Who is Mike Gabbard?
It's hard not to like Mike Gabbard, once you meet the guy. In June, the city councilman hosted a talk-story meeting at the Wai'anae Public Library. These get-togethers have been monthly rituals for Gabbard since he was elected to represent the Wai'anae-to-'Ewa district in 2002.
Photo: Courtesy of Mike Gabbard Facebook Page
On this drizzly evening, Gabbard looks every bit the city councilman with aspirations for congressional office. Tan, lean, with silvered hair, he wears a navy blue blazer with an American flag pin fastened to one lapel, tan slacks, polished brown loafers and a kukui nut lei, an accessory he dons regularly on these occasions. He sits on one of a dozen plastic chairs configured into a U-shape in this otherwise empty room.
Tonight’s topic of discussion: Wai‘anae’s ice problem. Gabbard gives an update on PA‘I, People Against Ice, a community group that has organized neighborhood patrols, picketed a local store selling drug paraphernalia and worked with police to identify drug houses.
“This is a good start, but ice is a huge problem,” Gabbard tells them. “Like homelessness-we have 1,500 people without homes on our coast. These problems aren’t gonna be solved overnight.”
Attendees are welcome to talk about other community issues, too. They do. Wai‘anae’s lack of affordable housing. Illegal dumping. Traffic. For two hours, Gabbard listens to their concerns, their solutions (even the not-so-practical ones) and diligently takes notes on a piece of paper propped in his lap. He gives thoughtful and articulate answers. No exaggerations, no unrealistic promises, no impassioned speeches.
This is not the Mike Gabbard most Hawai‘i residents got to know in the late ‘90s. Many remember Gabbard best as the antagonistic leader of the movement to quash same-sex marriage in Hawai‘i. As founder of the Alliance for Traditional Marriage and Values, a political action committee, Gabbard helped wage an expensive media campaign to convince voters that gay marriage would devastate Hawai‘i.
Today, Gabbard’s public persona is much mellower. Of course, for the past two years, Gabbard has only had to deal with property taxes, pot holes and police raises. Pretty tame stuff, compared with the controversy he tackled in the ‘90s.
Others have noticed the contrast, as well. “Before I met Mike, I thought he’d be a different person,” says fellow council member Gary Okino. “I thought this would be an extreme guy who hates homosexuals, but I was flabbergasted, because he’s so personable. I took a liking to him really quickly. I think he’s been unfairly tagged.”
After a single two-year term on the City Council, Gabbard is running for Hawai‘i’s 2nd Congressional District. He faces incumbent Ed Case, a Hilo-born Democrat finishing his first full term in the U.S. House. Case, a self-proclaimed fiscal conservative and social liberal, opposed the ‘98 amendment that would define marriage in Hawai‘i as between a man and woman. He now opposes the Federal Marriage Amendment, which would have the same effect nationally.
It’s a big leap from the Honolulu City Council to Washington. But don’t count Gabbard out of this election, says Ira Rohter, a political science professor at the University of Hawai‘i and co-chair of Hawai‘i’s Green Party.
“I think it’s going to be a surprisingly strong race,” Rohter says. “Although Gabbard is most notorious for his anti-gay activities and campaign, he covers himself by talking about a lot of other issues-education, protecting aquifers, landfills, raising money for the Bruddah Iz statue. One can ask the question, ‘How come he won the council seat in Wai‘anae?’”
Gabbard is one of the most intriguing, if not controversial, local candidates this election year. He’s a man of contradictions.
Most candidates want media attention. But while Gabbard appeared more than accommodating at this Wai‘anae get-together (he even got up to serve cookies to the group), HONOLULU Magazine had a tough time scheduling a meeting, even after he agreed to one.
We’re not the only ones. In May, Gabbard’s Congressional campaign announced that he would only respond to media questions via e-mail. “Mike is extremely busy juggling his campaigning with his service on the City Council as well as his small business and his personal life,” the memo explained. Most people expect public officials to be, well, more public. Gabbard can’t even be reached by phone.
In accordance with his memo, we e-mailed him a list of questions for the profile. Before replying, Gabbard sent several e-mails over two weeks: “What subject matters or allegations or statements about me are you asking me to respond to or are you thinking of publishing or pursuing?”
Hoping to meet Gabbard in person, we attended his two talk-story sessions in June-one in Kapolei, one in Wai‘anae. He left immediately after ending the meetings, saying he had other obligations.
