Kirsten Gillibrand: If I Can Make it There (Upstate), I’ll Make it Anywhere

Credit: Kirsten Gillibrand

This Spring, the Berkeley Public Policy Journal will profile the (many) candidates vying to become the next President of the United States. Starting Tuesday, March 5 – a calendar year before Super Tuesday – BPPJ will feature weekly posts written by Goldman students who are taking a look at who’s running and why. We note that these posts feature author opinions that do not represent BPPJ, the Goldman School of Public Policy, or UC Berkeley.

By Eddie Sun

The 2020 presidential race has attracted a historically large field, but few of the candidates for the Democratic nomination are household names, and even fewer are familiar enough to be known on a first-name basis. Kirsten Gillibrand, the senator from New York, is not one of those fortunate few.

That’s not to say that Gillibrand can be counted out just yet. On the issue of first name recognition, she already has one devoted Twitter user who is trying to make the nickname “Kiki” happen (it’s not going to happen).

She also commands a legion of loyal supporters (they’re called Gillistans), who have recently pointed to media bias in its awed coverage of polyglot Pete Buttigieg speaking Italian and Norwegian, while barely covering footage of Gillibrand speaking fluent Mandarin. She’s even got star power in her corner, having roomed with future Hollywood actress Connie Britton when they were Dartmouth undergrads.

A Woman’s Place in the Senate

But at her day job in the “world’s greatest deliberative body,” Senator Gillibrand has distinguished herself as a leading voice against sexual assault in America, and in the military particularly. Long before the New York’s junior senator threw her hat into the presidential ring, she sponsored legislation to reform the process for prosecuting military sexual assault. Her bill would have taken the handling of sexual assault cases out of the military chain of command and placed those matters within the jurisdiction of independent prosecutors, reasoning that commanding officers face conflicts of interest in deciding to bring cases to trial.

Gillibrand’s bill never made it into law. However, she came to be closely associated this and other issues around women’s experiences in the workplace, especially as she centered her public persona around her image as a working mother. At the height of #MeToo in 2017, she became the first senator to call for the resignation of her colleague Al Franken amid revelations that he had engaged in inappropriate sexual behavior around numerous women.

From Blue Dog Beginnings to the Liberal Resistance

Before Gillibrand made a name for herself as a leader of the #MeToo movement, she was a centrist lawyer running for Congress in Upstate New York. Her first foray into politics was her 2006 congressional race in a conservative district that she won in an upset against the incumbent Republican congressman, John Sweeney. That year also saw heavy Democratic gains that swept the party to majorities in both the House of Representatives and Senate.

In Gillibrand’s two terms as a member of the House, she carved out a space to her party’s right. She aligned herself with the relatively conservative Blue Dog Coalition, obtained a 100% positive rating from the National Rifle Association, and opposed New York State’s plans to issue drivers licenses to undocumented immigrants. However, her electoral circumstances changed abruptly when then-Senator Hillary Clinton was nominated to become Secretary of State in 2009. The governor of New York appointed Gillibrand to the vacant Senate seat and the new senator soon developed a voting record that better reflected the more progressive attitudes of her new constituents.

By the time Donald Trump took office as president, Gillibrand had evolved into one of the most liberal members of the US Senate. More so than any other member of that body, Gillibrand refused to confirm President Trump’s nominees for his administration and judicial vacancies. At the time of one tallying, she had cast just 14 “yes” votes out of 112 roll call votes on nominees, a support rate of just 13%.

And with her party shut out of most policymaking under unified Republican control of government, Gillibrand became increasingly vocal in her support of policies that are popular among the left, such as Medicare-for-all and the Green New Deal.

Eddie Sun is a Master of Public Policy candidate at the Goldman School of Public Policy and an Editor  of the Berkeley Public Policy Journal.

This article is an opinion piece, and the opinions expressed represent the author alone. The views expressed in this article do not necessarily represent those of the Berkeley Public Policy Journal, the Goldman School of Public Policy, or UC Berkeley.