Congresswoman-elect Tulsi Gabbard, Democrat from the 2nd district of Hawaii, stands out in the newly-elected Congressional class. She and Tammy Duckworth are the first female combat veterans elected to Congress. At 31, Gabbard is also among the youngest House members.
At Harvard's Newly Elected Members of Congress Conference last week, I found her at a reception, surrounded by a tight circle of admiring, attentive students. Most of the students were women of South Asian descent. They were clearly inspired by Congresswoman Gabbard, who also happens to be the first Hindu-American elected to Congress.
She was genuinely focused on the students, and when we finally had a moment to talk, she answered my questions with the same earnestness.
Below is a recreation of our conversation based on my notes.
When did you know you would run for office?
At 21. I had no political ambition growing up, I am an introvert and the quietest one of my siblings. But I always wanted to serve, to be part of a greater good. So at 21 I was taking a break from college and there was an open state senate seat, so I figured I could be in the classroom, talking about making a difference, or I could actually be making a difference in this position.
What did you find most challenging about the Congressional campaign? What, if anything, was easier than you anticipated?
Fundraising was the most challenging. The most fun part was being out there connecting with voters.
Even for an introvert?
*Laughs* I got better at it. But really, I love being with constituents and listening to their stories and their problems. It’s about letting them know that they are my boss – that I am working for them. One of the things we do in Hawaii, when you run for office, you have to stand on the side of the road in the early morning as people are going to work, and I loved doing that, just meeting constituents and getting to know them.
What would you tell young women considering running for office?
Anything is possible if your motivation comes from the right place. It has to come from the heart, it has to be genuine servant leadership, because if it’s not genuine then the voters will know. If you’re not connecting with them genuinely, they will see that and they will ignore you.
After we spoke, another group of students surrounded the Congresswoman-elect, and she greeted them as warmly as she greeted me, answering their questions with unflagging energy.
Anya Malkov is an MPP candidate at the Harvard Kennedy School, a WAPPP Cultural Bridge Fellow, and an alumna of From Harvard Square to the Oval Office.