Kirsten Gillibrand’s Moment Has Arrived
The Washington sky was darkening outside her window, and Kirsten Gillibrand slumped down in her chair. It had been a long day. In the morning, the New York senator hosted a news conference with a mother whose twin 6-year-old daughters had been allegedly raped by their father’s military commander. As she walked off the podium, she’d been confronted by questions about her colleague Al Franken’s reported history of groping women, news that broke for the first time that morning. “Deeply concerning,” she replied, adding that she believed the story of his accusers. “I expect to hear more from Senator Franken.” And she had just come from a podcast interview with the New York Times in which she’d blown through the Democratic code of silence on Clinton misdeeds by saying that yes, if Bill Clinton were president now, he would have to resign after something like the Monica Lewinsky affair.
That last one wasn’t a piece of news Gillibrand had planned on making that morning. She had long been a supporter of the Clintons, both of them. She inherited Hillary Clinton’s seat in the Senate, and credits her with the decision to run for office in the first place. Bill Clinton campaigned for her in her first run for Congress. She strongly supported both of Hillary’s campaigns for president. But Gillibrand is no longer a rank-and-file Clinton Democrat. As the nation is convulsed with a deluge of allegations of sexual harassment and assault, one that seemingly every day fells another star, Gillibrand is at the political center of it. For years she has been battling against sexual assault in the military and on campus, and talking about sexual harassment in politics, and now at last it seems as if the rest of the world has caught up to her concerns. And so once the question has been put before you, in this political moment, when at long last it looks like all of that work is finally paying off and progress is being made, what else can you say about Bill Clinton lying about having oral sex with his 22-year-old intern other than that he should have stepped down and “things have changed today”?
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The blowback was immediate. “Over 20 yrs you took the Clintons endorsement, money and seat. Hypocrite,” wrote Philippe Reines, a longtime Clinton confidant, on Twitter. “Interesting strategy for 2020 primaries. Best of luck.”
The first half of the tweet was predictable, a Clinton loyalist biting back at a perceived threat to the family. But the second half was telling. The world is paying attention to Gillibrand in a new way. At least since the day after Donald Trump’s inauguration, when Gillibrand thrilled the crowd at the Women’s March, jabbing the air with her finger and telling them, “This is the moment of the beginning of the revival of the women’s movement. This is the moment you will remember when women stood strong and stood firm and said never again. This is the moment that you are going to be heard!” The 51-year-old Gillibrand has come to represent a rising generation of Democratic leaders, one who came of age in an era when equality of the sexes was something almost taken for granted. And the buzz about her presidential ambitions has only grown.
For years, the issues that Gillibrand has made her name on—aid for 9/11 workers, ending “don’t ask don’t tell” in the military, transgender rights—were important but distinct, touching on segments of American life that most people never interact with. And now, at a moment when the cover has been ripped off toxic workplaces from Hollywood to Wall Street, Gillibrand is finding that the rest of the world has caught up with her crusades.
“She was on this before anybody else was,” said Brian Fallon, a former aide to both Chuck Schumer and Hillary Clinton. “It’s a moment that has come to her rather than her grabbing the spotlight.”
“I am not surprised,” Gillibrand told me as we ran down the list of the latest prominent men who thought their abusive behavior would stay secret. “This is the world we live in. This is how people behave in many instances. It is sad, and it is horrible and what you see everywhere is the institutional bias against survivors, and in favor of the powerful. You see it in every instance—the military, Congress, college campuses, Wall Street, the movie industry. You see it over and over again that perpetrators are protected.”
Gillibrand has her own stories. There was the time in the congressional gym when a male colleague told her, “Good thing you’re working out, because you wouldn’t want to get porky!” Or when, after giving birth and losing 50 pounds, a male senator said, “Don’t lose too much weight now. I like my girls chubby!” There was the time Sen. Harry Reid called her the Senate’s “hottest member” at a fundraiser, something she now dismisses. “I didn’t see it as harassment on any level. He was not my boss.”
