‘Service above self’: Tulsi Gabbard hosts 2020 campaign event at Big Grove

Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, D-Hawaii, speaks during a campaign event at Big Grove Brewery. Monday, Feb 11, 2019. — Zak Neumann/Little Village

The weather on Monday night highlighted the distance between Iowa City and Hawaii, but Rep. Tulsi Gabbard told the people gathered at Big Grove Brewery and Taproom she could feel “the warmth of the aloha spirit, alive and well in this room tonight.”

Gabbard, who is in her fourth term representing Hawaii’s 2nd Congressional District, officially announced her candidacy for the Democratic nomination for president on Feb. 2. And like the nine other announced candidates in the race, she hasn’t allowed this year’s brutal winter to stop her from campaigning in Iowa.

“On the way here, I thought for sure we might sit around a small table with five people, because we’re in a snowstorm,” Gabbard told the crowd of more than 50 at the beginning of her remarks.

She then began to explain what “the aloha spirit” is, and why it is the basis of her campaign.

“‘Aloha’ for us in Hawaii is a word that means so much more than ‘hello’ and ‘goodbye,’” Gabbard said. “When I greet you with aloha, when we greet each other with aloha, what we’re really saying is ‘I love you,’ ‘I respect you.’”

That spirit can inform American politics, if people are willing to embrace it, Gabbard said.

This love and respect gets beyond and transcends any of the things that people tend to use to divide us. Whether it be the color of skin, who we love, how we worship, how much money we make — the things that people in positions of power often use to tear us apart — when we come together in this spirit of aloha, this is what brings us together, this is what connects us and unites us.

A deliberate strategy of divisiveness has been used by people in power — “people who are part of the professional political class in Washington, self-serving politicians, greedy corporate interests or lobbyists” — to advance their own narrow interests at the expense of everyone else, Gabbard said.

“They are eroding the foundation of our country, the values that we hold dear in our democracy,” she said.

“If you go down the list of challenges that we know exist and that we know need to be fixed, and we ask ourselves why haven’t they been addressed, we can draw that common thread, that line back to the corruption and greed of those who are driving those laws and making those decisions,” Gabbard said.

Gabbard said her approach to being president would be based on the values she learned while serving in the Army National Guard: the “soldiers’ principles of service above self that I will bring to the White House, restoring the honor, the integrity and respect that the presidency deserves and that we deserve.”

“This value and principle of service above self is what is necessary to defeat this corruption of spirit [in American politics],” Gabbard said.

Gabbard joined the Army National Guard in 2003, the year after she made history as the youngest person ever elected to the Hawaii House of Representatives at age 21. She has served in two tours of duty overseas, including a 12-month tour in Iraq in 2004.

Gabbard has credited her National Guard service with changing her views on many issues, such as abortion and LGBTQ rights. When she was elected to the Hawaii legislature in 2002, Gabbard was a strong opponent of abortion rights and outspoken in her opposition to LGBTQ rights.

As Kelefa Sanneh recounted in 2017 New Yorker profile of Gabbard:

[In 2004] Tulsi Gabbard led a protest against a bill that would have legalized civil unions for same-sex couples. That same year, in the Hawaii State House, she delivered a long, fierce speech against a proposed resolution meant to target anti-gay bullying in public schools. She objected to the idea of students being taught that homosexuality is ‘normal and natural,’ and worried that passing the resolution would have the effect of ‘inviting homosexual-advocacy organizations into our schools to promote their agenda to our vulnerable youth.’

It wasn’t surprising that Gabbard would be anti-LGBTQ. Her father, Mike Gabbard, who is currently serving in the Hawaii State Senate, has led two groups opposed to LGBTQ rights.

In 2012, the same year she ran for Congress, Gabbard met with LGBTQ groups in Hawaii to apologize for her previous positions, and explained her views had evolved. With her electoral victory that year, Gabbard made history again, as the first Hindu elected to Congress.

And two weeks before she official announced her candidacy for president, Gabbard published a video apology for her previous anti-LGTBQ statements and actions. According to the Human Rights Campaign, a nonprofit that advocates for the LGBTQ community, Gabbard has had a perfect record of supporting pro-LGBTQ legislation.

Rep. Tulsi Gabbard talks to Iowa Citians during a campaign event at Big Grove Brewery. Monday, Feb 11, 2019. — Zak Neumann/Little Village

In addition to mentioning her support for universal health care in the form of Medicare for All, Gabbard listed several of the top issues she would address as president.

“We have to reform our broken immigration system, we have to take on the big banks on Wall Street that are continuing to gamble with people’s futures — big banks that are bigger today than they ever were before — take on those payday loan sharks, who continue to abuse people who need help the most,” Gabbard said. But she warned that in order to address such issues, it is necessary to address the “one issue that is central to the rest, and that is the issue of the cost of war.”

So long as we continue to spend trillions of dollars on regime-change wars, on this new cold war, on this new nuclear arms race that has been kicked off [with President Trump withdrawing from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty the U.S. concluded with Russia in 1987] and will continue to escalate, so long as we continue spending trillions of your tax dollars on these wars, those are dollars coming out of your pocket that will not be spent on investing in our communities and the needs of our people right here at home.

Gabbard has described herself as a “dove” on regime-change wars, but a “hawk” on terrorism. And while such a position may not appear to be controversial for a Democrat, Gabbard’s foreign policy has divided her from other members of her party.

In 2015, Gabbard use rhetoric commonly used by Republicans, and accused President Obama of being weak on terrorism, because he declined to use the phrase “radical Islam.” The Obama administration, and most terrorism experts, reject the term for being too broad, as well as being insulting to Muslims.

At the same time, Gabbard was pushing for the U.S. to back Syrian dictator Bashir al-Assad in both his campaigns against ISIS and rebels fighting against his regime. Assad has been internationally condemned, and accused of war crimes, for his brutal acts of repression. Gabbard even unfavorably compared Obama to Vladimir Putin, Assad’s most important baker.

In January 2017, without informing fellow Democrats in Congress, Gabbard traveled to Syria to meet with Assad. As Vox explained, “After returning to the US, she went on CNN and parroted the regime’s line that there was ‘no difference’ between the mainstream anti-Assad rebels and ISIS.” In April of that year, after intelligence agencies in the U.S. and other countries concluded Assad had used poison gas against civilians, Gabbard said she was “skeptical” of those assessments.

Two years earlier, Gabbard had visited Egypt, meeting with President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, who came to power following a coup he helped lead in 2013, oversaw the massacre of at least 800 civilians and has jailed thousands on political charges. Gabbard warmly praised Sisi: “President el-Sisi has shown great courage and leadership in taking on this extreme Islamist ideology, while also fighting against ISIS militarily to keep them from gaining a foothold in Egypt.”

Gabbard didn’t mention either Syria or Egypt on Monday night, instead focusing on the general principle of opposing regime-change wars, which she called “counterproductive to our security and peace here at home.”

“As we seek to bend the arc of history away from war and towards peace, have no doubt that it will take every single one of us raising our voice and taking action to stand up against those in positions of power who benefit from keeping us in a state of perpetual war,” Gabbard said at the end of her remarks. “We can do this, because there is nothing more powerful than when we, the people, stand up motivated by love.”

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