Senator’s star shines as nation unites behind her cause

Ever since long-shot entrance into 2006 House race, Gillibrand has been underestimated
Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand prepares to be filmed at the Capitol in Washington on Dec. 20, 2010.
Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand prepares to be filmed at the Capitol in Washington on Dec. 20, 2010.

For much of the year, Kirsten Gillibrand’s critics — sensing a presidential aspirant in their midst — had assumed that the New York senator could not hear enough about herself. For one day at least, it appeared she had.

It had been 10 hours since President Donald Trump accused her of “begging” for campaign contributions that she “would do anything” to secure, and Gillibrand, driving with her 14-year-old son on Tuesday evening, flipped on the radio looking for an update on the Senate race in Alabama. The top story, instead, was her. The radio went off again.

What, exactly, had the president said about her? her son asked.

“He thinks mommy is doing a bad job,” she recalled telling him, taking care to censor.

After a Senate career spent elevating victims of sexual harassment and assault as a defining political focus, Gillibrand has assumed her place at the head table of the Democrats’ anti-Trump movement. The reason is simple: Her cause became the country’s. And she has made sure to stay out front in the reckoning.

Gillibrand was the first in her caucus to say Sen. Al Franken, D-Minn., should resign. She was the first prominent Democrat to say President Bill Clinton should have left office for his own sexual misconduct in the 1990s. She called for Trump to step down, citing his “numerous” and “credible” accusers. Then came Trump’s Twitter counterpunch, which was widely viewed as innuendo-laden and which Gillibrand denounced as a “sexist smear.”

Yet Gillibrand’s strengthening hand in national Democratic politics owes to more than mere circumstance. Circumstance does not transform an upstate congresswoman, who once boasted of keeping guns under her bed and pushed English as the official language of the United States, into an avatar of progressivism in 2017.

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Ever since her long-shot entrance into a 2006 House race against an entrenched Republican in a conservative district, Gillibrand has been underestimated. Colleagues in the House once derided her as “Tracy Flick,” the hyper-ambitious blonde played by Reese Witherspoon in the movie “Election.” And when David A. Paterson, New York’s governor at the time, made her the shock pick to fill Hillary Clinton’s Senate seat in 2009, she was immediately seen as vulnerable, especially from the left.

“She had very middle-of-the-road points of view,” Paterson said. “It just kind of appeared that she sort of flipped. I think in retrospect, it would have been better to evolve.”

That knock has not stuck, and she appears to be looking at the next rung of the political ladder. While Gillibrand and her political team play down all talk of 2020, saying she is focused on her own 2018 re-election and those of her fellow Senate Democrats, she has for months been doing the type of spadework endemic to past presidential candidates: expanding her fundraising network, courting key constituencies like black voters and polishing her image nationally.

She sat for a recent Vogue feature, complete with a photo spread by Annie Leibovitz, that included this cover teaser: “2020 Vision: All Eyes On Kirsten Gillibrand.” She has blitzed the circuit of liberal news media, including the popular podcasts of former Obama administration officials, “Pod Save America” and “Lovett or Leave It.” She has cursed freely in public venues, a recurring tic in her career — registering more recently as a brashness to match these Trumpian times.

Long a talented fundraiser, Gillibrand has cultivated a flourishing network of small donors, raising nearly $3 million in the first three quarters of 2017 from people who gave less than $200, more than she had in the previous eight years combined from such donors. Google searches for “Gillibrand 2020” are sometimes topped by ads for her campaign website reading, “Join the Resistance — Stand with Kirsten Gillibrand.”

“She was taking on powerful men and calling out sexual harassment and assault long before there was a hashtag,” said Rebecca Katz, a Democratic strategist and former aide to Sen. Harry Reid of Nevada.

Gillibrand has also seemed eager to make inroads with black audiences who are central to any Democratic presidential candidate. She has appeared recently on the programs of two figures in the African-American community: DeRay Mckesson, the influential Black Lives Matter activist, and Zerlina Maxwell, a former aide to Hillary Clinton who now heads progressive programming at Sirius XM.

Maxwell said Gillibrand’s team reached out after Clinton appeared on her show this fall. “If you’re a Democrat and you want to run for president in 2020 and you’re not really engaging black voters, you’re going to lose,” Maxwell said.

This past week, Gillibrand was engaging everyone, with an assist from Trump.

