Correction: A previous version of this story named the wrong branch of the military in which retired Gen. James Mattis served. Mattis was in the Marine Corps.
Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand has become an outspoken critic of President Donald Trump’s cabinet picks and a defender of women’s rights, which many feel are threatened by the new administration.
Given that opposition to the Trump agenda is likely to be a litmus test for the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination, Gillibrand’s name has started to come up as a potential candidate; she’s been mentioned in national publications and on political websites — the kinds of places where people are already thinking ahead four years.
Gillibrand, 50, is an Albany native with deep political roots in the Capital Region. Her family’s home is in Brunswick. Her maternal grandmother was Dorothea “Polly” Noonan, one of Albany’s most prominent Democratic leaders during the era of Mayor Erastus Corning’s leadership.
Her first elected role was representing the 20th Congressional District — a generally conservative rural district that encircles the Capital Region’s core cities. She held that role from 2007 to 2009, when Gov. David Paterson picked her for Hillary Clinton’s vacant Senate seat.
Last week, Gillibrand was the only member of the Senate to vote against retired Gen. James Mattis for Secretary of Defense — a stance she said was based on principle, a firm feeling that civilian control of the military is important. The Senate waived a seven-years-retired waiting period rule in order to appoint Mattis, who retired from the Marine Corps in 2013.
Even before the current debate about cabinet nominees, The Hill, a political website, late last year seeded Gillibrand at No. 5 among potential 2020 Democratic candidates — behind fellow senators Elizabeth Warren, of Massachusetts, and Corey Booker, of New Jersey, but several places ahead of Gov. Andrew Cuomo.
Gillibrand, who defeated Republican Wendy Long to win her first six-year term in 2012, would presumably need to win re-election in 2018 to be viable in a presidential race. Her office refused to discuss the speculation about the presidency.
“The only race she is interested in is her reelection to the Senate in 2018, and the only thing she takes into consideration when deciding how to vote on Cabinet nominees is their record and qualifications,” Gillibrand spokesman Marc Bruner told the Washington Post.
In addition to speaking out — and voting against — nearly all of Trump’s cabinet picks, Gillibrand has been outspoken in defense of women’s reproductive rights, protections for gay and transgender people and the prevention of rape in the military.
“I will always fight to protect a woman’s right to make her own health care decisions, and I’ll work to block GOP efforts to repeal the (Affordable Care Act),” she wrote Wednesday on Twitter.
But she has also been a strong constituent representative, routinely working with Sen. Majority Leader Chuck Schumer to deliver federal money to New York. Just this week, she announced millions of dollars in water infrastructure funding for communities in Central New York and the Hudson Valley and announced the appointments of five high school students to U.S. military academies.
If she were to run, Skidmore College political science professor Robert Turner said she’d be a serious contender.
“I think Kirsten Gillibrand potentially allows Democrats to position themselves to appeal to suburban middle-class America, and she’s a new and fresh face,” Turner said. “I think she would be very attractive to suburban, white, middle class voters, and she has a real soccer mom, clean persona.”
But while her issues may appeal to progressive Democrats, it’s not going to play with committed Republicans.
“I really don’t feel she’s had a major impact on national policy,” said Schenectady County GOP Chairman Michael Cuevas. “A lot of this appears to be based on her voting against Trump appointees, and to me, that’s hardly a qualification for running for president.”
To date, just five Cabinet nominations have come to the Senate floor, and the only nominee Gillibrand has supported is Nikki Haley, the former South Carolina governor who is now ambassador to the United Nations. Gillibrand said this week she will oppose Betsy DeVos, Trump’s nominee for education secretary, whose appointment has yet to be voted on by the full Senate.