Interviews & Profiles
You might have missed it, but Kirsten Gillibrand is at the top of her game
New York’s junior senator specializes in relentless productivity behind the scenes.
It’s been nearly a decade and a half since Kirsten Gillibrand vowed to lead the fight against gun violence after meeting with the parents and classmates of a Brooklyn high school student who had been shot and killed. It was a pivotal moment for the U.S. senator. Gillibrand, who had been in office for two weeks at that point and campaigned for the House in 2008 as a gun rights supporter, emerged from Nazareth Regional High School in 2009 promising to end illegal gun trafficking.
Since then, Gillibrand has become a federal leader in the fight to curb gun violence. She has written op-eds, said she’s proud that her “A” rating from the National Rifle Association dropped to an “F,” rallied with families and introduced legislation to crack down on interstate gun trafficking.
“I started working on that the day I was appointed,” Gillibrand said in an interview with City & State. “We’ve really kept a focus on if you want to improve public safety, you need to get guns out of the hands of criminals.”
Last summer, those efforts paid off. Her legislation was included in a major bipartisan gun control package that passed in June. Under the law, New York prosecutors for the first time charged four people in January with illegally selling guns in Brooklyn.
Gillibrand’s recent successes didn’t end with the passage of the gun trafficking bill. In fact, she described the previous congressional session as the most productive of her career. She had several other successes that had been long in the making, including overhauling how the military responds to sexual assault and other crimes, additional benefits for veterans who’ve been exposed to toxic burn pits and ensuring that people who experience sexual harasment at work are allowed to seek legal recourse.
“She’s a great partner for New York, and she’s always delivering and looking out on how she can help average New Yorkers,” U.S. Sen. Chuck Schumer said. “She understands the people who need help.”
Several of her supporters attributed these policy wins to Gillibrand’s behind the scenes relentlessness, describing it as a testament to how she’s learned to skillfully navigate the Senate.
New York’s junior senator has come a long way since she was selected to succeed Hillary Clinton in January 2009 as an up-and-coming upstate representative. Now, Gillibrand is one of the leading voices fighting against sexual harassment and sexual assault in the military as well as a top advocate for women’s and family rights. Her leadership political action committee Off the Sidelines has raised around $11.1 million in support of hundreds of candidates.
“A lot of times women are not recognized for kind of keeping their head down and doing the work behind the scenes, but what she is doing is building the bench for other women,” said Yvette Buckner, a political strategist and co-founder of Adams Buckner Advisors. “That’s so important because so many times, many governments don’t pass the torch to a woman, they pass it to another man or a protege.”
Despite her clear national ambitions, as demonstrated by her failed 2020 presidential bid, Gillibrand said she was going to run for reelection on Jan. 12. It appears unlikely that she’ll be unseated since no clear challengers have emerged at this point, although some political consultants have speculated whether a progressive challenger like Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez could win the seat. There’s no real track record to go on because she has never been seriously challenged to date – either in Democratic primaries or otherwise – as a senator.
Others said Gillibrand was too focused on national issues and has, at times, seemed less connected with New Yorkers as a result – particularly when compared to U.S. Sen. Chuck Schumer. Still, it’s nearly impossible to out-New York Schumer on local issues, and he’s had almost 20 more years than Gillibrand to build his reputation. For him, there’s no Sunday press conference too small, and no county too far to visit. And that may mean some of her work has been overshadowed.
Like her work to make gun trafficking a federal offense, Gillibrand’s efforts to reform the military justice system date back a decade. She has long argued that permitting military officers to lead investigations into allegations of sexual assault and other felonies discouraged thousands of victims from reporting crimes. Recognizing that she’d need to get bipartisan support to change anything, Gillibrand worked with Republican U.S. Sen. Joni Ernst of Iowa, a combat veteran, and eventually got her support for the bill. She said going on a trip to Afghanistan with Ernst, for example, was vital to building trust with each other so they could tackle military sexual assault. After years of what Gillibrand described as gradually wearing down her opponents with data and information, Congress voted in December to pass legislation to make independent investigators responsible for looking into allegations of sexual harassment and assault, instead of military commanders.
Gillibrand notched another big policy win last year when lawmakers approved a workplace reform that moves allegations of sexual harassment and sexual assault out of closed forced arbitration hearings and into court. Gillibrand partnered with Republican U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina to first introduce the bill in the Senate during the rise of the #MeToo movement in 2017. The bill also works retroactively, freeing tens of millions of people who may have been prevented from taking legal action in the past.
