For as long as I have known Tulsi Gabbard, I now understand I have never known her and probably never will.
So much of what she does seems to make sense only to her.
After she announced Thursday she will not run for another term for Hawaii’s Second Congressional District seat, it was difficult to fathom her eagerness to remain in the Democratic Presidential primary race where, bar a miracle, it is obvious she will never win.
Tulsi Gabbard’s decision not to run for Congress and instead push forward on her long-shot presidential campaign is just the latest of her unconventional decisions.
She is a minor figure in the primary debates and appears unlikely to qualify for the next debate in Georgia on November 20.
Political scientist Neal Milner says the problem with trying to figure out what’s motivating Tulsi is you can’t use the same conventional tools employed to understand mainstream Democrats like Rep. Ed Case or Sen. Mazie Hirono.
Those don’t work with U.S. Rep. Gabbard. Her past and current life is too different, unmatched by anyone else’s life in Congress, a fact she routinely touts.
Gabbard is the first practicing Hindu and first Samoan American to serve in Congress; she’s a soldier who has served two tours in combat zones.
Her exotic childhood was influenced by her family’s ties to Chris Butler, a Kailua surfer who broke off from the Hare Krishna movement in Hawaii in the early 1970s to create his own controversial Hindu sect called the Science of Identity Foundation.
Tulsi is silent about her own and her family’s association with Butler’s Krishna organization, but friendships and business relationships from those days continue to flourish in her inner circle.
People with connections to Butler are among the advisors and campaign employees helping guide her decisions today.
I first started covering Tulsi in 2002 when I was a reporter for KITV News and she was a state representative— as age 21, the youngest legislator ever elected in Hawaii’s history.
She was bright and eagerly moving forward on a conventional political track. She would continue to remain on course as a loyal Democrat for almost a decade. First, she served a two-year term in the state House representing Waipahu and Ewa.
Then, caught up in the post 9/11 national push to defeat terrorists, she enlisted in the military.
Gabbard was sworn in as a reservist in the Hawaii Army National Guard in the state House chamber on April 20, 2003.
At the time, her swearing in on the floor of the chamber seemed theatrical, a possible ploy for political gain but she turned out to be a sincere soldier.
One evening, KITV cameraman Bert Yoshishige and I went out to interview Gabbard in her tiny studio apartment in Waipahu. She had just returned from Army training where she was elected the top soldier by the other soldiers in her unit, an honor not easy to win.
Tulsi Gabbard touts her military career when explaining why she’s qualified to be president.
Cory Lum/Civil Beat
In 2005, she was deployed to Iraq with the 29th Brigade Combat Team where she served as a specialist in Anaconda Logistical Support Area, 50 miles north of Baghdad.
After her first tour, she moved to Washington, D.C. to work as an aide to Sen. Daniel Akaka.
In 2007, she enrolled in the Accelerated Officer Training program at Alabama Military Academy, becoming the first woman distinguished honor graduate in the Academy’s 50-year history.
Her second tour was in 2008-2009 in Kuwait where she served as an Army military police officer.
After her second deployment, she won election to the Honolulu City Council in 2010 serving Council District 6, which covered downtown Honolulu and portions of Punchbowl, Makiki, and Nuuanu.
Following two years on the council, she enjoyed star status when she faced down Mufi Hannemann and other more experienced politicians to win election to the Second Congressional District seat.
“She was very astute, media savvy and smart. Better than anyone in expressing herself on the issues,” said Milner.
Gabbard arrived in Washington as a dutiful new representative, quickly winning the support of party leader Nancy Pelosi, who singled her out as a rising star.
But Gabbard’s fall from grace with the Democrats began to escalate after she started attacking President Barack Obama for refusing to use the term “radical Islam” to describe organizers of 9/11 and other violent attacks — words Obama worried would paint all Muslims with too broad a brush.
“She must have had an epiphany then that all politics was theatre and that the best way to make an impact was by playing the reality television game,” University of Hawaii political science professor Colin Moore said.
“If you want to stay in Congress for a long time, it’s not sensible for a junior legislator to pick a fight with the president. Her actions just got stranger and stranger.”
Many criticized her 2017 trip to visit Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad, who was waging a murderous civil war using chemical weapons on his own citizens.
She has made multiple appearances on Fox recently, a favorite guest of conservative commentator Tucker Carlson.
On his show, she slammed Hillary Clinton as a “warmonger” and “the queen of corruption” after Clinton called Gabbard “the favorite of the Russians,” whom she said were supporting Gabbard’s bid to win the Democratic primary. Trump quickly jumped to Gabbard’s defense.
An Uncertain Path
It is difficult to see where all this is going.
Maybe Gabbard is aiming for a position in Trump’s cabinet if he wins a second term.
Or she could be angling for a job as a commentator on Fox where she could be the conservatives’ liberal.
But that speculation is too predictable, like looking at the unfathomable Tulsi Gabbard of today through a normal political lens, which Milner says is pointless.
It is difficult to go back in time. But I can’t help but yearn for the simpler, more straightforward days when Gabbard was an enlisted soldier living in a tiny apartment in Waipahu, proudly showing off the commendation singling her out as the best soldier in her training unit.
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Denby Fawcett is a longtime Hawaii television and newspaper journalist, who grew up in Honolulu. Her book, Secrets of Diamond Head: A History and Trail Guide is available on Amazon. Opinions are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Civil Beat's views.