Politics & Policy

Twenty Things You Probably Didn’t Know About Tulsi Gabbard

Rep. Tulsi Gabbard greets diners during a campaign stop in Portsmouth, N.H., February 17, 2019. (Brian Snyder/Reuters)
If the Hawaiian congresswoman’s life were a novel, it would be called unrealistic.

One: Tulsi Gabbard was born in American Samoa in 1981. (For those wondering about her eligibility to be president, American Samoa is a U.S. territory, and her father was a U.S. citizen, making her a natural-born American citizen from birth under both federal law at the time and current law.) Her father, Mike Gabbard, is of Samoan heritage, and her mother is white, born in Indiana. The congresswoman describes herself as Hindu and is the first member of the Hindu faith elected to Congress but is not, as some erroneously believe, of Indian heritage.

Shortly after being elected to the U.S. House in 2012, she discussed her faith with the New York Times, telling them via email: “I am much more into spirituality than I am religious labels. . . . My attempts to work for the welfare of others and the planet is the core of my spiritual practice. Also, every morning I take time to remember my relationship with God through the practice of yoga meditation and reading verses from the Bhagavad-Gita. From the perspective of the Bhagavad-Gita, the spiritual path as I have described here is known as karma yoga and bhakti yoga.”

Two: Gabbard was largely home-schooled growing up, but she spent two years in the Philippines and attended “informal schools run by followers of Chris Butler,” a yoga teacher who became one of the leaders of the Hare Krishna movement in the 1970s and 1980s. Butler’s connections to the Gabbard family have become a recurring controversy in Hawaiian media. As Honolulu magazine described him:

The Kailua surfer-turned-guru has been linked publicly to the Gabbards for years. The representative’s father and mother signed on early for Butler’s platform of 1960s-style vegetarianism and yoga. They were there as it morphed, collecting spiritual traits and beliefs from the New Age movement, the Hare Krishnas and Hinduism, before Butler reorganized himself as the Science of Identity Foundation — which became a stealth political action force.

Three: A lengthy 2017 New Yorker profile of the congresswoman made Butler’s spiritual community sound like a menacing cult:

Defectors tell stories of children discouraged by Butler from attending secular schools; of followers forbidden to speak publicly about the group; of returning travellers quarantined for days, lest they transmit a contagious disease to Butler; of devotees lying prostrate whenever he entered the room, or adding bits of his nail clippings to their food, or eating spoonfuls of sand that he had walked upon. Some former members portray themselves as survivors of an abusive cult.

Tulsi Gabbard told The New Yorker her experience with the group was nothing of the sort: “I’ve never heard him say anything hateful, or say anything mean about anybody,” she says of Butler. “I can speak to my own personal experience and, frankly, my gratitude to him, for the gift of this wonderful spiritual practice that he has given to me, and to so many people.”

Four: Gabbard’s parents were outspoken activists against what they saw as “gay propaganda.” Her father organized a protest with teenagers outside the Wilmington, N.C., studio of the Dawson’s Creek television show in March 1999. One teen told an AP reporter, “We’re sick and tired of Hollywood trying to force its pro-homosexual values down teenagers’ throats. . . . This show is 100 times worse than Ellen because they’re targeting high-school kids.”

Five: Carol Gabbard, Tulsi’s mother, “served as secretary/treasurer of the Science of Identity Foundation until 2000, before she successfully ran for a seat on the state Board of Education. Both Gabbard and his wife were listed as teachers at the Science of Identity Foundation in Polk’s City Directory in the early 1990s.” The Science of Identity Foundation was founded by Butler, who changed his name to Siddhaswarupananda Paramahamsa and taking the title Jagad Guru, which translates to “spiritual master or teacher of the universe.” The Science of Identity Foundation describes its mission as teaching “the practice of meditation and kirtan — along with the timeless yoga wisdom — to help individuals achieve greater spiritual, mental, and physical well-being.”

Carol Gabbard chose not to run for reelection in 2004, focusing upon her husband’s bid for the U.S. House of Representatives.

Six: In 2002, Tulsi Gabbard dropped out of Leeward Community College, where she was studying television production, to run for the Hawaiian state legislature. While her father was successfully running for Honolulu City Council, she became the youngest person ever elected to the Hawaiian state legislature, at age 21.

Seven: In 2004, Honolulu magazine wrote a lengthy profile about Mike Gabbard and covered his relationship with Butler and his group of believers, and the future congresswoman responded to the magazine vigorously:

When HONOLULU asked Gabbard in an e-mail to clarify his former relationship with Butler’s Krishna group, Gabbard’s daughter, state Rep. Tulsi Gabbard Tamayo, sent us an angry e-mail in response. “I smell a skunk,” Tamayo wrote. “It’s clear to me that you’re acting as a conduit for The Honolulu Weekly and other homosexual extremist supporters of Ed Case.”