But even in an environment as testosterone-heavy as Capitol Hill, she acknowledges, it could have been worse. “I have had a lot of people say sexist and disgusting things and inappropriate things, but I was never in a position where I felt like I was being harassed,” she said. “I don’t think I’ve mentally counted all the times I have been dismissed and not listened to, but every woman has those stories.”
I don’t think I’ve mentally counted all the times I have been dismissed and not listened to, but every woman has those stories.”
This is the perfect moment for Gillibrand to emerge as one of the leading voices in the Democratic Party, a perhaps fleeting window when gender seems to have trumped class or race as the animating principle in American political and cultural life. It is a moment she helped bring about, by seizing on the issue of sexual assault in the military, bringing victims up to Capitol Hill to share their stories publicly and challenging the Pentagon to hold itself accountable. But it is a moment, too, that is fraught, since it involves telling one-time allies like Franken and Bill Clinton that their time is up—Gillibrand was the first senator to call for Franken to step down on Wednesday, which he did 24 hours later—and forcing revered institutions like the military or your alma mater that they need to change their ways, and quickly.
Her campaign has earned her some powerful enemies in the Pentagon, but Gillibrand makes no apology.
“They can’t empathize,” she said of the military commanders who have resisted her efforts to change the way the military investigates allegations of sexual assault. “They can’t see themselves in it. They can’t see how wrong they are.”
“That is bullshit,” responded retired Colonel Jeff McCausland, a commander of a field artillery battalion in the first Gulf War and a CBS radio military analyst, one of a number of former military officers who say Gillibrand has gone too far. “I do see a need for a correction but that is a wholesale change in the way the military operates. I believe she is sincerely outraged by sexual harassment, but politicians do things because they want to gain notoriety.”
For Gillibrand, the question is how far can she push on an issue that at last has the world’s attention. She argues that if the military can fix this problem, it will have a cascading effect, as the rest of the country will look to the armed forces to see how to deal with the predators in their midst.
“These people will literally die for their country,” she said of the military sexual assault victims she’s championed. “They are just trying to do their job, and they are disbelieved by commanders that are supposed to protect them and retaliated against. It’s infuriating. Our institutions are protecting predators.”
That Gillibrand would become the Senate’s leading voice on gender discrimination and sexual violence—that she would be a second-term senator at all—seemed unlikely when she was first named to Hillary Clinton’s seat. Then-Governor David Paterson spent eight weeks publicly vacillating between Caroline Kennedy and roughly half the members of New York’s congressional delegation before tapping Gillibrand, who was then representing a heavily rural Hudson Valley district, to replace Clinton. His final selection was seen as a concession to the state’s senior senator, Chuck Schumer, who wanted a low-profile politician who wouldn’t dim his own star power, as well as a sop to the upstate region in a state where nearly all of the political power was concentrated in New York City.
In January 2009, when Paterson introduced her to the voters of the state at a news conference in Albany, Gillibrand went on for so long that she didn’t even pause for a congratulatory phone call from President Barack Obama, instead thanking no fewer than 22 of her fellow New York elected officials and running through a laundry list of policy priorities, including helping the financial services industry recover, investing in health care, transportation and energy, middle class tax cuts, high speed rail, global warming and the upstate manufacturing economy. She mentioned Clinton’s famous “women’s rights are human rights” speech as motivating her to get into politics, and gave a shout-out to her fellow female lawmakers in Congress (“I know this will get me in trouble with all the men colleagues here, who I do love and admire” she added by way of preface) but mostly eschewed the language of women’s empowerment in favor of a glancing reference to Hillary Clinton’s more milquetoast focus on families and children.
A former corporate lawyer, Gillibrand had at that point served just one term in the House. She had volunteered for Clinton’s 2000 Senate run—“wandering in off the street,” as a former Clinton adviser later put it—and here she was, at 42, a U.S. senator herself despite being completely unknown to most New Yorkers. And with her high-pitched voice, wide-eyed awe at being named to the seat, and Blue Dog record—she gave a shout-out to gun owners at the introductory news conference—Gillibrand looked unlikely to survive the Democratic primary a year and a half away.
