Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, who has voted against four out of five of President Donald Trump’s nominees, has become the focal point of celebratory memes, editorial praise and is already being talked about as a possible challenger to Trump in 2020. There is no doubt Gillibrand, a soft-spoken and wonkish mother of two who won a long-shot bid for Congress in a conservative upstate district ten years ago, has become the face of the resistance.
It is a role that Gillibrand isn’t exactly rejecting but at the same time isn’t quite comfortable with. She and her staff want nothing to do with early presidential talk, but Gillibrand, a protege of former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, has been working for over five years to get women involved in politics through her organization Off the Sidelines. She leads head on, on issues like sexual harassment and rape in the military, and the response of university administrations to on-campus sexual assault.
‘It is very humbling,” Gillibrand told The Alt, in an exclusive interview, when asked about the reaction to her votes in opposition to Trump’s nominees and the way she’s been held up as a Democrat in a leadership position who is actually listening to her constituents.
One popular meme features Gillibrand’s head shot in front of an American flag with the text, “This is Senator Kristen (sic) Gillibrand. She is the only Person to Vote Against EVERY Trump cabinet appointment. If You Support Her Stand Against Government Corruption, Comment Yes and Share.”
Another Tweet reads, “Dear @SenateDems: This is Kirsten Gillibrand. She’s the only one among you with the gonads to oppose the Hair Fuhrer (sic). Be like @SenGillibrand.”
— Old Hippie Charlie (@cwpontwit) January 27, 2017
Legislators are being bombarded by phone calls, emails, and faxes demanding they vote against Trump’s nominations. A major effort to swing one more Republican to vote against Betsy Devos for education secretary was underway as this article went to print. And Gillibrand says this kind of involvement is exactly what she wants to see.
What Gillibrand says she is concerned about is not her face on a meme, or even talk of a future presidential run, but the fact that her actions are inspiring others to get involved.
“It’s really important because their voices really do matter. I know so many people have a feeling of a call to action so intensely that they are doing literally everything they can to be heard. I feel like we are watching democracy being enlivened like I’ve never seen before,” Gillibrand said noting she wasn’t alive during the civil rights movement and was too young to have properly witnessed protests against the Vietnam War.
The vote to confirm Gen. James Mattis as secretary of defense was 98-1 with Gillibrand as the only dissenter. Gillibrand said she voted against Mattis because federal law prohibits a military leader from taking a civilian leadership position until they’ve been retired for 7 or more years. Mattis retired in 2013. Gillibrand plans to vote against Betsy Devos as education secretary.
The first weeks of Donald Trump’s presidency have been hallmarked by massive protests. From the Women’s March on Washington through satellite marches across the country and impromptu protests at international airports such as JFK to large gatherings in the centers of sleepy small towns, many Americans are engaged in politics in a way they weren’t only months before.
“In our darkest hour, Senator Gillibrand is showing leadership in a fight against hate, greed and the attempt to trample on our civil rights,” said Karen Scharff, executive director of Citizen Action/NY. “I’m excited to see Gillibrand standing up against people who would trample on the things that make this country great.”
I’m with you. I support you. And I’ll never stop fighting for our immigrants and refugees.
— Kirsten Gillibrand (@SenGillibrand) January 29, 2017
While it is inspiring for advocates and liberals to see Gillibrand’s firm stance against Trump’s nominees, it is equally inspiring for her to see so many people interested in advocacy and engaged in politics.
“It is unbelievably exciting to see these young kids literally putting their heart and soul into action,” said Gillibrand. “Their energy and determination is so raw, but is is also peaceful. I believe the Women’s March on Washington created a lot of goodwill, and it was the first step of entering the political sphere. I think many of them may take the next step and run for office. And if they don’t run they are going to take their role as a citizen more seriously.”
Gillibrand says she was extremely impressed with the turnout for the march in Albany. The march, held as a satellite of the Women’s March on Washington drew over 7,000 people. Sen. Neil Breslin said he believes the marches and protests since have included “disproportionate number of women who maybe hadn’t been involved before. It can only do immense good for the Democratic party.”
The Democratic establishment has come under fire for their handling of the primary, when young voters swarmed to Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and were hostile to Clinton’s middle-of-the-road policy positions, and voiced their feeling that she was being shoved down their throats.
The situation got even worse as hacks revealed how Democratic party officials worked behind the scenes for Clinton and against Sanders. Now many Democrats are under fire for approving Trump’s nominees. Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) has been the subject of a host of protests and campaigns from the left as he’s voted in favor of James Mattis to lead the Pentagon, Rep. Mike Pompeo as CIA Director, Nikki Haley as U.N. ambassador and John Kelly to head the Department of Homeland Security. Gillibrand also voted in favor of Haley.
Schumer, facing considerable pressure from his base, announced on January 30 that he will oppose many of Trump’s other nominees, announcing on Facebook, “I will vote against nominees who will be the very worst of this anti-immigrant, anti-middle-class, billionaires’-club cabinet.”
Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Massachusetts), a progressive favorite, rallied in Boston Common during a late weekend in January telling the crowd. “We can whimper. We can whine. Or we can fight back!” She returned to Washington and voted to confirm Dr. Ben Carson to head the Department of Housing and Urban Development. Carson famously told her during questioning: “it will not be my intention to do anything to benefit any American” She quickly faced backlash from liberal constituents.
Gillibrand’s public stand against Trump’s nominees has won her favor with the kind of liberals who might not have generally supported her previously or even known who she was. Gillibrand’s first two runs for Congress saw her trying determinedly to paint herself as a Democrat with conservative leanings.