Gabbard has made an art out of being evasive with reporters. It’s understandable that he’s wary of the media. Google “Mike Gabbard,” and you’ll find no shortage of unflattering stories. Then again, it could be he doesn’t want to answer questions he doesn’t like, especially those concerning his ties to a Hare Krishna splinter group that gave rise to a number of political candidates over the past 30 years. Maybe those questions are especially touchy in an election season, when much of his political support comes from Christian conservatives.
Gabbard was born in Samoa in 1948, one of eight children in a military family. The Gabbards relocated to Hawai‘i when he was a child. He received a bachelor’s in English from Sonoma State University and a master’s in community college administration from Oregon State.
In the late ‘70s, he worked as head tennis pro at Kuilima Hyatt Resort (now Turtle Bay Resort). From 1980 to 1983, he was a dean at American Samoa Community College before moving back to Hawai‘i with his family. Gabbard and his wife, Carol, established a small private school in Wahiawä, which closed after five years. The couple home-schooled all their five children. In the late 1980s, the Gabbards, opened the Natural Deli, a vegetarian restaurant within Mö‘ili‘ili’s Down to Earth Natural Food Store. Today, he distributes air and water purifying systems and nutritional supplements and owns a small confection company.
Gabbard became an anti-homosexual activist before the same-sex marriage debate really took hold in Hawai‘i. In the early ‘90s, he founded an educational nonprofit called Stop Promoting Homosexuality and bought airtime at local radio station KGU for a show called Let’s Talk Straight Hawai‘i.
When HONOLULU interviewed Gabbard in 1992, he told the magazine, “Homosexuality is not normal, not healthy, morally and scripturally wrong.” At the time, he also suggested that the repeal of sodomy laws across the country in the ‘60s and the American Psychiatric Association’s decision in the ‘70s that homosexuality was normal and not a mental illness, led directly to the AIDS epidemic of the ‘80s.
Many gays considered the radio show outright gay bashing. Gabbard managed to keep the show until he said on air that, confronted with two equally qualified job applicants, one gay, one straight, he’d take the straight one. Gay rights activists picketed his deli, and Down to Earth eventually bought out Gabbard’s business. The station pulled the plug on his radio program.
That didn’t stop Gabbard. By the time Hawai‘i residents got to vote on a constitutional amendment in 1998, he had become the face and voice of the effort to “save traditional marriage.”
“Marriage between a man and a woman is the foundation of family and therefore civilization itself,” Gabbard tells HONOLULU Magazine, via e-mail. “Marriage is also the foundation of so many other issues and problems we face, be they education, crime, small business, etc.”
During the 1998 campaign, Gabbard gave more dire reasons to bar same-sex marriage. It would normalize homosexuality, a behavior that he argued was no more natural than marrying a house pet. It would give way to legalizing polygamy and incest. It would scare off tourists, except the gay ones, who would flock to the Islands to marry. It would hurt children.
Gabbard wasn’t alone. He aligned himself with conservative groups and churches for various denominations, which donated more than $1 million toward the fight. These are the supporters Gabbard is likely to count on this congressional election, says Rohter.
“I think his win for the Wai‘anae council seat had a lot do with very conservative churches,” says Rohter. “In rural O‘ahu and on the Neighbor Islands, churches are often the only common threads for a lot of communities. Although Gabbard lives on O‘ahu, I think he’s going to extend his support to these churches on the Neighbor Islands.”
As nonprofits, churches cannot endorse candidates or parties. But they can distribute candidate surveys, showing where each candidate stands on certain issues, including same-sex marriage and abortion. The Hawai‘i Christian Coalition, which includes about 100 member churches, publishes such voter guides each election year. The coalition’s Web site, www.hi-christian.com, provides a link to Gabbard’s campaign Web site. Gabbard’s own Web site informs churches what political activities are acceptable for them under federal law.
“There is a lot of quiet support for Gabbard within this community,” says Gary Langley, senior pastor at the Windward Worship Center, a Pentecostal church in Kane‘ohe. “We’re a small church, just about 100 people, but there are the megachurches-New Hope, Word of Life-with thousands of people. In Gabbard’s campaign, I think people hear the same things that they are taught in church.”
Understandably, the public has lumped Gabbard into America’s growing number of conservative politicians. His social views do veer accordingly to the right. But is he Christian right?
Gabbard himself says he is Catholic. He attends Catholic services regularly at a church in his district. He talks about growing up Catholic and how, at age 14, he entered a seminary, intending to become a priest. He changed his mind, he says, because “I wasn’t as spiritually mature as I thought I was.”