Mike Gabbard was running against Democratic incumbent Ed Case that year; Case won with 62 percent. Mike Gabbard was elected to the Hawaiian state senate in 2006 and has served since; he switched from the Republican party to the Democrats in 2007.

Eight: In 1996, Mike Gabbard and the then-15-year-old Tulsi founded the nonprofit People for Environmental and Community Health, later renamed the Healthy Hawaii Coalition, teaching people about “the interconnectedness of our polluted natural environment and our degrading personal health.” The group is partially funded by grants from other nonprofits, but in 2004 it received $25,000 from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the Hawaii State Department of Health.

As part of the organization’s programs to educate children, the group goes into schools and performs a play where “WaterWoman has to repeatedly correct her dirty, careless neighbor Oily Al from his watershed-damaging behaviors.” Congresswoman Gabbard used to dress up as “WaterWoman.”

Charity Navigator said the group’s Form 990 filed with the IRS did not provide sufficient information to evaluate its performance; the group notes “a lack of a rating does not indicate a positive or negative assessment by Charity Navigator.”

Nine: Gabbard and her father founded a second nonprofit, Stand Up for America, after the 9/11 attacks. In 2010, as Tulsi Gabbard was running for the Honolulu city council, her rivals complained the nonprofit had crossed the line into promoting her candidacy. Gabbard said the campaign-style posts on the organization’s web site were “an honest mistake by a volunteer.”

Nonprofit Quarterly offered a wary assessment of the whole organization:

Does Stand Up have a purpose other than promoting Tamayo? [At the time, Gabbard was using her husband’s name.] The organization exists, formally, to promote patriotism and “America’s unity as ‘one nation under God.’” But it hasn’t done anything since a 2007 lecture series it sponsored and a 2005 “Raise a Purple Finger for Freedom” campaign in solidarity with Iraq’s first national democratic elections. It took in less than the required minimum in 2009 to necessitate a full Form 990 filing. It may be virtually nonexistent, but the SUFA website contains a long, effusive paean to Tulsi Tamayo that does a great job in describing her many wonderful qualities, but seems to have little connection to any charitable purpose of the organization. Sorry, but the Tamayo explanation doesn’t ring true. The organization appears to be little more than a vehicle for whatever Gabbard and Tamayo want to say and do, which appears at the moment mostly to be concerned with Tamayo’s political future. And that’s not a convincingly 501(c)(3) purpose.

Ten: In 2004, as a state representative, Tulsi Gabbard protested a bill that would give gay couples the opportunity to receive the same rights and privileges as married couples through civil unions.

Also that year, she disputed a state legislative resolution about anti-gay bullying in schools, arguing that “figures released by her mother contradict a claim in the [Hawaii] House resolution that gay and lesbian students are three times as likely as other students to face harassment.” Gabbard also objected to a proposal to study the issue further, contending “many parents would see the study as an indirect attempt by government to encourage young people to question their sexual orientation.”

Gabbard says she supports gay marriage today and has apologized for her past stances, but some progressives have had nagging doubts about her shift in her views, pointing to a 2015 profile by Oxy magazine, where she told the correspondent that “her personal views haven’t changed, but she doesn’t figure it’s her job to do as the Iraqis did and force her own beliefs on others.”

Eleven: Later in 2004, she joined the National Guard and volunteered for a one-year deployment in Iraq. She initially intended to keep her state legislative seat, but concluded a short time later that “Department of Defense rules will prohibit me from performing my legislative duties while on active duty in Iraq.” She served as a medical operations specialist in a base known as LSA Anaconda and in a field medical unit as a specialist with a 29th Support Battalion medical company. She was awarded the Meritorious Service Medal at the end of that tour and then did a second tour in Kuwait, where she helped train the Kuwait National Guard.

She said her experience in Iraq prompted her to rethink her position on abortion and gay marriage, telling Vogue, “in the Middle East I saw firsthand the extreme negative effects when a government attempts to act as a moral arbiter for its people. It’s not government’s place to interfere, especially in those areas that are most personal — for a woman, her right to choose, or who a person chooses to spend their life with.”

Twelve: In between her deployments, she was hired as a legislative aide by Senator Daniel K. Akaka of Hawaii. In 2009, she completed her bachelor’s degree in business administration at Hawaii Pacific University.

