Kirsten Gillibrand is currently enjoying a career trajectory comparable to only a select few American politicians in recent memory—the most notable of whom occupies a certain Oval Office she’s already being discussed as a viable contender for in 2016.
Just a few years ago, such rumblings would have been unthinkable. When Gov. David Paterson plucked Gillibrand out of relative obscurity to fill the enormous shoes of Hillary Clinton, she had served a mere two years in Congress—and had never even run for office prior to getting elected to the House.
Two and a half years later, Gillibrand, 45, has a 60 percent approval rating statewide and is well on her way to carving out her own national profile, with a headline-grabbing record of legislative achievement over her brief time in office, including the 9/11 health bill and the repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.” She has stood out as one of the nation’s most ardent advocates for women in politics and built a network of admirers as one of the Democratic Party’s most formidable fundraisers. Tina Brown has hailed her as “a total winner,” Jon Stewart has gushed over her on The Daily Show, Vogue has extolled her glamour in a tasteful spread, and no less a feminist icon than Gloria Steinem has said of Gillibrand, “Like Bella Abzug and Shirley Chisholm before her, she doesn’t just hold her finger to the wind, she is
The response to Gillibrand was not always so effusive. When Paterson initially selected her, the choice was generally panned, in part because of his bungling of Caroline Kennedy’s bid for the seat, and further fueled by the public grumblings of those who felt passed over for the post and the political powerhouses perturbed it was not their pick who had been anointed.
In the blink of a media cycle, Gillibrand went from being dismissed as a no-name to being disparaged from both the right and the left as a “flip-flopper” for apparent shifts on issues like gun control, immigration and gay marriage when she moved from the House to the Senate. While Gillibrand has long since outlasted this initial dustup of bad press to become a darling of progressives, it is worth noting that her ability to adapt, once derided as a lack of principle, has become one of her greatest assets in winning over the diverse constituencies she represents across the state.
Polished and petite, wholesome yet worldly, eager yet effortless in her manner, Gillibrand looks as if she would fit in as easily at a North Country dairy as a Nassau County mall or a highfalutin salon on the Upper East Side. Indeed, as we sat down for lunch at a trendy lower Manhattan Chinese restaurant with a faux-farmhouse decor, it occurred to me that Gillibrand, who is both conversant in Mandarin and a self-styled champion of farmers as New York’s first member of the Senate Agriculture Committee in 40 years, was probably one of the few people who could pull off looking in her element in the oddly discordant atmosphere.
In light of the senator’s remarkable success, it seemed only appropriate to ask her what she thought of Anne-Marie Slaughter’s provocative cover story in the most recent Atlantic Monthly: “Why Women Still Can’t Have It All.” In the piece Slaughter, the former director of public planning at the U.S. State Department and the first female dean of Princeton’s Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs, offers her two-years’ experience working in the unyielding, high-intensity world of Washington politics—while struggling to balance her home life as a mother of two adolescent boys—as a paradigm of why women can’t have the proverbial “all” in the Unites States today.
Though Gillibrand is publicly a politician, she plays countless other roles behind the scenes. She is the mother of two young boys, and gave birth to her second son, Henry, following a 13-hour marathon House Armed Services Committee hearing. A fiercely competitive former collegiate athlete, she pitches for the bipartisan congressional women’s softball team and recently chronicled in Self magazine how her return to sports helped her lose 40 pounds since entering the Senate. She’s an enthusiastic homemaker who still finds time to bake. And she’s the devoted wife of a dashing British financier who seems content to play second fiddle to his superstar spouse and pull his weight with the kids.
Given this bounty, was it not unreasonable to conclude that if any woman’s life poked holes in the article’s deflating premise, it was hers?