Those who’ve worked with Gabbard assume he is Catholic. “We play golf together, and he talks about his Catholic beliefs and God a lot, more than he talks about the issue of same-sex marriage,” says fellow council member Okino, who is Catholic. “I’ve attended mass with him, and he takes communion.”
But Gabbard had strong ties to an obscure Hare Krishna splinter group that, in the late 1970s, fielded several political candidates. The splinter group was founded by a Hawai‘i homegrown guru named Chris Butler. Butler was a disciple of A.C. Bahkitevedanta Swami Prabhupad, who founded the International Society of Krishna Consciousness (ISKCON). ISKCON is the high-visibility sect whose orange robes, shaved heads, public begging and chanting are what most people think of when they hear the term Hare Krishna.
Butler eventually broke away from ISKCON, criticizing the regimen and centralization of ISKCON life. He formed his own organization, which has had several names: Hare Name Society, Identity Institute and the Science of Identity Foundation. What started as a small religious sect on Maui in the 1970s developed a following that, according to some estimates, includes tens of thousands of people all over the world.
Butler’s followers chant, practice vegetarianism and Bhakti yoga and must refrain from intoxicants and “illicit sex,” or all sexual contact except between married couples at the most fertile time of the month. Unlike ISKCON members who beg publicly, Butler’s “other Krishnas” tend to support themselves by creating their own businesses.
Many of Butler’s associates made headlines in the 1976 election when they created a party called Independents for Godly Government. As its name implied, the group insisted on rigorous moral standards for its candidates. They could accept only half their allowed salaries and distribute the other half to the people they represented, accept no gifts from special interests, commit no crimes and abstain from intoxication and illicit sex. The party fielded several serious contenders for office, including Kathy Hoshijo, who took 17 percent of the votes in the race for Congress, and Wayne Nishiki, the current Maui councilman, who won 20 percent in a three-man race for mayor.
The party’s links to Butler and Krishna went unacknowledged until 1977, when Walter Wright of The Honolulu Advertiser did an investigative report on the group, which Hoshijo labeled a “smear attempt.”
In the ‘80s and ‘90s, Butler appeared in a series of locally filmed shows, titled Jagad Guru Speaks, in which he sermonized on spirituality. In one episode, titled “Is God Really Loveable?” Butler mocks the Bible and the Christian interpretation of God, calling them nonsensical. “These Christians don’t know God,” Butler says. His comments summon laughs and nods of agreement from the room full of listeners. Mike and Carol Gabbard are shown sitting just a few feet away from the charismatic guru, laughing along with the audience.
Gabbard’s wife served as secretary/treasurer of the Science of Identity Foundation until 2000, before she successfully ran for a seat on the state Board of Education. Both Gabbard and his wife were listed as teachers at the Science of Identity Foundation in Polk’s City Directory in the early 1990s.
In the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, both Gabbards worked as staffers in the office of then Maui state Sen. Rick Reed. A controversial figure himself, Reed has acknowledged Butler as his “spiritual adviser.” Reed mounted short-lived campaigns for both Congress and the lieutenant governorship in 1986. He then ran for U.S. Senate against Daniel Inouye in 1992, setting off a scandal when he publicized claims that Inouye had sexually molested a Honolulu hairdresser named Lenore Kwock.
All five of Gabbard’s children have Hindu names: Bhakti, Jai, Aryan, Tulsi and Vrindavan (Hinduism is the root of the Hare Krishna religion). The Gabbards’ Natural Deli was housed in Down to Earth, which was then owned and managed by Butler followers.
No one questions Gabbard’s right to believe as he chooses. Some may even applaud him for his religious beliefs. However, some voters may worry about his former ties to a Krishna sect. Especially when members and associates of that group have mounted repeated attempts at high public office.
When HONOLULU asked Gabbard in an e-mail to clarify his former relationship with Butler’s Krishna group, Gabbard’s daughter, state Rep. Tulsi Gabbard Tamayo, sent us an angry e-mail in response. “I smell a skunk,” Tamayo wrote. “It’s clear to me that you’re acting as a conduit for The Honolulu Weekly and other homosexual extremist supporters of Ed Case.”
Gabbard himself insists that he is a victim of religious bigotry, that his opponents have tried to make his religion an issue in this campaign. He maintains that he is Catholic. After nearly dying in a surfing accident at age 17, he says he realized that “my personal relationship with God was my religion. My spiritual path became more personal and less institutional. For the next several decades, I studied and explored every major religious philosophy.”
