has come away from the experience with something valuable.
For David Watumull it was the chance to inject his conservative viewpoint, albeit briefly, into the national Republican debate.
For Patsy Mink, it was a rare and exciting life experience.
And for Tulsi Gabbard, who is still in the race, the challenge is certain to produce memories of physical discomfort: “Driving around on icy, snowy roads, being stuck in airports for six to eight hours because all the flights are cancelled,” she wrote in her email.
But she also called it a priceless opportunity to do “important service for our country, for the people which far outweighs any hardships.”
During this unique election season, we appreciate that you and others like you have relied on Civil Beat for accurate, objective coverage of the candidates and their races.
Covering the pandemic has taken a lot of our collective energy. But through it all, our small team of reporters made sure you didn’t forget about electoral politics. Because we know that elections not only test society’s participation in our democracy, but journalism’s commitment to safeguarding it.
If you’ve relied on our election coverage this season, please consider making a tax-deductible gift to support our newsroom.