“I agreed with a lot that she said,” responds Gillibrand, who had read Slaughter’s analysis and taken it seriously. “But she made a couple caveats, and one of them applies to me. If you can set your own schedule, that makes such a difference. You know, the ladies who work in this restaurant can’t set their schedules. The lady that cleans my office every night can’t set her schedule. The lady in the emergency room, the nurse who’s trying to save lives, can’t necessarily set her schedule. But I can. I have a flexibility that’s unique, because I run my own office. I can not take meetings before 9 in the morning so I can bring my kids to school. I can limit meetings between 5 and 7, so I can pick them up from school, make them dinner, and put them to bed…. So I’m lucky.”
Pivoting from personal experience to the larger struggle facing women in America, as she often does, Gillibrand says, “I think her thesis was more ‘This issue needs to be debated and discussed in every boardroom, in every economic forum, in every hall of power, because what’s being lost are important voices,’ and that’s why I launched my ‘Off the Sidelines’ campaign”—the initiative Gillibrand started in June of last year to enlist more women to participate in politics.
“I want to create a call to action nationwide to ask women to make sure their voices are heard,” she continues. “I want them voting if they’re not voting. I want them to be leaning in on the issues they care about. I want them to be holding their elected leaders accountable.”
If this sounds like a muscle-flexing “We Can Do It!” call to female empowerment, the echo is not completely unintentional. Gillibrand is such a fan of the iconic 1940s image that it adorns the cover of her iPhone, and she uses it as rhetorical shorthand to evoke the spirit of her aims. “It’s a lot like what Rosie the Riveter was during World War II,” she notes. “They were asking America’s women to enter the workforce for the first time in America’s history…. And women responded…. Six million women entered the workforce. So my goal is, I want six million more women voting who are aren’t voting today.”
Gillibrand’s connection to Rosie is more than aspirational—it’s generational. During the war, both Gillibrand’s great-grandmother and her great-aunt donned blue jeans at a time when women hadn’t ever previously done so and went to work in an armory—as did her grandmother, Dorothea “Polly” Noonan.
For anyone with a long enough memory for state politics, Polly Noonan’s name is legendary. As the secretary and closest confidant to Albany’s “mayor for life,” Erastus Corning 2nd, who ruled over the city from 1941 to 1983, Noonan made herself one of the most powerful women in the history of the Capitol. By the time Gov. Mario Cuomo was in office, Noonan was the vice chairwoman of the Democratic State Committee, as well as the longtime president of the Albany Democratic Women’s Club. Those titles may not adequately articulate the extent of her influence; Jerry Kremer, who represented Long Island for 23 years in the Assembly, recalls that when he was a young legislator, it was still tantamount to “political suicide” to miss the annual dinner of Noonan’s Women’s Club.
Gillibrand is fully aware of what Noonan achieved in a male-dominated society, a trailblazing path she attributes to her grandmother’s passionate belief in the collective power of women and the effectiveness of what we today call grassroots activism: “[The Women’s Democratic Club] were the ones who did the door-to-door work. They were the ones who did the envelope stuffing. They were the ones who ran campaigns for 50 years…. Nobody really got elected if they didn’t have the blessing of my grandmother and all her lady friends, because they did all the work!”
The senator has internalized her grandmother’s example. I recount that when I interviewed Sean Gavin, her current campaign manager, he recited for me the motto she had instilled in her team throughout her 2008 race against Alexander “Sandy” Treadwell, the former chair of the state GOP, who had vowed to use his fortune as an heir to General Electric to unseat her. Before I can finish, Gillibrand springs to complete the motto: “You can be outspent, but you can never be outworked!”
Winning by Example
In retrospect it is less astonishing that a candidate of Gillibrand’s discipline and innate grasp of campaigning could trounce Treadwell by 24 points—despite being targeted early in the cycle as one of the state’s most vulnerable freshmen and outspent $5.5 million to $3.5 million in one of the most expensive House races in the country. Gillibrand’s electoral success—at 3 for 3, she has never been defeated—has made her the most compelling poster model for her own “Off the Sidelines” campaign.
