Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, an Iraq veteran running for president, thrills an anti-war crowd in Santa Monica

By Gary Walker

Rep. Tulsi Gabbard of Hawaii (far right) discussed fighting pro-war policies and homelessness during her local visit

Among the crowded field of Democratic presidential hopefuls, Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (D- Honolulu) has yet to find her breakout moment. But on the evening of May 13, the Iraq War veteran was welcomed like a returning heroine as a standing room only crowd cheered, sang and waved “Tulsi for President” signs inside the Santa Monica Public Library’s Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Auditorium.

A four-term congresswoman, Gabbard was visiting the area last Monday as part of a Santa Monica Democratic Club series introducing as many presidential candidates as possible to its members and local residents (Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota is expected to visit on May 28). The Malibu and Pacific Palisades Democratic clubs co-hosted Gabbard at the library.

Gabbard told the crowd that part of the reason she decided to run for president was her experience of the war in Iraq and ultimate disillusion with the idea of armed conflict with a stated goal of regime change.

“Both of my deployments influenced my decision to run for Congress and now for president. I saw how important it is to have people in positions of power who know the human costs of war,” Gabbard said to thunderous applause.

Gabbard pledged to fight for more research on climate change and reiterated her opposition to the Trump administration’s push to open California coastal waters to offshore drilling.

“We’ve seen the devastation of communities and our marine life after oil spills. And we’ve seen bipartisan opposition to offshore drilling in Congress,” she said, citing opposition from not only Democrats but also Republican U.S senators.

But it was Gabbard’s foreign policy positions ─ including stronger collaboration with longtime U.S. allies and “bringing our troops home from Iraq,” which she pledged to do if elected president — that earned her applause from the decidedly anti-war crowd. Audience members cheered whenever Gabbard mentioned the folly of overseas military action to overthrow foreign governments and booed in solidarity whenever she talked about the length of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

But it wasn’t all a campaign rally. Santa Monica Democratic Club President Jon Katz, who co-moderated the event with Malibu Democratic Club President Jan Albrecht, pressed Gabbard on her 2017 visit with Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad, whom international human rights group have accused of using chemical weapons against Syrian citizens.

“We need to have the courage to talk to leaders with whom we disagree, with adversaries and not just with our friends,” responded Gabbard, who in February said “Assad is not the enemy of the United States because Syria does not pose a direct threat to the United States.”

During a brief question and answer period, Poverty Matters Executive Director Susie Shannon gave Gabbard an opportunity to weigh in on one of Los Angeles’ most pressing matters.

“Do you support housing as a basic human right?” asked Shannon, a long-time homeless and affordable housing advocate.

“Of course,” Gabbard answered, noting that she had visited Skid Row on a prior visit to Los Angeles. “The lack of affordable housing is one of the leading causes why people become homeless. Hawaii, my home state, is the No. 1 state in per capita homelessness. In the House [of Representatives] we recently passed a bill adding $1 billion toward homelessness, but we need a lot more resources.”

As a Honolulu City Councilwoman, Gabbard sponsored 2011 legislation that allowed city workers to confiscate personal property stored on city streets, which is often the case for homeless people. The Los Angeles City Council recently settled a lawsuit over a similar ordinance that civil rights lawyers claimed targeted the homeless during encampment cleanups, but the Honolulu ordinance remains in effect. Gabbard denied her bill targeted the homeless, which at least one council colleague said it did.

The Argonaut was unable to speak with Gabbard despite multiple attempts.

As much as the Santa Monica crowd was energized by Gabbard’s presence and policy positions, Gabbard’s overall campaign got off to a rocky start, with her campaign manager and consulting team jumping ship shortly after she announced her candidacy in January.

But a lot can — and will — happen before Democrats choose a nominee to take on Trump in 2020. The first Democratic president debates take place in late June, and with as many as 20 candidates (including Gabbard) poised to qualify, tomorrow’s frontrunner is anybody’s guess.