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BJORK: Honey Badger or Tortoise: Kirsten Gillibrand Struggles to Break Through a Crowded Field

Why Consider Kirsten Gillibrand

Senator Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) has made a name for herself as an outspoken Trump critic and an advocate for women’s rights. In a race with 23 other Trump-haters and three other female senators, however, Gillibrand has struggled to set herself apart. Though voters might know her name, most know little about her background or key policy ideas. 

Background

Raised in a political family in Albany, Gillibrand grew up stuffing envelopes with her grandmother, Peggy Noon, who founded the Albany Democratic Women’s Club and was a close confident of the mayor. Gillibrand graduated from Dartmouth College, where she majored in East Asian studies and learned Mandarin (Pete Buttigeg is not the only multilingual candidate in this race—despite the amount of attention he has received for it.) After attending law school at UCLA, Gillibrand worked as a corporate lawyer and then as special counsel to Andrew Cuomo while he was the Secretary of Housing and Urban Development in the Clinton Administration. She also worked for Hillary Clinton’s 2000 Senate campaign, focusing on engaging young women in particular. 

In 2007, Gillibrand was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives, beating an incumbent Republican, John Sweeny, in a rural district, NY20, that was shifting Democratic as more liberals moved upstate. Days before the election, the press obtained the records of a phone call to the police, in which Sweeny’s wife claimed that he was “knocking [her] around the house.” Aided by this evidence of domestic violence, Gillibrand triumphed with 53 percent of the vote. As a representative, Gillibrand joined the Blue Dog Coalition, a pro-business group of moderate and conservative Democrats, and opposed the 2008 bank bailout. She won an unlikely reelection against Sandy Treadwell in 2008, in a House race the Republican Party was determined to win and that was later deemed one of the most expensive of the cycle. For her politics during this time period, New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd called Gillibrand an “NRA handmaiden.”

Although still a political newcomer, Gillibrand was appointed to fill Hillary Clinton’s Senate seat in 2009, after Senator Chuck Schumer, New York’s senior senator told the governor that it would be good to have a woman or someone from upstate. Since her appointment, Gillibrand has gained a reputation as a mainstream Democrat and a star fundraiser, a talent that dissuaded several other Democrats from primarying her in a 2010 special election. 

Although she is 52, a linguist determined that Gillibrand speaks with the intonation usually associated with teenage girls. For her peppiness and plainspoken sincerity, Evan Osnos of the New Yorker called her “strong vanilla.” Always optimistic, Gillibrand gained a reputation as a faithful advocate for bipartisanship, which she employed to help repeal Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell. In the age of Trump, however, this bipartisanship is harder to spot; Gillibrand holds the rather esteemed title of least likely senator to vote with Trump (just 11.3% of the time). Though she has staked her 2020 campaign on women’s rights, especially abortion access, little of Gillibrand’s policies or background set her apart as a uniquely qualified progressive in a crowded field. 

Key Issues

Abortion Access: Although supporting abortion rights is a mainstay of any Democratic platform, Gillibrand has made it a key feature of her campaign, traveling to Georgia a few days after the Republican governer signed an extrememly restrictive abortion law. 

Me Too: Even before sexual assault became such a prominent issue in American politics, Gillibrand used her position as Chair of the Armed Services Subcommittee on Personnel to call a hearing on sexual assault within the military, later sponsoring legislation that would have given indpendent lawyers (instead of military commanders) the power to prosecute sexual assault. Gillibrand was also the first senator to call for the resignation of then-Senator Al Franken (D-MN) amid allegations of sexual misconduct. Although many prominent senate colleagues rapidly joined her, Gillibrand has drawn heat for a decision many donors and voters saw as politically opportunistic rather than morally motivated.

Paid Family Leave: Gillibrand has introduced a national paid family leave policy in every Congress since 2013, making her a leader on this important progressive objective. This legislation, called the F.A.M.I.L.Y. Act, would give workers 12 weeks of paid family and medical leave to care for a new child, a sick family member, or themselves.

Federal Jobs Guarantee: Although it has not (yet) assumed center stage in the debate over progressive policy, Gillibrand has stated her support for a federal jobs guarantee. She has cosponsored legislation introduced by 2020 candidate Senator Cory Booker (D-NJ), which would create jobs by partnering with local governments and undertaking large infrastructure projects. The idea behind this legislation is to set a floor for a benefits and salaries, thus strengthening workers’ ability to bargain.

Abolishing I.C.E.: In June of 2018, Gillibrand became the first Democratic senator to call for the abolition of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (I.C.E.), saying that it needed to be reimagined because it was deporting families without strengthening homeland security. Other Democrats joined her in this stance, proving her effectiveness in shaping the debate—months before she and her high-profile senate peers were openly considering running in 2020.

Controversies 

As a representative from NY20, Gillibrand had an A rating from the National Rifle Association. She also voted to make English the national language and deny drivers’ licenses to undocumented immigrants.  (I’ll leave the hot takes to you.) Once she was appointed to the Senate, Gillibrand’s positions changed rapidly, which she has consistently said is because she was brave enough to change her views after learning new information. She now favors comprehensive immigration reform, including a path to citizenship, and holds an F from the NRA. 

An Emblematic Anecdote 

Former Senator Bob Corker (R-TN) once compared Gillibrand to a honey badger because she was so relentlessness in asking him to support a piece of legislation that would have changed the way the military prosecutes sexual assault. He meant it as a compliment, and Gillibrand took it as such—although she ultimately failed to win his vote for the legislation. 

Fiercest Competitor

For their commonality as young, female senators from powerful Democratic states and their determined opposition to Trump, I think Senator Kamala Harris (D-CA) is the candidate most similar to Gillibrand. Both senators have emphasized issues like health care, women’s rights, and raising the minimum wage. Harris, however, has a significant polling advantage

State of the Race

Not great—Gillibrand hit the 65,000 donor mark needed to qualify for the first debate just a week before the lineup was set. Although she transferred $10 million over from her Senate campaign fund, Gillibrand has raised just $3 million in the first quarter of 2019 (a poor performance given the number of wealthy Democratic donors in New York) and continues to spend money faster than most of her rivals. In an interview, Gillibrand says that she is accustomed to being an underdog but that she is a tortoise whose strategy will pay off in the long run. Her campaign has tried to set itself apart as fun, sending her to drag shows, arm wrestling competitions, and spin classes with reporters. Still, Gillibrand has received quite a bit of media criticism, even though these naysayers have been less condemning of other candidates who have not broken three percent in the polls. 

Fun facts

Gillibrand is one of two female senators with young children running (the other is Senator Tammy Duckworth (D-IL)). In addition to being a fun fact, this is an important factor in shaping Gillibrand’s policy priorities, including paid family leave. Gillibrand has also won more votes in a New York election than anyone else in history, outperforming Governor Andrew Cuomo this past November by nearly half a million votes. 

Despite her lackluster performance in the campaign thus far, Gillibrand’s popularity in New York and her strong showing in the first debate suggest that she is a candidate worth watching.