After Hawaii Rep. Tulsi Gabbard challenged both the Republican and Democratic parties’ support of U.S. President Donald Trump bombing Syrian warplanes in retaliation to the government’s apparent chemical attack on its own civilians, leaders of the national Democratic Party told constituents in Gabbard’s district they should not vote for her, according to the Honolulu Star Advertiser. However, Hawaiian students at BYU-Hawaii said they would still support her.
“For native Hawaiians, if they are being told to do things, especially by people who are not native Hawaiian, it would definitely affect them and push them towards the opposite viewpoint,” said Kelia Nesmith, a junior from Maui majoring in Hawaiian Studies.
Gabbard’s most recent disagreement was over President Donald Trump’s executive order of a United States missile strike on April 6 against a Syrian airfield in response to the death of 70 Syrians, including children, caused when a chemical bomb was dropped on their village, according to the Star Advertiser. Gabbard ruffled feathers amongst Democratic Party leadership when she traveled to Syria to meet with President Bashar al-Assad in January 2017 on a sanctioned investigative, fact-finding trip.
Political Science Professor Troy Smith said, “This will have very little influence—the next election is 18 months away, and most people will have forgotten about it by then unless one of two things happen: first, the U.S. goes to war in Syria; second, the Bernie Sanders’ faction wins control of the Democratic Party.”
In an interview with CNN’s Wolf Blitzer, Gabbard drew the ire of former Democratic National Committee Chair and presidential nominee Howard Dean and others when in response to a Blitzer question. She said, “There’s responsibility that goes around. Standing here pointing fingers does not accomplish peace for the Syrian people. It will not bring about an end to this war.”
In response to Gabbard’s interview, Dean tweeted, “This is a disgrace. Gabbard should not be in Congress.” Additionally, the Center for American Progress President Neera Tanden tweeted, “People of Hawaii’s 2nd district - was it not enough for you that your rep met with a murderous dictator? Will this move you?”
Nesmith was not surprised by the requests of Dean and Tanden. “In Hawaii there are reoccurring themes where there is one person who does not agree with what everyone else wants. Therefore, they are put on the spot and asked, ‘Why aren’t you doing what we want you to do?’ which in my opinion is an imperialist viewpoint—imposing your viewpoint onto other people.”
Rainn Hurlbut, a senior from Kahuku majoring in human resources, said, “The comments of these national political leaders don’t really have any effect on my decision to vote for her because I feel like everything they say is just their own opinion. I like to read the facts and develop my own opinion because ultimately my vote should be based on my own thoughts and perception of that person.”
Kali Fermantez, associate professor of Hawaiian Studies, said, “I don’t think it’s fair to say that Hawaiian voters don’t care about what national leaders think, but we might consider how Hawaii is often marginalized in the overall national discourse.”
Gabbard added to her maverick resume when she stepped down from the DNC to join the Bernie Sanders’ presidential campaign in 2016, according to NBC.
Smith said he believes Gabbard may be trying to capitalize on disgruntled members of the Democratic Party. “Because the Democratic Party is very divided; different politicians are trying to find a voice that resonates with Democrats. It appears as if she is trying to be one of those voices. Her comments position her on the Bernie Sanders’ side of the party, and her comments will help her if the Sanders’ supporters win control of the Democratic Party.”
Nesmith said, “There are so many influential leaders in Hawaiian society and Hawaiian history who had the same viewpoints as Tulsi.” Nesmith compared Gabbard to Hawaiian Sovereignty Movement leader Mililani Trask because “both are very strong and firm in what they believe, and they will try their very hardest to get their message out there even if they come across as extreme.”
Nesmith went further back in time noting similarities in the personalities of Gabbard to Hawaii’s last monarch, Queen Liliʻuokalani. “[She] gave up her kingdom even when people were telling her they should fight. The last thing she wanted was war and to see her people killed. I could see how Tulsi might look to her as an example.
“Growing up on Maui surrounded by Hawaiians, it was hard to put yourself into a political party, especially when it’s not our own government that we decided upon,” said Nesmith, referring to the illegal overthrow of the Hawaiian monarchy. “So sometimes I feel Hawaiians don’t even delegate themselves to be in a specific party.”
Gabbard won Hawaii’s 2nd Congressional District, which includes the Kahuku-Laie area, in a landslide victory with 81 percent of the vote in the 2016 elections, defeating challenger Angela Kaaihue, according to the New York Times.
NOTE: This story's online publication was delayed because it was featured in the May 2017 print issue.