Why you should care
Because a woman’s place is in the White House.
Let’s assume for the moment that becoming the next U.S. president is just not in the cards for Hillary Clinton. Who would you put your money on to become America’s first female commander in chief? An outspoken progressive like Elizabeth Warren? A former CEO like the recently declared Carly Fiorina? And then there’s one other woman, one with a resume similar to Clinton’s — Democrat, lawyer, senator from New York — but without the appended baggage: Kirsten Gillibrand.
In roughly a decade in Congress, Gillibrand, 48, has blazed a path that few expected, proving herself a consummate politician willing both to work across the aisle and to throw elbows when necessary. She has already racked up an impressive list of legislative successes, including the repeal of “don’t ask, don’t tell.” But unlike even Clinton, Gillibrand has expressly pinned her own political future to what might be the true, untapped power in American politics: women. (The senator’s office did not respond to requests for comment.) If Clinton’s candidacy goes south (again), and Gillibrand can avoid some of the pitfalls that have ensnared her mentor, then the woman once picked to fill Hillary’s seat in the Senate may well someday be the one to claim her place in the White House.
I always try to say yes, because Hillary said yes to me.
When the unknown House Democrat was first appointed to fill the Senate seat vacated by Clinton’s departure for the State Department in 2009, it seemed nobody was happy. The same journalists and fellow Democrats who had fawned over Barack Obama’s meteoric rise to the Senate portrayed Gillibrand’s “aggressiveness and self-confidence” as driving her to “vault over older, more experienced politicians.” The blond politico was frequently likened to Tracy Flick, the unctuous, overachieving student council candidate played by Reese Witherspoon in the film Election. And while it’s true, as Gillibrand admits in her new book Off the Sidelines, that the young Tina Rutnik from Albany, New York, once earned “every imaginable badge” as a Brownie pushing cookies in a local strip mall, that’s pretty much where the similarities to Flick end. Aside, of course, from one thing: In the end, Flick wins. And goes to Washington.
Gillibrand has won too, namely all four congressional campaigns she has run, and she has vaulted over other politicians for good reason: She has out-fundraised, out-messaged and out-fought them, including in her maiden House victory in 2006 in which she raised $2.6 million to oust a heavily favored Republican incumbent. The former corporate lawyer and Dartmouth grad has a folksy but forceful personality, which is as at ease on a farm discussing agricultural policy as in a corporate luncheon soliciting donations.
Now the once a-Flick-ted senator garners more comparisons to another woman, the one she credits for inspiring her to enter public service: Clinton. From her book to her “listening tours” to her bipartisan outreach in Congress, Gillibrand has lifted whole sections from Hillary’s playbook. And the resulting cross-party relationships have helped her repeal “don’t ask, don’t tell,” as well as pass health coverage for 9/11 workers and outlaw insider trading by lawmakers and staffers. She even convinced Republican lions Ted Cruz and Rand Paul to sign on to her failed effort to reform the process for handling sexual assault cases in the military.
Gillibrand’s high-profile combat with the Department of Defense on the issue earned her praise, regular stints on cable television and made her a mentor and magnet for aspiring female leaders in her party, a role she has maintained while being at the forefront of other issues important to women like campus violence and paid family medical leave. The mother of two young boys, who must often come with her to work, has also embraced another lesson she learned from Clinton: the power of patronage. Her Off the Sidelines PAC raising nearly $3 million for fellow women candidates. “Now when young women interested in politics ask me for my time,” Gillibrand writes, “I always try to say yes, because Hillary said yes to me.”
If, as the second-wave feminists once proclaimed, the personal is political, then Gillibrand is out to show that it can be political gain as well. With a grandmother who was a powerful figure in the state Democratic machine and a mother who raised three kids while practicing law, politics — and strong women — run in her blood. And via her role as both a women’s advocate, and a rainmaking fundraiser, she has placed herself at the center of a broader movement.
The landscape for women in politics right now is not pretty.
Mary Ellen Balchunis, candidate for Pennsylvania’s 7th Congressional District
“Sen. Gillibrand is already a major political force in the women’s movement,” says one of the women hoping to ride Clinton’s coattails into office, Mary Ellen Balchunis, running for Congress from Pennsylvania’s 7th District. But Balchunis is also a political scientist at La Salle University and keenly aware of the obstacles still facing female candidates, including the less noticed ones like the political gerrymandering that favors — largely male — incumbents.
Gillibrand herself has admitted that the landscape for women in politics isn’t great, which is one reason her recent book is a clarion call directed largely at female readers. Gillibrand’s own path forward also remains somewhat dicey. She has no real executive experience, and her political shortcomings, like her strengths, are eerily Clintonesque. Despite her oft-voiced concern with America’s “growing economic gap,” she rakes in boatloads of cash from Goldman Sachs and other Wall Street donors, and her positions on several issues have conveniently evolved to suit her political circumstances, moving away from the anti-immigration, pro-gun sentiments that helped get her elected in upstate New York to the more liberal gun control and immigration reform views she espouses today. “Gillibrand is good at having it both ways,” political reporter Ben Terris observes in the National Journal, but she has “some explaining to do on what can be politely termed her evolution.”
But, it’s really what could be termed a revolution that most concerns Gillibrand. And if more and more women follow Gillibrand’s lead and come off the sidelines in American politics, then someday these new players could well be hoisting their coach onto their shoulders and carrying her into the White House.