Tulsi Gabbard’s life flows from Hawaii’s beaches to Washington’s halls of power. Here’s how she stays dialed and balanced.
When Tulsi Gabbard touches down on a runway in Hawaii after days of negotiations in DC and a 13-hour commute, she knows exactly where she’s going. “I’ll stop home and drop off my bags, change and try to run down to the ocean even for just a five- or 10-minute swim,” she says. “You know: wash off the airplane, wash off Washington—wash off everything in the ocean and just get refreshed and recharged straight off the bat.” Gabbard, the U.S. representative for Hawaii’s second congressional district, knows the importance of resetting and reconnecting. Her career takes her far from the idyllic surf and sunshine of her home. It’s even forced her to consider the loss of that paradise.
For a brief moment this past January, Gabbard saw her world come to an end. On a Saturday morning, she received a text alert: a ballistic missile was headed straight for Hawaii. Her Hawaii-based family, friends and constituents were frantically seeking nuclear shelter. The only real home she knew—the beach where she first learned to surf, the house where she was homeschooled as a child—would vanish.
“A lot of different emotions were kind of flowing through me as I saw that alert,” Gabbard says. “If this was real, then literally there were mere minutes before a missile would land on Hawaii, and everyone and everything that I love there would potentially be gone forever. I kicked into gear immediately.”
Gabbard feverishly dialed her contacts, got through to the commander of the National Guard and confirmed that the alert was a false alarm. Twenty-six minutes before state emergency management issued a full-scale correction, Gabbard was posting on social media to quell the panic and reaching out to reporters to amplify the message.
Kicking into gear is what Gabbard does best—though her instinct to protect was first aroused not by threats to land, but to water.
Born in American Samoa, Gabbard moved to Oahu at age two and grew up almost as part of the Hawaiian landscape itself, swimming and surfing alongside her father, Mike Gabbard, who has served in the Hawaii State Senate since 2006. A painfully shy child often fearful of speaking to strangers, she learned to navigate her anxiety by focusing energy on her first loves—clean waters, pristine coasts and oceans teeming with life.
As a teenager, she had the cape to match the work. Co-founding a nonprofit now called the Healthy Hawai‘i Coalition alongside her father, she created The Adventures of WaterWoman and Oily Al—a traveling environmental education show she performed in public schools across the state.
“It was a very eye-opening experience, seeing a light bulb go off in these kids’ eyes as they were watching this skit because you could tell they were actually learning these lessons and connecting what we were talking about to their everyday lives,” she says. “That lit a spark within me of wanting to do more, of wanting to find creative ways and be in a position where I could help impact positive change.”
In 2002, a vacancy in the Hawaii State Legislature inspired a then-21-year-old Gabbard to drop out of community college and run, not fully prepared to meet thousands of voters and give more speeches than she could fathom. A few months later, she was sworn in.
A year later, she answered a higher service calling: the Hawaii Army National Guard. This ultimately meant stepping down from her office. When her combat team was deployed to Iraq, Gabbard wasn’t on the list but volunteered to go anyway. Two tours of duty in the Middle East followed.
“One of my daily tasks was to go through a list, name by name, of every U.S. injury or casualty that occurred the day before in the entire country of Iraq,” she says. “This experience has never left me because I knew that with every one of those names was a loved one at home—family, friends, people who were anxious and concerned for the well-being and safety of their service member.”
Gabbard returned to the U.S. even more motivated to make change. She won a seat on the Honolulu City Council in 2010. Two years later, the Democrat was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives, becoming the first Hindu to serve in Congress, the first American Samoan representative and one of just two female combat veterans in the House of Representatives (Rep. Martha McSally, Republican of Arizona, is the other).
Gabbard is still fighting for the environment, earning a 98 percent lifetime score from the League of Conservation Voters, but she’s also working on something debatably more complicated.
“Some of the biggest challenges that we’re facing here in Washington and really the country is the hyper-partisanship and the deep divisions that we are unfortunately seeing getting worse, not better,” she says. “We’re elected to serve the people of our districts and to serve our country … That means being able to reach out to someone who maybe ideologically holds different positions and finding areas of common ground where you can actually work together.”
It also means building bipartisan relationships both in and outside of session. One way she does that is a little surprising—and very sweaty.
Gabbard grew up practicing Tae Kwon Do, Arnis (Filipino stick fighting), Tai Chi and Brazilian Capoeira. When she arrived in Washington, she joined with Rep. Markwayne Mullin, Republican of Oklahoma and a former MMA cage fighter, in a high-intensity workout group that meets for morning interval training and to “kick each other’s butt.” Building trust in the gym translates to better rapport in the Capitol—a little more “aloha,” as Gabbard would say.
“If people treated each other with aloha and had those conversations, sat across the table and actually talked through the issues in a way that allows for one to disagree without being disagreeable, we could ultimately come to conclusions that deliver results to the people,” she says. “Then we would actually be able to get a lot done.”
“Aloha” means hello and goodbye in Hawaiian, as well as kindness, compassion and grace. They’re qualities best exercised when riding waves of emotion during intense debates. And—just maybe—they’re best nurtured by riding waves in the ocean.
Juggling a breakneck schedule, day-long commutes and seemingly endless hours of policy discussions can be physically and mentally draining. Here are a few ways Gabbard empowers herself to bring her A game on the islands and off.
A lifelong practitioner of yoga, Gabbard chalks her ability to keep cool during heated debates up to years of controlled breathing, bending and being present. “Having a yoga world view definitely influences and helps me to keep that levelheadedness and that focus throughout my work,” she says.
A balanced, strictly vegetarian diet helps Gabbard tackle jet lag that comes with routine five- to six-hour time zone changes. Though she can’t resist a good vegan cupcake, Gabbard eats healthy when in DC and unwinds back home by cooking with her husband*. “We both get in the kitchen and start creating new things together,” she says. “Lately we’ve been on a ramen kick.”
An avid surfer, Gabbard says the waves are just as beneficial to her mental health as they are to her physical health. “To be able to go surfing and stay connected to Mother Earth helps to just keep my perspective on both my purpose in life and my work,” she says.
*Gabbard’s husband, Abraham Williams, is a talented photographer. He photographed her for this article and for our cover!