U.S. Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, the first female combat veteran to run for president, is a product of America’s modern wars in the Middle East. But should her long-shot bid for the White House succeed, those wars are the kinds of conflicts that she insists should no longer be waged to change regimes.
The politician-turned-Army-major has cited her service in Iraq repeatedly as she campaigns on an anti-interventionist foreign policy in the crowded Democratic primary, and she has used it to claim a mantle of expertise on “issues of war and peace.”
Gabbard, at one point widely praised as a rising star in the party, has also courted her own share of controversy in gaining national attention. During the 2016 campaign, she bucked the Democratic National Committee by resigning a vice-chairmanship to support U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders’ campaign. Three years later, she is running against him and more than 20 others to become commander in chief herself.
But the iconoclastic politician, according to an early Vogue profile, was a shy girl when she was growing up, hardly the firebrand she’d become known as on the national stage. Her father, Mike, who has been a state senator since 2006, was strongly anti-gay in the 1990s, according to Honolulu Magazine, and Gabbard helped him knock on doors campaigning against gay marriage growing up (though she has since reversed course on that position).
Gabbard’s upbringing was also deeply influenced by her family’s connections to a controversial spiritual guru named Chris Butler, who created a splinter group of the Hare Krishna movement called the Science of Identify Foundation. According to the New Yorker, the Gabbards joined his circle after they moved to Hawaii in 1983, and she grew up around fellow disciples, some of whom remain close in her political circle. Gabbard, who was home-schooled, also spent two years in the Philippines at schools that were tied to Butler’s circle, according to the magazine.
Butler’s group has faced allegations from former members of verbally abusive and controlling behavior, though Gabbard told the New Yorker in 2017 that she had never “heard him say anything hateful, or say anything mean about anybody.” (Earlier this year, Gabbard — who identifies as Hindu — declined to specifically answer any questions about Butler when asked by New York Magazine.)
After college, in 2002, Gabbard ran for election to the state House of Representatives at the age of 21 and won. During her stint in the legislature, her record still reflected her early pro-life, anti-LGBT stances from childhood. She signed up for the Hawaii Army National Guard, spurred by the U.S. invasion of Iraq.
Gabbard intended to seek a second term, but when her brigade was deployed, she volunteered to join them, according to the New Yorker. Gabbard eventually spent two tours in Iraq and Kuwait, including working as a medical-operations specialist in the Sunni Triangle.
When she returned, Gabbard briefly served on the Honolulu City Council. But her political ambitions ran deeper, and when now-U.S. Sen Maize Hirono vacated her seat in the U.S. House, Gabbard ran a grassroots campaign against a half-dozen other candidates and won the seat.
By the time she ran for Congress, Gabbard’s social issues positions had changed, and she cited her military service as a key factor that changed her mind on abortion and gay marriage. As a member of the House, she quickly grew a reputation for progressive stances and her advocacy for ending foreign wars, pushing a bill that would stop the government from funding militants associated with or tied to terror groups.
A vocal critic of former President Barack Obama’s foreign policy, Gabbard in early 2017 also traveled to Syria to meet with its president, Bashar al-Assad, despite controversies over his human rights abuses. Her anti-interventionist stance has endeared her to some on the right.
In the last presidential election, Gabbard also drew headlines for supporting Sanders’ campaign, even resigning a plum DNC vice-chairmanship to throw her support behind Sanders instead of Hillary Clinton. But the 2020 election pits her, once a top surrogate, directly against him in a bid for the presidency, though he now is a top contender.
Gabbard, as one of a few current House members seeking election to the presidency, also has a choice to make about how long she wants to remain in the race if she struggles to build name recognition and more support. A state senator from Hawaii has already declared his intention to run for the seat and focus less on national politics in favor of local issues.
In January, she told CNN that she had not definitively decided against running to keep her House seat. “We’ll cross that bridge when we get there,” she told CNN at the time.
About Tulsi Gabbard
▪ Current or most recent position: U.S. Representative from Hawaii, 6.5 years
▪ Other elected offices: Honolulu City Council, 1.5 years; Hawaii state representative, 2 years
▪ Occupation: major in the Hawaii Army National Guard
▪ Education: Hawaii Pacific University, bachelor’s degree in business administration
▪ Age: 38
▪ Residence: Honolulu
▪ Family: Husband Abraham
▪ Campaign website: https://www.tulsi2020.com/
▪ Small donors: $1,067,196 from small donors, 54.7% of all individual contributions (1/11/19 to 3/31/2019)
▪ Big donors: Has said she will take no PAC money in her presidential campaign. She has transferred $2.5 million from her congressional campaign committee to her presidential committee.
▪ Fun fact: Gabbard was the youngest person elected to the state legislature when she became a member of the state House of Representatives at the age of 21.
Sources of biographical information: Tulsi Gabbard campaign site, CNN, New Yorker, New York Times, New York Magazine, Honolulu Civil Beat