Tulsi Gabbard: Female, progressive and a serious US presidential candidate

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Congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard (image via votetulsi.com).

Could a young, Hindu female surfer from Hawaii be the Democratic presidential challenger in 2020?

As unlikely as it sounds, the answer is yes, according to an article in the Washington Post. The Post ranked Hawaii Congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard as number five out of 11 potential Democratic woman candidates. (Maine Senator Elizabeth Warren was number one.)

Tulsi Gabbard? She is practically unknown in Australia, in spite of her obvious high ranking in the Democrat hierarchy. I only found out about her as a result of some research on coral degradation of Hawaiian reefs. I stumbled across a YouTube video made by a Kauai environmental activist who had invited Congresswoman Gabbard on a diving trip to see the damage for herself. This is not your normal politician — the video shows Tulsi to be an athletic young woman in a pink ROXY tee shirt, who is completely at home in the water. The autoplay rolled on to another video entitled, 'Extreme Recess: Surfing with Congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard'. It was not only about surfing, but also her political philosophy.

Next up was a Tulsi Gabbard endorsement of Bernie Sanders. She explained how she had become a peace activist after serving in Iraq and Afganistan as a U.S. Army officer. Now I was starting to understand why she is so well regarded by progressive Democrats.

Tulsi Gabbard is 36 years old, half the age of the presidential candidates in the recent election. She was born in Leloaloa, American Samoa. Her father is of Samoan and European ancestry. Her mother is from Decatur, Indiana and is a practicing Hindu. The Gabbard family moved to Hawaii when she was two years of age. Tulsi embraced Hinduism as a teenager and describes herself as a "karma yogi". She credits her parents with instilling the value of "karma yoga" to her and her siblings. Tulsi is married, with no children.

Elected to the Hawaii House of Representatives in 2002 at the age of 21, she backed legislation to promote clean energy and tax credits for solar and wind power and supported moves to save endangered species.

Tulsi enlisted in the Hawaii Army National Guard in 2003 while still in the State Legislature. When her unit was deployed to Iraq for 12 months in 2004, Tulsi asked to be included, although as a state legislator she was exempt. She decided not to run for re-election to resolve the issue. In 2009, She was again sent to the Middle East, this time to Afganistan where she served as a military police platoon leader with the rank of second lieutenant. She continues to serve in the Hawaii National Guard and has reached the rank of major.

In 2011, Tulsi ran for Hawaii's second congressional district seat. She was endorsed by the Sierra Club, Emily's List and Vote.Vets.org. She won the six-way Democratic primary in a major upset, taking 55 per cent of the vote. She went on to win the general election, defeating the Republican candidate, Kawika Crowley, 81 per cent to 19 per cent.

Tulsi is on two Congressional committees, Armed Services and Foreign Affairs. She has been very critical of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), which she feels would benefit multinationals, take away jobs and harm the environment.

She is "pro-choice" on abortion and supports same-sex marriage and LGBT issues. Tulsi has also introduced legislation to take marijuana off the U.S. Federal controlled substances list.

Many establishment Democrats are understandably nervous about this brilliant young upstart with her radical ideas. This came to a head during the 2016 primary campaign. Australian media concentrated on the candidates, but the machinations of the Democratic National Committee (DNC) was big news in the U.S. Tulsi was the vice-chair of the DNC and was furious over the DNC's decision to limit the number of debates, which she felt would favour Hillary over Bernie. She went on the attack, appearing on a number of news outlets.

In an interview with The New York Times, she said:

"It's very dangerous when we have people in positions of leadership who use their power to try to quiet those who disagree with them. When I signed up to be vice-chair of the DNC, no one told me I would be relinquishing my freedom of speech and checking it at the door."

Tulsi resigned as DNC vice-chair in February 2016 so she could endorse Senator Bernie Sanders for the Democratic presidential nomination. She subsequently gave the nominating speech at the 2016 Democratic National Convention to put Bernie's name forward. All to no avail. 

Tulsi next surfaced in the U.S. media in January 2017, when she made news by meeting with President Bashar al-Assad during a trip to Syria

She released this statement on her return:  

My visit to Syria has made it abundantly clear: Our counterproductive regime change war does not serve America’s interest, and it certainly isn’t in the interest of the Syrian people.

As I visited with people from across the country, and heard heartbreaking stories of how this war has devastated their lives, I was asked, "Why is the United States and its allies helping al-Qaeda and other terrorist groups try to take over Syria? Syria did not attack the United States. Al-Qaeda did." I had no answer.

I return to Washington, DC with even greater resolve to end our illegal war to overthrow the Syrian government. I call upon Congress and the new Administration to answer the pleas of the Syrian people immediately and support the Stop Arming Terrorists Act. (Introduced by Gabbard.) We must stop directly and indirectly supporting terrorists—directly by providing weapons, training and logistical support to rebel groups affiliated with al-Qaeda and ISIS; and indirectly through Saudi Arabia, the Gulf States, and Turkey, who, in turn, support these terrorist groups. We must end our war to overthrow the Syrian government and focus our attention on defeating al-Qaeda and ISIS.   

From Iraq to Libya and now in Syria, the U.S. has waged wars of regime change, each resulting in unimaginable suffering, devastating loss of life, and the strengthening of groups like al-Qaeda and ISIS.

Originally, I had no intention of meeting with Assad, but when given the opportunity, I felt it was important to take it. I think we should be ready to meet with anyone if there’s a chance it can help bring about an end to this war, which is causing the Syrian people so much suffering.

The U.S. must stop supporting terrorists who are destroying Syria and her people. The U.S. and other countries fueling this war must stop immediately. We must allow the Syrian people to try to recover from this terrible war.

Not unexpectedly, Tulsi's visit and opinions fueled immediate controversy, not least in the ranks of senior Democrats. However, as a war veteran, Tulsi weathered the storm. Americans hold their veterans place of honor and value their opinions.

In fact, the Washington Post's listing of Tulsi in the top five Democratic women candidates came out after the Syria trip.

Tulsi in 2020? Probably not. But America could well have another president from Hawaii when the present dinosaurs on the Democratic National Committee shuffle off into the sunset.  

Dr Norm Sanders is a former academic, TV journalist, Tasmanian MP and Australian Federal senator. 

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