But Gillibrand turned out to be a far more aggressive and astute political player than many realized. Her family hails from the wards of Albany’s political machine; her grandmother was a longtime companion to legendary mayor Erastus Corning II and president of the Albany Democratic Women’s Club. Her father, Doug Rutnik, is a veteran Albany lobbyist who had a long relationship with a longtime aide to Republicans like George Pataki and Al D’Amato.
Gillibrand came to Congress styling herself as upstate’s own Annie Oakley, someone who bragged about keeping guns under her bed and spoke reverentially about the culture of hunting. In fact, the woman whose college nickname was “Elbows” for her aggressive manner on the squash courts of Dartmouth spent the early part of her career in a white shoe law firm in Manhattan where, among other clients, she represented cigarette-maker Philip Morris. She got involved in Democratic politics, walked on to that first Hillary Clinton campaign, and moved back upstate with Hillary’s encouragement and a congressional seat in mind.
Gillibrand wanted to run in 2004 in a district that had more cows than Democrats; her advisers talked her out of it. In 2006, she badgered Rahm Emanuel, then the head of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, to put her on the Red-to-Blue list of preferred Democratic candidates. When he told her she needed to raise more money, she spent 14 straight hours dialing for dollars, netting $125,000 in the course of a day. She attended not one but three candidate boot camps, and at that introductory news conference, told an otherwise harmless story about how she was chatting with three of her fellow New York members of Congress just the day before and how they had each pledged to support whoever was Paterson’s pick—never mind that two of them were already making noises about running against her.
Once in the Senate, Gillibrand moved quickly to the left, including on issues like the Second Amendment and immigration, thus undercutting the rationale for any Democrat who might challenge her, raised $13 million for her re-election and then another $16 million when she ran for a full term two years later.
And she found a set of issues that kept her out of Schumer’s way. Among them, and one that Schumer understandably couldn’t touch, was the issue of women in politics and in the workforce. “The fact remains that too many American women are sitting on the sidelines,” she said in a 2011 speech. “Off the Sidelines” became a brand—it grew into a book, a podcast and a political action committee, one that has raised more than $6 million for female candidates and built for Gillibrand an enthusiastic army of female grass-roots supporters around the country.
But what brought Gillibrand to the center of this moment was when she was handed a copy of “The Invisible War,” a 2012 movie about sexual assault in the military. The film showed not just that sexual assault in the military was rampant, and devastating to those who were victims of it, but that the military actively worked to cover up the scale of the problem.
“I couldn’t believe it,” Gillibrand recalled. “I couldn’t believe that the military could be this clueless.”
She held a screening for staff. When a couple of male aides ducked out to make phone calls, Gillibrand ordered the screening paused until they returned. She flew to Los Angeles to meet with the filmmakers over dinner, and took on the issue as her own as the ranking member of the Senate Armed Services Subcommittee on Personnel, meeting with victims to coax them to come forward and publicly share their experience. When the Armed Services Committee hauled in the military brass to discuss sexual assault, Gillibrand dressed them down in full view of the cameras. Even now, the footage can be painful to watch as decorated military leaders squirm before her questioning.
“A rape is a violent crime. It is not, ‘Ask her when she is sober,’” Gillibrand said at one point, nearly leaping out of her chair with outrage. “If you think you are achieving discipline and order with your current convening authority framework, I am sorry to say you are wrong.”
“It is superhero stuff,” said Amy Ziering, the director of “The Invisible War.” “She was unrelenting.”
It is superhero stuff,” said Amy Ziering. “She was unrelenting.”
“I don’t know,” Gillibrand said when asked why this issue become the one that she grabbed on to. “I know it took several knocks on my door for me to pay attention to it. I had been told by different people around the country and around the state that it was something that I needed to look into, but it wasn’t until somebody handed me the film and said watch it that I thought, ‘Oh my God. This is a huge issue.’ It made me so angry.”