This reporter accompanied her on a number of campaign stops during her 2006 contest against then sitting Rep. John Sweeney and in her 2008 contest against Republican Sandy Treadwell. Gillibrand at the time made strong arguments against the Iraq war at public fairs and town-hall meetings, but also expressed firm support for gun rights. She had an A rating from the NRA and the tobacco industry. Her position on marriage equality was that it was up to the states. She was a member of the conservative Blue Dog Democrats.
In 2009, then New York Senator Hillary Clinton was appointed Secretary of State by President Obama. That left an opening in the Senate, and it was up to Gov. David Paterson, who had inherited the Governorship from Eliot Spitzer (who had resigned after revelations that he frequented prostitutes). Paterson faced immense pressure to nominate one of a host of big-name politicians to the position, such as Caroline Kennedy and even now Gov. Andrew Cuomo. In the end, Paterson picked Gillibrand. The new senator quickly faced pressure from New York City Democrats to adopt more liberal positions. She did just that, becoming more flexible on gun control and introducing legislation to repeal the Defense of Marriage Act and serving as an instrumental lobbyist during the push for marriage equality in New York State.
“I think it is behind her–the fact that she was a congresswoman with more moderate views on certain issues,” said Douglas Muzzio, professor of political science at Baruch College. “She’s moved past that.”
She has since become a favorite target of the Right, and her votes against Trump’s appointees are dismissed by conservatives as a hyper-partisan, knee-jerk reaction. Local ultra-conservative talk-show host Paul Vandenburgh Tweeted, “KGillibrand slready announced she’s against Gorsuch. What a shocker” in response to her announcement that she opposes Trump’s nominee to the Supreme Court.
KGillibrand slready announced she’s against Gorsuch. What a shocker
— Paul Vandenburgh (@PaulVandenburgh) February 1, 2017
But those who know Gillibrand say that isn’t who the Senator is. She’s known to study issues and people down to the very core and then act based on her research. “I don’t think she comes at this from a left/right spectrum,” says Scharff. “She’s someone who takes seriously her role and studies policy issues and the impact they will have on public lives. I don’t think she’s coming at it ideologically.”
Breslin said that blind partisanship just isn’t part of the Gillibrand he knows. “I’ve known her family since I was a child and I they are remarkable, her mother is an extremely capable lawyer and a wonderful person. We all know her grandmother was deeply involved in politics.”
Breslin said that knowing Gillibrand as he does, he believes her votes “highlight the overall quality of candidates picked by Trump. I admire Senator Gillibrand for voting against these nominees.”
Asked about her opposition to Gorsuch, Gillibrand said that she disagrees with him on a number of points of law, but her biggest issue was his take on corporate rights. “He believes not only that corporations have free speech rights but also that they are entitled to religious beliefs. I think he will do illegal things on the court. I think what he supports is morally wrong and constitutionally wrong.”
State Sen. Liz Krueger (D-Manhattan) said that she thinks Gillibrand’s actions are critically important given that so many constituents are throwing themselves into politics head-on for the first time. She says it’s important they know they’re being heard so that they stay engaged. “I think it’s critically important women in leadership continue to stand up and say ‘We’re not gonna live in a world like this!’” I get questions every day–people asking, ‘What should I do? I dropped the ball and wasn’t watching carefully enough. How can I get involved now?’”
Krueger said it’s clear that “people want us to hold strong, people want us to fight back; they want to get more activist and involved.”
For many, Gillibrand represents a fresh face willing to call the Trump administration out for what it is and stand against it. For other liberals, she represents hope that a woman can still be president, that women will continue to have a say in Washington despite the Trump administration’s policies.
Gillibrand’s leadership has led to a great amount of speculation about whether she is eyeing a run for president in 2020 and whether in some way she hopes to avenge her mentor.
“Let me start by saying that her behavior would indicate she certainly sees the potential for national office in either 2020 or 2024,” said Muzzio. “She’s staked out real areas of policy that she’s made her own since she became a Senator, and the latest move is that she’s established herself as a point of opposition to a president and his appointees, whom many people feel are a real threat to Democracy.”
“I think she’s resonated well with young people and women,” said Muzzio. “In fact, I was her congressional constituent and I’m a constituent now, and she’s resonated with me.”
Breslin said he doesn’t think it would be a bad idea for Gillibrand or any other Democrat to start thinking about a run. “I think groundwork should be laid because there’s no obvious choice,” he said.
New York’s Junior Senator has been a prolific fundraiser since her Congressional days–a fact that could both help and hurt any presidential ambitions she might have. Her quarterly October filing with the Federal Election Commission shows her with $2,169,629 on hand. Warren, by comparison, reported over $3 million, Sen. Corey Booker D (NJ) reported $1,380,448 and Schumer reported, $10,783,795.
Whether her end game turns out to be a run for the presidency or not, her immediate goal isn’t just about getting more voters engaged and empowering women; she wants the public pressure to prevent Trump and his administration from enacting a world view she sees as threatening to the very fabric of the country as well as stability across the globe
“I’d be surprised if it wasn’t having an impact,” said Gillibrand. “You couldn’t not see the marches across world after the inauguration. And whether Trump sees it or not, it is having an impact on our country. The level of how many people want Obamacare has gone up because they realize they do want health care. So I think things are shifting.”
Krueger said she is hopeful that Democrats will capitalize on the moment and harness frustrations into efforts to swing state-level government in 2017 and Congressional seats in 2018.
Asked whether she thinks public involvement in protests and pressure on elected officials will be sustainable until the next elections, Gillibrand was more than hopeful.
“I think people are going to move forward in whatever way they think they may be heard–things go viral, things that could never have been planned without FB and Twitter. People are going to and should continue to reach out and express themselves however they can, a phone call, a letter to the editor. People will and should continue to communicate their fears and frustration in all forms.”