“I have such tremendous respect for her, coming from a district not unlike mine, where she overcame a strong Republican enrollment advantage, and through sheer grit, determination and hard work, she overcame the odds in her race,” says Rep. Kathy Hochul, whom Gillibrand supported in Hochul’s upset 2011 special-election victory for Congress. “And so when I took on this opportunity that came up last year…she coached me, talked to me, gave me a lot of advice. She’s just been a great friend.”
Hochul is one of an all-star roster of nearly two dozen female House and Senate candidates Gillibrand has lent not only her name and expertise but to whom she has given a minimum of $1,000 either personally or through her Empire PAC—thus cultivating a legion of grateful elected officials spanning the country, from Rep. Terri Sewell of Alabama, who in 2010 became the first African-American woman elected to the House from her state, to Rep. Tammy Baldwin, who is currently running to become both Wisconsin’s first female and the nation’s first openly gay senator.
While the cynical might conclude that Gillibrand is shrewdly building a nationwide network of prominent allies to lay the groundwork for future aspirations, the preponderance of evidence makes a convincing case that her commitment to advancing the political power of women is just as fervent as was her grandmother’s.
Gillibrand has even extended this spirit of sisterly solidarity to her Republican colleagues—with striking results. “Every time I’ve ever accomplished anything in Congress, I’ve always had the help of other women [from] both sides of the aisle,” Gillibrand says. “So when we were trying to repeal ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,’ it’s not surprising that it was [Maine’s] Susan Collins leading the charge among Republicans to get those few Republican votes. When I’m trying to pass the 9/11 health bill, it wasn’t surprising that [Alaska’s] Lisa Murkowski went into her caucus meetings every week saying, ‘Why are we not standing with first responders?’ ”
Currently Gillibrand is focused on trying to pass three pieces of economic-relief legislation she is championing—a small-business bill, an infrastructure bank, and a Made-in-the-USA manufacturing bill. To build bipartisan support, she started by going to the female senators.
The approach has gotten traction. The small-
business bill might come up for a vote, thanks to 14 of the 17 women senators signing onto a letter asking the leadership on both sides of the aisle to bring it to the floor.
When I speak with several members of Gillibrand’s staff a few weeks after our interview, I discover—not surprisingly—that “Why Women Still Can’t Have It All” is a hot topic of discussion in the senator’s office. Sixty-five percent of Gillibrand’s staff is female, and seven of the 10 senior positions in her office are held by women—four of whom have young children.
Michele Jawando, Gillibrand’s general counsel, who is currently pregnant with her second child, explains that from the outset of the senator’s term, Gillibrand took deliberate steps to create a workplace culture that would be reflective of her values. She started by overhauling the office manual, making changes like allowing her staff three months paid leave and giving them more flexibility to perform their work remotely by computer or BlackBerry—provided, of course, that it did not compromise the quality of their work.
“I was proud of the fact that it didn’t take the article for our office to have been working on those issues all along,” says Elana Broitman, 45, the mother of a 5-year-old and Gillibrand’s senior advisor for armed-services work and foreign affairs.
Because of these changes, observes Jawando, she and her colleagues may not necessarily “have it all,” but it “start[s] to make a difference, and you really give yourself an opportunity for success. And success looks very different for our office than what it may look like in another office.”
Karina Cabrera, 33, one of Gillibrand’s legislative assistants, concurs. “When I was 24 I would have said, ‘I can’t have it all. I’m not going to get married or I’m not going to have children. I’m just going to concentrate on my career.’ Now that I’m married…it’s about your partner and having a great relationship and a balance. And it’s also your employer. And obviously we have such a great, amazing role model that has it all and really helps us to achieve that as well, so I think we’re in a really unique, special situation.”
