By COLIN M. STEWART
Tribune-Herald staff writer
Washington D.C. is in need of a serious shakeup, says 30-year-old Tulsi Gabbard.
"It's impossible to be effective if you don't listen to the people back home," said the Democratic candidate for Hawaii's 2nd Congressional District.
She spoke during a Talk Story session in Pahoa on Friday evening as she closed out a week-long visit to the Big Island. The relatively young Gabbard faces a challenging race against the strong name recognition of Mufi Hannemann to fill the seat vacated by Mazie Hirono in her bid for the U.S. Senate.
But while Hannemann is a formidable opponent, Gabbard said Friday she would bring her campaign at him head-on, visiting with as many Hawaii residents as possible and finding out "what I can do to best represent their needs."
A Honolulu City Councilwoman, Gabbard earned a name for herself as the youngest person to ever be elected to the state Legislature. She only served one term, however, because in 2004 she gave up her seat to serve with her Hawaii National Guard Unit in Iraq.
"I couldn't let them go without me," she said.
During her deployment in a medical unit, one of her duties was to scan the daily lists of casualties to identify losses from her home state. It left an indelible mark on her, she told the intimate gathering of about 20 at the Pahoa Village Museum.
"It was sobering," she said. "I had to look for our Hawaii soldiers. ... It opened my eyes to the effects of decisions in Congress."
One result of that experience has been her strong support of the planned Dec. 31 withdrawal of troops from Iraq, and she has called on the president to additionally set a deadline for a withdrawal from Afghanistan.
"We can't afford to be the world's police," she said. "We spend $2.5 billion every week in Afghanistan. Two weeks in Afghanistan would pay for the Honolulu rail project."
Upon her return from Iraq, Gabbard decided that rather than run again for her old state House seat, she would join longtime U.S. Sen. Daniel Akaka's re-election campaign.
"I had to do something more," she explained.
She went on to work as a legislative aide for Akaka until 2009, when she volunteered for a second deployment in Kuwait, where she became one of the first females to be recognized by the Kuwait National Guard for her contributions to a counter-terrorism training program.
In dealing with people from another culture who initially did not respect her because of her gender, Gabbard said she learned to project "a strong voice."
"We need that strong voice, because sometimes the noise from large entities drowns out the people's voice. That's one of the challenges we have," she said.
Friday's event was informal, with attendees sitting in a circle, and often Gabbard asked for input from the attendees on the issues that face the Big Island, rather than taking center stage.
One young woman expressed her displeasure with the seeming disconnect between how schools operate here in Hawaii and the bureaucracy that controls them.
"We wanted a garden program," she said. "But there was so much we had to go through ... for something so simple," she said.
"That's a perfect example," Gabbard said. "We have teachers who want to teach, but they have layers and layers of bureaucracy."
Steve Hirakami, the principal of Hawaii Academy of Arts and Sciences, asked Gabbard to promise to address the "impossible" standards set by the No Child Left Behind Act.
"States are being allowed to apply for waivers from the standards. ... When you get to Washington, promise that instead of reauthorizing the No Child Left Behind Act, give us realistic standards to meet. Having a waiver, that's not really dealing with the problem."
On the issue of energy costs, Gabbard said she would continue to support alternative energy sources. In fact, she said to a round of laughter from the group, "I look forward to the day that we don't refer to it as the alternative."
Gabbard admitted that job creation is an especially tough nut to crack on the Big Island, but she said she would listen to area business owners and try to offer incentives to small businesses.
"Today, I walked up and down Keawe Street talking to business owners," she said. "I was surprised by how many businesses I stopped in, both the owner and the spouse were working. They couldn't afford to hire anybody. ... From the federal level, we need to look at incentives and ways we can connect schools with businesses and find new skill sets. We need to bring professionals into communities."
As Gabbard continues her campaign, she said she is encouraged by the Occupy Wall Street movement that has swept across the nation and the world.
"They've been criticized for lacking a clear goal or message, but I think it's based on a feeling that Congress have forgotten who they're serving," she said. "People need to be more aware, there needs to be change. Just the diversity of people that you see there -- professionals, students -- it's very telling of the general dissatisfaction with government.
"I feel very strongly about making it a point to keep my feet planted on the ground," she added. "I'm applying for a job from all the people in this district, and I'm up for review every two years."
For more on Gabbard and her campaign, visit http://votetulsi.com.
Email Colin M. Stewart at email@example.com.