“As you know, I grew up in the beautiful state of Hawaii, which is the only state in the nation which has a majority and minority population. So, my upbringing is perhaps a little different than most other folks in the country,” said Representative Tulsi Gabbard (D-Hawaii), speaking at an ethnic media tele-briefing organized by India Currents and Ethnic Media Services, quickly establishing herself as the outlier in an overcrowded field of democratic candidates for president in 2020.
With her well-timed punch at Senator Kamala Harris’ prosecutorial record during the second Detroit debate, Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (D-Hawaii) caught the imagination of the nation, leading her to become the most googled candidate after the debate; landing her on the front page of the New York Times; and being endorsed by conservative Wall Street Journal columnist Peggy Noonan.
Calling into significance her military record, the Times referred to Gabbard as “a singular figure in the 2020 race,” who cannot be boxed “neatly into any one established ideology or school of thought.” And Noonan lavished praise on Gabbard, calling her “an impressive underdog. You get the impression she’s out there on her own. Good for her, she’s got guts.”
Her debate performance helped Gabbard carve her place as the only democratic presidential candidate who cannot be pinned down, who is different, and who is likely to stay in people’s minds for speaking her mind.
Like any good strategist she tailors her narrative to the occasion. To the audience of reporters from minority communities, she talked about the word “aloha” and how it means hello and goodbye, but more than that it means “recognition that we are all connected regardless of our race, religion, ethnicity, orientation, where we come from or all of these things that make up this beautifully unique fabric that is America,” she said.
On the Bill Maher show, Gabbard was careful to be non-committal, refusing to respond to the provocations of the host. When Maher asked her about the Trump-Putin relationship and Putin’s election meddling, Gabbard’s response was a study in generalities: “We have to take seriously the security of our elections because of the vulnerabilities that exist, still, now, that really have the ability to undermine our democracy,” answered Gabbard.
And on the national stage, she was combative. “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, referring to Senator Kamala Harris’s record as an Attorney General in California.
To be clear, the facts on the pot issue are murky. “There’s some context missing in this claim and its framed in a misleading way,” confirmed PolitiFact, a fact checking outfit, adding that the 1,500 number could not be independently verified and that “the attorney general’s office does not prosecute the vast majority of drug cases in the state.” It’s the county district attorneys who do so.
Absolute truth notwithstanding, Harris stumbled when she dismissed the debate throw down, and Gabbard quickly established herself as a credible contender and challenger in a race that’s more about confrontation than conversation.
Gabbard is jostling for position and has probably realized that she needs to challenge the candidate who poses the biggest threat to her campaign. That person happens to be Kamala Harris. While both women are remarkably well-spoken and self-assured, Harris is well-ahead of her in the race for the country’s leadership.
It’s ironic that both Gabbard and Harris are women of color with connections to India, Harris through her Indian American ancestry, and Gabbard through her Hindu affiliations.
Interestingly, when it comes to the Indian American community, Gabbard has a clear edge over Harris, indicating that Harris’ Indian American heritage doesn’t hold as much sway as Gabbard’s Hindu leanings for Indians in America. According to AAPI data from the FEC filings of the first quarter of 2019, 44% of Indian American contributions went to Tulsi Gabbard and a mere 14 percent to Kamala Harris. Further, a clear majority (60 percent) of Gabbard’s AAPI contributions came from Indian Americans, in contrast to 22 percent of the Harris AAPI campaign pie. And, as a sector, more Asian Americans have donated to Tulsi Gabbard than to Kamala Harris.
The Asian wave of support, however, has not offered much name recognition for Gabbard. A Morning Consult poll revealed that 71 percent of the respondents knew of Kamala Harris and viewed her favorably, while more than half had no idea who Tulsi Gabbard was or were not inclined to support her.
By chipping away at the vulnerabilities of another woman of color, Gabbard has captured the headlines of news cycles, making her visible, vocal and viable. In order to see the finish line, though, Tulsi Gabbard must be more than just a Harris challenger.
She is already articulating her positions on trade partnerships and nuclear proliferation treaties. And the canny politician that she is, Gabbard has realized that to be taken seriously she must deal with the elephant in the room: her 2017 visit with Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad. “This is why diplomacy is so important, because the only alternative to diplomacy is war. This is why it’s so critical to have a leader in this country with the courage to meet with adversaries or dictators or potential adversaries with the understanding that by doing so, we can achieve these historic agreements that will reduce the nuclear proliferations,” she remarked during the ethnic media briefing.
In the last few days, the Gabbard campaign has met its grassroots fundraising goals to qualify for the next Democratic debate in September, but the challenge is in meeting the polling threshold of 2% or more in four polls by the August 28 deadline.
Whether she makes it to the debate stage or not, Democratic presidential candidate Tulsi Gabbard has proven she’s a force to be reckoned with.
Jaya Padmanabhan was the editor of India Currents from 2012-16. She is the author of the collection of short stories, Transactions of Belonging.