His “return to active Catholicism” began during the same-sex marriage debate of the 1990s, he says, and, in 2000, he became “a fully active member of the Church.” That same year, Gabbard announced he would run against Neil Abercrombie in the 1st Congressional District but withdrew shortly before the filing deadline.
“I am Catholic, but some would consider me an enigmatic Catholic,” Gabbard reasons, “because I practice and sometimes teach both Christian and yoga meditation techniques and philosophy. … Although I am not a Hindu or Hare Krishna, I find great inspiration and wisdom in the ancient yoga scriptures. Although I’m not a member of the Science of Identity Foundation, I’m eternally thankful to Chris Butler, the founder of SIF, whose teachings of karma yoga (selfless service) and bhakti yoga (devotion to God) have brought me back to my Catholic roots and the fundamental teachings of Christ.”
Mitch Kahle, founder of the Hawai‘i Citizens for the Separation of State and Church, says: “Mike Gabbard has worked hard to distance himself from the Science of Identity Foundation. Most politicians are Christian, and, in general, Hare Krishna is still very much considered a fringe religious group. Being Catholic is better for his political career.”
Because of his efforts as a gay-rights activist, Kahle has encountered Gabbard on several occasions. “Mike Gabbard has done an incredible job for his cause and he’s a great spokesman, but I would be extremely disappointed in the people of Hawai‘i if they sent him to Congress,” Kahle says. “On the council, he’s relatively harmless. They have no power over social programs whatsoever, but in Congress, he can do some real damage.”
For the record, Gabbard appears to be a responsible councilman who has built substantial support in his district. Two of Gabbard’s biggest achievements are environmental. With the support of his constituents, Gabbard successfully opposed the building of a landfill over the Pearl Harbor aquifer and established a related project, dubbed “Ship It Out.” “I traveled to the Mainland at my own expense to study the viability of shipping Hawai‘i’s trash to environmentally friendly landfills on the Mainland,” he says. “Taking the lead in this area has moved Hawai‘i closer to the day when we will no longer be dependent on landfills.”
Gabbard has also worked with the Honolulu Police Department to create a volunteer policing program for abandoned cars and drivers who park illegally in handicapped stalls. The program, which began this summer, should “get more people involved in law enforcement and free up our limited police officers to focus on more serious crimes,” he says.
One of Gabbard’s constituents, Lenny Farm, attests to the councilman’s community involvement. For the past nine years, Farm has organized Kapolei’s volunteer neighborhood patrol, which watches over the area’s three school campuses.
“Not to say that we don’t appreciate what other representatives have done, but council member Gabbard is really the only one who brought what we do to the attention of the council,” Farm says. “He even came out with us a few times at 11 o’clock at night to patrol. He’s really effective, really sincere in what he does.”
Strategically speaking, Gabbard picked the perfect time to run for Congress. This fall, Gabbard faces Case, who’s waging his first reelection campaign to follow a full term. In 2001, Case won a special election to serve out the remainder of the late Patsy Mink’s term in Congress. About 13 percent of the district’s 347,922 voters turned out for that election. In the 2002 election, Case retained his seat with 43 percent of the votes, defeating fellow Democrat Matt Matsunaga. That election, however, drew only 21.9 percent of the district’s registered voters.
“I told Mike that he could do a lot more good on the city council than he can in Congress,” council member Okino says. “But if he’s gonna run against anybody, it’s better that he run against Ed Case after his first term. It would be much more difficult if he waited till after Ed’s second term.”
Case has called Gabbard a “single-issue candidate,” concerned mainly with the issue of same-sex marriage. “He cares only about one thing, and thus far, he has gone to great lengths not to talk about his background, his roots, what he stands for,” says Case. “That’s a dangerous combination in representing the entire 2nd Congressional District. Congress is not kids’ play. We face about a thousand different issues each session. This is the real thing.”
Gabbard hopes voters will remember his anti-same-sex marriage efforts and dismisses speculation that his well-known activism could hurt his campaign.
“I find it quite amusing that some people are so out of touch they think my being on the side of the 70 percent of Hawai‘i’s people on this issue is somehow negative for me,” he says. “They haven’t figured out yet that my opponent is actually the one in trouble on this issue.”
In many pockets, especially on the Big Island, Gabbard’s activist reputation on O‘ahu is still relatively unknown. That could work toward the congressional contender’s advantage. “For many people, he’s an unidentified character,” says Rohter. “All they’ll see is a good-looking, charming guy who can play the guitar.”