Rep. Tulsi Gabbard was slated to participate in a “climate conversation” in Cedar Rapids on a day that had featured both scorching sun and torrential rain. Now, I know that weather is not the same thing as climate, but since this was to be an outdoor event, I wasn’t sure what would be in store.
My experience in Iowa with Rep. Gabbard to date had been limited to seeing a “Tulsi 2020” billboard in the most oddly placed location I could imagine, on a state highway through Dyersville, a town of 4,000 best known as the site where Field of Dreams was filmed. Wait—I should be more precise. The billboard is actually on the outskirts of Dyersville, where I’m sure upwards of a dozen people regularly see it.
And I was a little befuddled when the climate conversation was scheduled for 6 p.m., an odd time for an event, and one which likely meant I would have to drive and then catch a late dinner. So, I went in with a series of concerns, but all of them turned out to be unfounded. The weather had turned more comfortable, and the site turned out to be next to a Veterans Memorial Park in an area that I was familiar with, having been there for one of my daughter’s track meets earlier this Spring. In fact, it was a unique location where a 360 degree view would also show an ice arena, grain silos, and a row of suburban houses.
However, best of all, it was a potluck! Here I was worried I was going to get hangry (not a typo, but that hungry/angry combination known to parents of all toddlers), but the good folks of Cedar Rapids brought a range of vegan-friendly salads, big trays of fried chicken, and a big jug of lemonade. All was good. I dug in and settled down at a shaded picnic table. By definition, outdoor events are more casual. People bring lawn chairs and pets, and it is understood that it is okay to chat up random strangers, particularly if you want to talk about the weather, which I was glad to do.
The crowd was modest in size, I guessed around 50, and it seemed a group of usual suspects, local politicos and activists who seemed to know one another, as well as members of the local Veterans for Peace chapter. A number of the attendees had also gone to a candidate forum earlier in the day sponsored by AARP.
This event may or may not have started on time (having been fed, this seemed a less important issue), but once Rep. Gabbard’s car made its way into the parking lot, things got under way quickly. She was introduced by a local state senator, Rob Hogg, who has published a book on climate change and is holding a series of these climate conversations with candidates. Standing next to an American flag rippling in the breeze, Gabbard began speaking about her concerns that climate change has become a divisive issue, and she detailed how her upbringing in Hawaii (her sister was also in attendance) helped to make her an environmentalist.
She was concerned that the U.S. has lost its role as a leader in environmental initiatives, particularly regarding climate change. “Let’s talk about how we can collectively take action to address this global crisis because that is what will be required. Yes, reentering the Paris Accords is an important first step, but even those who were signatories then knew and recognized that it wasn’t nearly enough. It wasn’t nearly enough to meet the kinds of targets and the kind of timeline that we need to see in order to stop this threat in its tracks.”
Gabbard’s main environmental initiative is the Off-Fossil Fuel Act, a measure which, if inacted, would put the country on a path to 100% renewable energy by 2035 (for the record, I drove an electric car to the event!). It is one of the most ambitious resource-related bills introduced, though it has many hurdles to climb before becoming reality.
Though Gabbard spoke a bit about her environmental policies, she spent at least as much time talking about her background as a combat veteran, and it was clear that that experience has shaped her view of government. Along with Pete Buttigieg (one of the other vets in the race) she lamented wasteful military spending, noting at one point that we spend $4 billion a month in Afghanistan but only $3 billion a year for major infrastructure needs.
I was particularly struck by that statistic and posted it out to my Facebook friends. The Facebook robots somehow interpreted that as my attempt to sell a “month” for $4 and turned my post into a classified ad. I wasn’t so much offended by Facebook’s misinterpretation of my post as by their lowballing the cost of a month at $4, only $3,999,999,996 off my asking price. The month remains available for purchase.
Back at the event, Gabbard was eager to discuss the losses of both people and money during the extended wars in Irag and Afghanistan, even when her criticisms of the military-industrial complex led her astray from the topic at hand (though this also got one of the guys in the audience to shout out, “Thanks for talking about Dick Cheney’s Halliburton!”).
When we moved into the Q&A part of the event, my suspicion that this was a crowd of usual suspects was confirmed. Three people initially raised their hands with questions, and moderator Rob Hogg knew each of them by name. When asked, Gabbard made it clear that on day one of her administration she would end family separation on the southern border, a position that won her an eager round of applause. A question on the environmental impact of wars on native populations led her down a rabbit hole, however. Rather than discussing war and/or climate related migration she extensively described the impact of toxic burn pits on soldiers. It’s not that this issue isn’t important, but it was only tangentially related to the question asked.
But that off moment aside, she had a strong stump speech, showing herself to be knowledgable and engaging. She also was willing to stick around for pictures. I worked my way through the crowd and discovered that Tulsi Gabbard was surprisingly tall when she loomed over me as my picture was taken with her. All in all, this was a pretty well organized and efficient event. We were in and out in an hour, with plenty of time to enjoy a pleasant night, climate change notwithstanding.