“It didn’t get a lot of notice, but that is a seismic shift in the rights and privileges of survivors of sexual assault and sexual harassment,” Gillibrand said.
President Joe Biden also signed the PACT Act, another military-related bill backed by Gillibrand, that expanded medical benefits for veterans who were exposed to toxins from burn pits while deployed at military bases.
“You wouldn’t really think a young senator from New York would be pushing so hard for some of the things in the military, but she’s kind of chipped away at some of these big bucket issues, not just on women’s issues,” said Amelia Adams, a veteran political consultant and co-founder of Adams Buckner Advisors.
While she’s perhaps most often associated with women’s rights, Gillibrand has championed a broad spectrum of issues. She co-sponsored the 9/11 first responders bill. She’s among a handful of lawmakers who’ve been at the forefront of supporting the crypto industry, working with Republican U.S. Sen. Cynthia Lummis of Wyoming to craft legislation that supporters believe will set the tone on how the federal government regulates the crypto industry. Pointing to her own experience as a working mother of two young sons, she made fighting for paid family and medical leave one of her keystone issues.
In working with Republicans, it probably doesn’t hurt that early in her career Gillibrand represented a relatively conservative House district and espoused more moderate and conservative views. And she hasn’t shied away from talking about her ideological evolution.
“I just think I was new and young and not as sophisticated as I needed to be,” she said. “And I’ve certainly shown my views and my values strongly over the past 15 years.”
She also frequently attends bipartisan prayer breakfasts, Bible studies and is a member of the congressional softball team.
“People love to see that evolution. I think it resonates because so many of us are always evolving,” Buckner said. “To be able to admit that maybe I didn’t have the right position or maybe it wasn’t something that I knew enough about, but now I’m going to change and become an advocate, that’s a really strong quality we want to see in our elected officials.”
Gillibrand is also the first New Yorker to serve on the Senate Agriculture Committee in around 40 years. She’s currently involved in crafting the 2023 farm bill, in which she’s looking to establish better insurance programs for farmers and change dairy pricing.
“I think that she has been willing to educate herself about a wide range of issues that impact people in New York state,” said Tracy Mitrano, a former upstate Democratic congressional candidate who was supported by Gillibrand. “The stereotype is that it’s all about New York City and I don’t see her like that.”
Gillibrand backed Mitrano in 2018 and 2020 after they met at a state rural conference. Mitrano recalled being struck by the senator’s commitment to helping farmers despite many of them being unlikely to support her politically.
“She cares about things that are not sexy and maybe don’t always give her the greatest advantage with donors,” Mitrano said. “Having said that, people who know her appreciate and support her.”
A national profile
When Gillibrand announced her run for president in 2019, she entered the crowded Democratic primary field with a hefty war chest. Her feminist messages were initially met with a blitz of excitement. But what had at first seemed like a promising bid puttered to a lackluster end, after she dropped out eight months later having failed to make a dent in the polls.
Patti Solis Doyle, a Democratic strategist, told Politico at the time, “I don’t think the fact that she was talking about equal pay, sexual assaults in the military, or reproductive rights turned off any Democratic voters. I just think no candidate can only be focused on one gender.”
Gillibrand said her campaign also included platforms on health care, education and jobs, but the media largely honed in on women’s rights and the other topics didn’t get covered as much.
Despite failing to gain much traction, Gillibrand speaks positively today about her presidential campaign, even though she said she has “no ambitions for another presidential run right now.” She said she emerged from the experience a more confident speaker, a better leader and with a more ambitious policy perspective. She even tied it to her string of recent successes in the Senate.
“I think it’s one of the reasons why I’m being so prolific and so effective in getting things done,” she said.
Political consultant Hank Sheinkopf said her mix of policy priorities has partly been crafted out of necessity from the projects and issues that Schumer doesn’t focus on.
“She cut her own special place which could not be taken from her,” Sheinkopf said. “There will be those who will criticize her that her real intention was to run for president of the United States, which she did and failed miserably at, but nobody can take the #MeToo movement away from her nor her battle to change the universal military code of justice.”
