By Léo Azambuja
As a young girl, Tulsi Gabbard was too shy and would always ask her younger sister to do all the talking.
“I have three older brothers and a younger sister, and by far I was the most introverted of all,” she said at a special event hosted by the Committee on the Status of Women at the Kaua‘i Museum in Lihu‘e March 19.
But things have changed quite a bit for the 32-year-old United States representative, who was recently named by Elle Magazine as one of the 10 most influential women in Washington D.C.
Gabbard was catapulted to national stardom — beyond the political realm — in 2012, after an unlikely come-from-way-behind victory over former Honolulu Mayor Mufi Hannemann in the Democratic primaries. She would advance to face Republican Kawika Crowley in the general elections, and the rest is history.
Her path to Washington started at 21 years old, when she became the youngest woman in the U.S. to be elected to a state House of Representatives. And she did it when everybody, including her close friends, told her she couldn’t do it.
Ten years later, after deploying with the National Guard to Iraq, and being elected to the Honolulu County Council, she decided to run for the U.S. House. When she first announced her candidacy, she was the underdog, and again her own friends told her it was an impossible task.
She was “nice but too young, inexperienced,” and it was just not her time, maybe in 10 or 20 years, she said she was told over and over.
“From 2002 to 2012, I did not waiver in my endeavor because I knew why I was doing what I was doing,” said Gabbard, adding it wasn’t about her, it was about her intents to be a vehicle for the community coming together to effect positive changes.
“Even if I did not win, I would’ve won,” she said. The experience of being able to go through the process of campaigning, meeting like-minded people who take that one step further, who take action when they see a problem was worth it.
Gabbard’s rising popularity may be partly explained by her charisma. She’s always sporting a smile, even away from cameras, wastes no time in cracking jokes — on the record — has learned to be an eloquent speaker and prouds herself for being a misfit in Washington.
However, what she has achieved in terms of public recognition and respect goes way beyond charisma. In the last two years, Gabbard became a role model for women across the board.
Since elected to the U.S. House, she became the Vice Chair of the Democratic National Committee, was the first American Samoan in Congress, the first Hindu member, the first person sworn in with the Bhagavad Gita rather than the bible, and along with U.S. Rep. Tammy Duckworth, one of the first female combat veterans to serve in Congress
Her accomplishments in the military service, her Hindu values, her voice against gender discrimination, her quest to end violence against women, her support of equal rights in the military, her hands-on approach in environmental concerns and a quest to really represent the community, reaching out to her roots, it all has added to help her to click with a wide variety of people.
“Each of those opportunities that I’ve had over the last year-and-a-half are opportunities that I see not to tell a story about Tulsi Gabbard, but to tell a story about the special place that I come from, to tell a story about the aloha spirit and to tell the story of how we can impact change … across the country and across the world.”
People come to Hawai‘i and fall in love with the islands, and many of them may not even realize why.
“They think perhaps it’s the nice beach or the beautiful weather, but it is the people, it is our culture and it is aloha,” Gabbard said.
And is the Hawaiian aloha and Hindu values that have helped her to see an opportunity to educate others rather than attack them when she sees gender discrimination.
Women will only have equal pay when every single person — man or woman, adult or child — stand up and demand action against discrimination.
Like so many challenges we face, she said, they only change when each of us understand we have a stake in this
“You may not be the one going home and getting beat up, but it doesn’t mean you don’t have the responsibility to do something about it,” Gabbard said.