That Gillibrand concentrates on not only how she can “have it all” but how her employees can too has inspired fierce devotion from her staff. “We feel a sense of pride and loyalty for the type of work that we do,” enthuses Jawando. “And so the fact that…[Gillibrand] both respected our work but also respected these roles that we had, whether it was as a new wife, or as a new mom, or as someone dealing with the issue of aging parents, that means a lot, and…it also makes you even more loyal to the work that you’re doing, because you’re like, ‘You know what? I have someone who is going to support me, so I need to make sure when I’m here that I’m on 110 percent.’ ”
Gillibrand understands that her views on how women should properly be treated in the workplace—and men too, for that matter—are unconventional, but she is not one to be deterred by orthodoxy. Describing her senatorial style, Gillibrand says, “I try to approach my job in a very nonpartisan way. It doesn’t have to be a Democratic idea. It doesn’t have to be a Republican idea. It just has to be a good idea.”
Jawando puts it another way: “When we got here, [Gillibrand] was like, ‘Don’t worry about it. Don’t pay attention to anybody. We’re going to do our thing.’ ”
The absolutely baseless speculation about Gillibrand running for President of the United States in 2016 appears to date back to March of this year when The Washington Post threw up a “Sweet 2016” March Madness-style tournament bracket on its blog for readers to project the major-party nominees in the next presidential cycle. (The media, already bored with 2012, has impatiently moved on to 2016, as YNN’s Liz Benjamin observed.)
In a highly unscientific poll, the Post arbitrarily named Gillibrand the sixth seed out of the eight national Democrats they selected as candidates for the left wing of the bracket. Around that time a Facebook page reinforcing the notion of Gillibrand 2016 surfaced, which may or may not have played a role in Gillibrand surpassing expectations in the Post’s fantasy election, defeating No. 3 seed Gov. Deval Patrick of Massachusetts to get into the quarterfinals before losing in the semis to Hillary Clinton. Thus the hype was born.
In real life, Gillibrand would be more than happy if it were in her power to cede the nomination to Hillary Clinton, whom she credits as inspiring her to run for Congress, and whom Gillibrand has publicly urged on numerous occasions to again seek the presidency. “I have not lost hope that Hillary will run in 2016,” Gillibrand says. “I’d like to be her national chair and help her win.”
Still, it was Gov. Andrew Cuomo, not Hillary Clinton, whom Post readers chose as their Democratic nominee and ultimately the president in 2016 (over Florida Senator Marco Rubio). Based upon her ebullient praise of the governor, it appears highly unlikely that Gillibrand would challenge Cuomo in a theoretical primary were he to run for president in 2016, as is widely thought he will. “I think the governor’s done a great job,” says Gillibrand, in just the type of sound bite that largely diffuses any possibility she would take him on in an all-out internecine battle. “I’m extremely impressed with his ability.”
Over four years out from that election—which will occur countless earth-changing events from now—it is senseless to pretend predictions about 2016 are anything more than hot air. And long before any such scenarios can begin to be seriously considered, Gillibrand must first defeat her current Republican challenger, Wendy Long, to earn her first full six-year term in the Senate.
Conservative bloggers have snickered at the cosmic justice of Gillibrand, the outspoken advocate for women to run for office, drawing a female opponent. But what has received less attention is that their matchup means that Gillibrand and Long will share in a small step forward for women in politics: the first all-female statewide election in New York State history.
The accomplishment—only the seventh all-female U.S. Senate race in the nation’s history—deserves recognition. Though New York is generally thought of as one of the country’s most liberal states, its Legislature currently ranks a mere 31st in the nation, with its 22.2 percent female membership, according to the Center for American Women and Politics of Rutgers University. The ratio of women to men in the state congressional delegation is higher—9 out of 29—but with reapportionment the overall number of seats will soon be 27, and the most fiercely contested congressional races in the state this November disproportionately involve female incumbents.