Gillibrand said she’s confident she’ll be reelected. She has about $4.4 million in cash on hand. Whether she’ll need that money to fend off a progressive challenger or a competitive Republican candidate remains to be seen. Ocasio-Cortez just filed to run for reelection, Rep. Ritchie Torres said he won’t challenge Gillibrand and former GOP Rep. Lee Zeldin hasn’t indicated what post he might run for next. The money may also serve as a deterrent, in addition to some of the most powerful politicians in New York being in her corner.
Gillibrand was one of the earliest supporters of then-congressional candidate Kathy Hochul. Little did anyone know that the former Erie County clerk would become governor a decade later, and she’s now a powerful supporter in return.
“Gillibrand is a champion for all New Yorkers, leading the charge for fairness and equality, and she is an incredible role model for women in leadership,” Hochul said in an emailed statement. “When I first ran for office, she was one of the first to step up and help. I’m proud to work with her and to count her as a true friend.”
New York City Mayor Eric Adams also gave Gillibrand some credit, saying in an emailed statement that the senator has “shown up and fought on behalf” of New Yorkers time and again. He described her as a reliable advocate on a range of matters, including pushing for federal funding to help New York handle the influx of asylum-seekers.
For Schumer, he has been a fan from the beginning. She in turn said he has been a mentor and supporter throughout her career.
It’s not easy to carve out a political legacy beside someone like Schumer. The Senate majority leader casts a long shadow. While Gillibrand is perhaps best known for tackling national issues and Schumer is often praised for visiting the state’s 62 counties every year, Democratic strategist Camille Rivera strongly disagreed with any perceptions that Gillibrand isn’t entrenched in New York issues. She did acknowledge though that the senator is sometimes careful about diving into local political issues.
“Given her unconventional path to becoming a senator, I think she’s definitely proven herself as someone who has done right by New York,” Rivera said. “I just don’t think she’s as noisy about it so to speak. … Everybody does their work differently.”
What’s her legacy?
Perhaps more than anything else, Gillibrand will likely be remembered for what she’s done for women – both in political circles and with voters.
“If women in all stages of life don’t get involved and fight for what we want, plans will be made that we may not like, and it’ll be our own damned fault. I think about this everyday,” Gillibrand wrote in “Off the Sidelines: Raise Your Voice, Change the World,” her 2014 memoir. “It’s true at every level, from the Capitol to your city’s town hall to your neighborhood school. We need to participate, and we need to be heard. Our lives, our communities, and our world will be better for it.”
Gillibrand has built on that idea in the years since. She was an early supporter of the 21 in ’21 initiative, which was aimed at electing at least 21 women to the New York City Council by 2021. She has also boosted the election efforts of hundreds of other Democratic women across the country through her political action committee. Gillibrand said mentoring women and helping them stoke their own political ambitions has been one of her most rewarding endeavors.
Assembly Member Sarah Clark, one of Gillibrand’s first Senate staff members of more than 10 years, remembered how the senator helped quell her fears about running for office when she considered running for Assembly District 136.
“A lot of women don’t run for office because they’re not part of a political network in their local communities, so when I chose to run I was very nervous,” Clark said. “But she said, ‘I got your back and I’m all in.’”
Democratic Rep. Yvette Clarke recalled being impressed by Gillibrand’s professional accomplishments while also being a mother.
The two women entered Congress in the same year and quickly bonded over their similarities. Clarke’s mother, Una Clarke, and Gillibrand’s grandmother, Dorothea “Polly” Noonan, had helped inspire them to enter politics. Years ago, Noonan and Una Clarke had gravitated to each other and formed a bond “as women standing up in the political space,” according to Yvette Clarke.
“I think her legacy is going to be one of women’s leadership – one that really fights for women’s rights and brings gender balance to the work that we do in a male-dominated profession,” Yvette Clarke said. “Her tenacity in delivering and her compassion for the people of our state will be a part of her legacy.”
A more conclusive picture about Gillibrand’s lasting impact on New York will be painted in the years to come – as many of her supporters and allies said in interviews, at 56, she’s a relatively young senator and she doesn’t give up.
When asked what sort of impact she wants to leave on the state, Gillibrand steered the conversation toward survivors of sexual assault, children of struggling families and seniors.
“Those are really the causes that inspire me the most, because those are the New Yorkers that need my voice to amplify their voice, and lift up their problems and solve those problems in a bipartisan common-sense way,” she said. “I hope that my legacy is a record of helping the people that needed it the most.”
– with reporting from Shantel Destra
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