Thirteen: In 2010, she was elected to the Honolulu city council. Her most prominent legislative effort there was a bill to allow city workers to confiscate personal belongings stored on public property with 24 hours’ notice to its owner. The American Civil Liberties Union of Hawaii called the proposal “yet another misguided attack on the homeless” that would “expose the city to expensive and protracted litigation for myriad constitutional violations.” The city council was unmoved, passing it eight to one.

Fourteen: In 2012, she was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives. In a bit of irony considering her city law, her Republican opponent that year, Kawika Crowley, was literally homeless, living in “a minivan that he often parks overnight at a grocery store on Oahu.”

An unusual character, Crowley called the state capitol building “the people’s outhouse,” and during an interview with CNN, he offered to remove his pants.

Fifteen: In 2015, the second-term congresswoman was declared “young, hip and beautiful” by . . . er, National Review. American Enterprise Institute president Arthur Brooks told NR’s correspondents, “I like her thinking a lot,” and that year Gabbard attended AEI’s private annual retreat at Sea Island, Georgia.

Many conservatives swooned when she criticized President Obama’s reluctance to label groups such as ISIS and al-Qaeda “Islamist” during an interview with Fox News’s Neil Cavuto: “You’re not identifying the fact that they are not fueled by a materialistic motivation, it’s actually a theological — this radical Islamic ideology that is allowing them to continue to recruit, that is allowing them to continue to grow in strength and that’s really fueling these horrific terrorist activities around the world.”

Sixteen: At the end of February 2016, Gabbard surprised many Democrats by resigning her position as vice-chair of the Democratic National Committee and endorsing Bernie Sanders. This decision spurred a furious reaction from some Hillary Clinton supporters.

Longtime Clinton staffer Darnell Strom wrote a scathing e-mail to Gabbard:

When we met over dinner a couple of years ago, I was so impressed by your intellect, your passion, and commitment to getting things done on behalf of the American people. For you to endorse a man who has spent almost 40 years in public office with very few accomplishments, doesn’t fall in line with what we previously thought of you. Hillary Clinton will be our party’s nominee and you standing on ceremony to support the sinking Bernie Sanders ship is disrespectful to Hillary Clinton. A woman who has spent the vast majority of her life in public service and working on behalf of women, families, and the underserved. You have called both myself and [powerful Hollywood agent and Democratic donor] Michael Kives before about helping your campaign raise money, we no longer trust your judgement so will not be raising money for your campaign.

Kives later e-mailed Huma Abedin and John Podesta to tell them that they “dropped the hammer” on Gabbard.

Seventeen: After the 2016 election, she traveled to Trump Tower to discuss Syria policy with the president-elect, a meeting reportedly spurred by Steven Bannon’s request. An unnamed source told The Hill’s Jonathan Swan, “[Bannon] loves Tulsi Gabbard. Loves her. Wants to work with her on everything.”

She later wrote of her meeting in The Nation:

I conveyed to the president-elect how the post-9/11 neocon agenda of interventionism and regime change has left US foreign policy absurdly disconnected from our actual security interests. Our actions to overthrow secular dictators in Iraq and Libya, and attempts now to do the same in Syria, have resulted in tremendous loss of life, failed nations, and even worse humanitarian crises while strengthening the very terrorist organizations that have declared war on America.

Eighteen: In 2017, Gabbard signed on to support Senator Sanders’s “College for All” Act, which would eliminate tuition and fees at four-year public colleges and universities for families that make up to $125,000 a year, and would make community college tuition-fee-free for everyone. The proposal garnered a skeptical response from Matt Yglesias at Vox (!), who noted that the plan would require state governments to cover one-third of the costs — a deal-breaker in many states — and would require public colleges and universities to “reduce their reliance on low-paid adjunct faculty” — which would inevitably increase costs.

Nineteen: Gabbard regularly denounces the influence of “neocons” on American foreign policy, a stance not often found among past allies of the American Enterprise Institute. In March 2018, she characterized CIA director–turned–secretary of state Mike Pompeo and current national-security adviser John Bolton as “neocon warhawks.” In November, she appeared to no longer see much common ground with the president’s foreign policy, declaring via Twitter, “Hey @realdonaldtrump: being Saudi Arabia’s [b****] is not ‘America First.’”

Twenty: Almost every media profile of Gabbard acknowledges her appearance in one way or another. In 2013, Vogue’s correspondent described her as “a tanned 32-year-old with mahogany-brown hair that falls just past her shoulders, a fit surfer’s physique, and a smile so warm that it’s no surprise Web sites have offered polls rating her ‘hotness.’”

Former South Carolina representative Trey Gowdy on Gabbard told The New Yorker: “This sounds terrible to say, but it’s also true — you know, she’s cute. So if you’re sitting on that side, and it’s a boring speech, you’re going to notice.”

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