Why you should care
Because a woman’s place is in the White House.
OZY Media’s third prime-time television show, Breaking Big, airs Fridays at 8:30 p.m. ET on PBS stations, OZY.com and Facebook Watch. Join us as we explore the unexpected journeys to success of some of the world’s most influential stars. This week’s episode features Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand.
Kirsten Gillibrand’s résumé looks a lot like Hillary Clinton’s: Democrat, lawyer, senator from New York. But lest you think that Gillibrand is just a baggage-free Hillary 2.0 for 2020, witness her recent forum appearance when asked about the man who defeated Clinton for the presidency. “Has he kept any of these promises? No. Fuck no,” the senator said.
Gillibrand’s four-letter Donald Trump taunt got her heaps of attention, and a good deal of scorn from the folks still trying to maintain some sense of decency in American politics (God bless ’em). It was also a sound bite for her recent #resist-friendly moves: endorsing a Medicare-for-all health system, opposing nearly all of Trump’s nominees. It all smells like someone trying to bridge the Clinton and Bernie Sanders wings of the Democratic Party, but when asked about 2020, Gillibrand has said she’s “ruling it out” as she runs for reelection in 2018. Still, things have a way of changing when the White House is involved.
In a little more than a decade in Congress, Gillibrand, 50, has blazed a path that few expected, proving herself a consummate politician willing both to work across the aisle and 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.)
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 2014 book Off the Sidelines, that the young Tina Rutnik (as she was then known) 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 for 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 it is 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 raised more than $6 million over the past two election cycles, and dished out much of it to 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 runs in her blood — as do strong women. 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.
“Sen. Gillibrand is already a major political force in the women’s movement,” says Mary Ellen Balchunis, who ran unsuccessfully for Congress in Pennsylvania last year. 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 2014 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 has at times sought to protect Wall Street against regulations in ways Sanders/Elizabeth Warren types could pick apart. “By necessity, taking a credible populist stand now means a ferocious attack on Wall Street,” Ryan Cooper recently wrote in a column for TheWeek.com casting doubt on her presidential hopes. “If Gillibrand tries to split the difference, and run a Clinton-style campaign of status quo finance plus moderate new social programs, she’s likely to be outflanked by a more credible populist.”
Gillibrand has also opened herself up to charges of inauthenticity, as she’s conveniently moved 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.
But more than her evolution, it’s a revolution that most concerns Gillibrand. Her call for women to come off the sidelines sounds prescient in the age of the Women’s March on Washington, at which Gillibrand spoke to a sea of pink hats. “We are not turning back,” she said, in a more family-friendly rallying cry.
Daniel Malloy updated this story since its original publication on May 26, 2015.