WASHINGTON — Hawaii Congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard went on the offensive in the second round of Democratic presidential debates Wednesday in a bid to prolong her candidacy.
Kamala Harris, the U.S. senator from California who is one of the frontrunners in the race to win the party nomination and take on President Donald Trump in 2020.
Gabbard went at Harris with nearly every opportunity in the debate televised on CNN, most notably when she was asked to comment on Harris’s criticisms of former Vice President Joe Biden in June during the first round of presidential debates.
In that previous forum, Harris criticized Biden for working with segregationists in the Senate and his opposition to busing to desegregate public schools.
After the June debate, Gabbard came to Biden’s defense and attacked Harris both online and in television interviews, saying that Harris’s comments were “underhanded” and a “political ploy” meant to garner attention and boost her presidential poll position.
Gabbard continued the assault Wednesday. Instead of repeating her previous criticisms, she turned to Harris’ record as a prosecutor.
“There are too many examples to cite, but she put over 1,500 people in jail for marijuana violations and then laughed about it when she was asked if she ever smoked marijuana,” Gabbard said.
But as attorney general, Harris would not have overseen those prosecutions, which would have been handled by local district attorneys, according to PolitiFact.
One of the people Harris kept in prison, Gabbard said, was Kevin Cooper, a man on death row who many believe is innocent. Gabbard said Harris, who was California’s attorney general at the time, blocked evidence that could be used to free him.
But Harris has since changed her stance, and as a senator has publicly called for new DNA testing in Cooper’s case.
“As the elected attorney general of California I did the work of significantly reforming the criminal justice system of a state of 40 million people,” Harris said Wednesday.
She then pointed toward Gabbard and said she was proud of the work she did as attorney general and the decision she made to put herself in that position to act on criminal justice reform rather than “give fancy speeches” from the floor of a legislative body.
Still, Gabbard persisted.
“The people who suffered under your reign as prosecutor, you owe them an apology,” Gabbard said as Harris shook her head.
It wasn’t the first time Gabbard set her sights on Harris.
Much of the early part of the night was spent debating what the future of health care in America should look like.
When Gabbard was asked to weigh in, she used the opportunity to attack Harris, who recently unveiled a “Medicare-for-all” proposal that would take 10 years to fully implement and would still allow room for private insurers.
Gabbard said Harris worked with Kathleen Sebelius, the former secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services under President Barack Obama, to craft the legislation.
Gabbard said that’s problematic because Sebelius now works for a private health insurer that stands to gain under Harris’ proposal.
“There are far too many people in this country who are sick and unable to get the care that they need because they cannot afford it,” Gabbard said.
“The core of this problem is the fact that big insurance companies and big pharmaceutical companies who’ve been profiting off the backs of sick people have had a seat at the table, writing this legislation.”
Harris quickly corrected Gabbard’s assertion before turning her attention to Biden, the frontrunner who most other candidates spent their time chipping away at in the hopes of cutting into his substantial lead.
“Well, unfortunately, Representative Gabbard got it wrong,” Harris said.
“Kathleen Sebelius did not write my plan, she endorsed it as being one of the plans that is the best to get us to a place where everyone is going to have access to health care in America.”
Gabbard has said she supports Medicare-for-all, but has yet to lay out a specific policy proposal she would pursue as president.
The stakes are as high as they’ve ever been for Gabbard, who’s struggling to break out in a field of nearly two dozen, some of whom are political heavyweights.
To qualify for the next round of debating in September, Gabbard must hit 2% in at least four polls and pull in donations from at least 130,000 while also having 400 unique donors in at least 20 states, per Democratic National Committee rules.
The DNC raised the bar for entry as a means to winnow the large presidential field to a more manageable set of candidates. The cutoff date is Aug. 28.
As of Wednesday, an aggregate of polls from RealClearPolitics shows Gabbard polling around 1% on average.
According to the contribution ticker on her campaign website, Gabbard was still about 20,000 donors short of the 130,000 needed to qualify for the September debate.
In such a crowded field, Gabbard has sought new ways to boost her name recognition.
On July 25, Gabbard’s campaign Tulsi Now Inc. filed a $50 million federal lawsuit against Google accusing the tech company of trying to censor her.
The complaint relied on conservative talking points, some bordering on conspiracy theory, that said the company deliberately blocked Gabbard’s campaign from advertising on its platform as a means to undercut her candidacy and sway the election.
“Google (or someone at Google) didn’t want Americans to hear Tulsi Gabbard’s speech, so it silenced her,” the lawsuit stated.
Google, of course, has rejected the allegations.
The stakes are as high as they’ve ever been for Gabbard, who’s struggling to break out in a field of nearly two dozen.
The Hawaii congresswoman also traveled to Puerto Rico this month to take part in protests that ultimately resulted in the resignation of the territory’s governor, Ricardo Rosello.
She even made a stopover in North Dakota to participate in an event at the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation where she previously stood alongside tribal members and others protesting the construction of an oil pipeline.
Gabbard has not, however, participated in any protests at Mauna Kea — part of her congressional district — involving the Thirty Meter Telescope, drawing criticism from those in her home state.
On Wednesday, Gabbard only had a handful of opportunities to make her mark as she shared a stage with Harris, Biden and other more well-known candidates, such as U.S. Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey.
Still, Gabbard got more speaking time in this debate than she did in the June forum.
Gabbard received two questions about immigration, a topic she doesn’t discuss as often as some of her colleagues.
Unlike other candidates on the stage, Gabbard has not visited the U.S.-Mexico border to witness firsthand how migrants — adults and children — are being housed in overcrowded facilities, sometimes without basic necessities, such as soap and toothpaste.
She’s also been criticized in the past for voting with Republicans to make it harder for Syrian refugees to enter the country.
Gabbard didn’t offer any detailed policy solutions for how to handle illegal border crossings, asylum or the separation of children from their families. She did say that the system is broken and in need of fixing.
“Our hearts break when we see those children at these detention facilities who’ve been separated from their parents, when we see human beings crowded into cages in abhorrent, inhumane conditions,” Gabbard said.
She said the U.S. should stop separating children from their parents and make it easier for people to seek asylum. She also said she supports having a secure border.
Gabbard is a co-sponsor of legislation that would make public colleges and universities free for all Americans. But when asked Wednesday if she supports U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders’ position that college tuition should be free for everyone, including undocumented immigrants, she said she did not.
“I think it’s important for us to fix our legal immigration system and look at the millions of undocumented immigrants in this country who have been suffering as they’ve been living in the shadows,” Gabbard said.
The congresswoman still had the opportunity to plug her main talking point Wednesday, which is to end U.S. involvement in what she calls “wasteful, regime-change wars.”
She also explained her opposition to the Trans Pacific Partnership, a free trade agreement supported by former President Barack Obama that Trump pulled the country out of immediately after he took office.
When asked if she would continue Trump’s tariffs against China, Gabbard responded she would not, saying the president’s approach so far has been “clearly volatile.”
Civil Beat is a small nonprofit newsroom, and we’re committed to a paywall-free website and subscription-free content because we believe in journalism as a public service.
That’s why donations from readers like you are essential to our continued existence.
Help keep our journalism free for all readers by becoming a monthly member of Civil Beat today.