Though New York has had four female statewide executives—Secretary of State Florence E.S. Knapp, in the 1920s, and three lieutenant governors, Mary Anne Krupsak, Betsy McCaughey Ross and Mary O. Donohue—the state, unlike New Jersey and Connecticut, has never had a female governor, comptroller or attorney general; a woman has never been the head of either house of the Legislature; and though it is harder to imagine now given the attention Hillary Clinton received over her eight years in office, it wasn’t until her victory in 2000 that New York elected its first
Considering the deep ideological chasm between them, Gillibrand and Long have a surprising amount in common besides the historic milestone they share. Both candidates are mothers of two. Both are Roman Catholics; Long teaches the catechism, while Gillibrand taught a Bible class for kids. Each was an undergraduate at Dartmouth, Long in the class of ’82, Gillibrand the class of ’88. Each clerked for Reagan-appointed judges on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit: Long for Ralph K. Winter; Gillibrand for Roger Miner. And both ultimately went on to successful legal careers at high-powered white-shoe law firms in Manhattan—Gillibrand for Davis Polk & Wardwell; Long for Kirkland & Ellis.
But there the parallels end. Long, a staunch Conservative, will spend the coming months emphasizing the differences between herself and Gillibrand, to whom she refers as “the most liberal Senator in America”—a title that has been affixed to Gillibrand by her GOP critics since the conservative National Journal branded her with the distinction in February (she tied for first with Oregon’s Jeff Merkley). It also appears that Long will relentlessly tie Gillibrand to the president, the economy and “Obamacare”—a strategy uncertain to prove effective in enough regions of the state to overcome Gillibrand’s personal popularity.
For now the starkest distinction between the two candidates is the respective size of their war chests. In the Republican primary, Long struggled to raise money and started the general-election stretch with little cash in reserve. Gillibrand, by contrast, has an eye-popping $10.5 million in the bank and a juggernaut fundraising organization to keep raking in money. (If you’re on her email list, as I am, you’re used to receiving urgent solicitations for must-reach dollar plateaus more frequently than can credibly be deemed “urgent.”)
Long could conceivably end up the beneficiary of mind-boggling amounts of Super PAC money, of course. Yet until the national Republican leadership decides she can make this Election Day a closer contest than the party’s 2010 nominee, Joseph DioGuardi—whom Gillibrand crushed 63 to 35 percent, carrying 54 of New York’s 62 counties—it is unlikely that many dollars will come in for Long.
Even so, Gillibrand is cautious not to take her reelection for granted, going out of her way to stress that her goal is to remain in the Senate for “as long as possible.”
What if she does win in November, and the right set of circumstances came along in 2016? Would she? Could she? Gillibrand is amused by the suggestion, so long as her stated intentions to the contrary are clear. About the speculation Gillibrand allows, “It’s very kind. And of course it’s very flattering. I appreciate people’s confidence.”
Does that mean one day Kirsten Gillibrand could have it all?
If you ask her, she already does.
Tags: 2016, Albany Democratic Women’s Club, Andrew Cuomo, Anne-Marie Slaughter, Atlantic Monthly, Bella Abzug, Betsy McCaughey Ross, Caroline Kennedy, Dartmouth, David Paterson, Democratic State Committee, Deval Patrick, Elana Broitman, Empire PAC, Erastus Corning 2nd, Florence Knapp, Gloria Steinem, Hillary Clinton, Jeff Merkley, Jerry Kremer, Jon Stewart, Joseph DioGuardi, Karina Cabrera, Kathy Hochul, Kirsten Gillibrand, Lisa Murkowski, Liz Benjamin, Marco Rubio, Mario Cuomo, Mary Anne Krupsak, Mary O. Donohue, Michele Jawando, Morgan Pehme, Off the Sidelines, Polly Noonan, Ralph K. Winter, Roger Miner, Rosie the Riveter, Sandy Treadwell, Sean Gavin, Shirley Chisholm, Susan Collins, Tammy Baldwin, Terri Sewell, Tina Brown, Wendy Long, women
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