Her Twitter response, which she drafted in a minuteslong phone call with her aides as she stepped out of a bipartisan Bible study (“You cannot silence me,” it began), became the most widely shared missive of her career.

By the next day, it had more than six times as many retweets as Trump’s initial blast.

“I think the entire world is now ready for this conversation,” Gillibrand said in an interview. “And I think it really was brought on by the election of President Trump.”

Gillibrand is not universally beloved in the Capitol, where her near-blanket opposition to even uncontroversial Trump administration nominees was met with eye rolls from some peers.

Her moment at center stage follows notable turns from some other members of the “2020 caucus,” as some on Capitol Hill have labeled the presidentially curious.

Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., found her catchphrase in February, courtesy of Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., the majority leader, who led a push to formally silence her for impugning a colleague on the Senate floor. “Nevertheless, she persisted,” McConnell complained of Warren.

Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., has enjoyed several high-profile moments in hearings on Russia’s interference in the 2016 election. Her pointed questions and interjections have at times attracted uncommon interruptions from Republican colleagues, leaving supporters to wonder if a male senator would be treated the same way.

That Gillibrand would become the latest female lawmaker with an elevated profile in the Trump age is little surprise to Democrats.

“Misogyny is such a core aspect of Trump,” said Brian Fallon, a former top aide to Clinton and Sen. Chuck Schumer of New York, the Democratic leader. “It makes it quite natural for female politicians on the left to be his foil because standing up to him on those issues is so core to taking him on in general. Male politicians are trying to keep up.”

Gillibrand evinces an aw-shucks political persona, but she was born into a deeply political family, the daughter of a prominent Albany lobbyist and the granddaughter of Dorothea “Polly” Noonan, a key aide to the longtime Democratic kingmaker in town, Mayor Erastus Corning.

Paterson’s choice in 2009, which he considers a signal achievement of his tenure, came down to a simple calculation: He was deciding between Gillibrand and Andrew M. Cuomo, then New York’s attorney general and now its governor, he said. And only one of them had a certain future with or without his help.

“Andrew Cuomo was destined to go beyond where he was,” he said, “Kirsten Gillibrand, not necessarily.”

In the years since, it has been a testament to Gillibrand’s political skills that she managed her shape-shifting without, for the most part, alienating a Democratic base that can be fickle about such things, or attaining a reputation as a politician with no core. The Republican National Committee flooded inboxes with 4,000 words of prepackaged research on Gillibrand’s fluid positions in an effort to change that this week.

“There have been some criticisms of her for being opportunistic,” said Michele Jawando, a former chief counsel to Gillibrand in the Senate. “But she lives her life with deep empathy and compassion for other people. It’s not a farce. It’s not a fake thing.”

Her latest flourish: saying Bill Clinton should have resigned as president, despite the fact that he has campaigned and raised money for her and that Hillary Clinton wrote the forward to Gillibrand’s book.

Her fans do not much care. She keynoted the anti-Trump Women’s Convention in Detroit this October. Late-night comedian Samantha Bee wrote on Twitter that she hoped Trump’s tweet would be Gillibrand’s “superhero origin story and ignite her 2020 campaign.” (Later, Gillibrand filmed a brief segment for Bee’s show.)

“I’ve been stopped by people on the street, like, literally nonstop in the last 48 hours,” she said in the interview.

At the same time, supporters say, Gillibrand has earned a reputation for aggressively pursuing Republican colleagues to sign onto her efforts, from changing procedures for reporting sexual assault in the military to rolling out a host of Republican co-sponsors this week for a bill to overhaul sexual harassment procedures in Congress.

One of her best-known fights, legislation to provide benefits to 9/11 emergency responders, placed her in the company of sharply divergent constituencies.

As part of her outreach, she met in the New York office of Roger Ailes, the former Fox News chairman later felled by charges of sexual harassment, according to a person familiar with the meeting, urging him to direct coverage favorable to the effort.

She also became friendly with emergency workers like John Feal, who lost part of his foot after helping to clear debris at ground zero. In 2016, Feal was Gillibrand’s guest at the State of the Union address, joining her at a reception that evening.

With a glass of wine in her hand, Feal recalled, Gillibrand looked back at him, plainly bored by her elected company. She had not smoked since she became a mother, she told him. And yet.

“I need a cigarette,” Gillibrand joked, adding an expletive her sons are not supposed to hear.

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