Kirsten Gillibrand's Improbable Path to Liberal Stardom

New York's junior senator has gone from a rural populist to the next Hillary Clinton—with White House ambitions to match. How did it happen?

Eric Thayer/Reuters
SYRACUSE, N.Y. — It's closer to breakfast than lunch, but Kirsten Gillibrand—wedged between five bulky men at a red-and-white-checkered table—nevertheless smiles until her eyes crinkle as a hamburger smothered in blue cheese and spinach is placed in front of her. She digs in, first with her fingers, then with a knife and fork, skipping the bun entirely. Burgers before 11 a.m.? Sure. But not even on home soil will the Democratic senator eat carbs.
Rick Lazio's refusal to eat a Gianelli's sausage here at the New York State Fair during his Senate race against Hillary Rodham Clinton in 2000 may have had something to do with why he lost. It was "akin to pushing away a kissable baby on the stump," the New York Daily News said. Gillibrand knows better than to turn away a baby. There's a hamburger-cooking contest to judge.
She awards her top vote to a bean-infused mushburger ("extra points for being healthy"), while also telling the crowd of meat enthusiasts that her favorite one might have been the one with cheese, bacon, and an egg. ("If you just keep adding enormous amounts of cholesterol, it makes anything delicious!") 
The crowd approves. She feels like one of their own. "My husband told me I could come to this event only because it was Gillibrand," an apple farmer recounted to me after the cook-off. "If it had been [Chuck] Schumer, he said he would have to divorce me."
Gillibrand is good at having it both ways, and not just when she's splitting the difference between looking healthy and authentic at Beef Day. This upstate native who once bragged about keeping shotguns under her bed also raises more money from the financial sector than any of her Senate colleagues (her haul included $89,700 from Goldman Sachs last cycle, the most among current members of Congress). Self-adorned with the humble goal of giving a "voice to the voiceless," she spent 15 years representing, among other clients, Philip Morris. Once the proud owner of an A rating from the National Rifle Association, Gillibrand watched her grade plummet to an F after she was appointed to the Senate and began supporting bills to curb gun trafficking. She has shifted her stance, too, on immigration, moving away from the hard-line positions she adopted as a member of the House of the Representatives.
In short, she is now much more like Sen. Schumer than attendees at the fair might suspect. "She is an extraordinarily bright politician," says Rep. Steny Hoyer of Maryland, the No. 2 Democrat in the House. "And I use 'politician' in a good way."
A lesser talent might be torn between her two selves: the rural centrist from the closest thing that New York has to "real America"; and the Wall Street-financed, corporate lawyer who's appeared in fashion shoots for Vogue magazine. But after a rocky start in a political career that has lasted less than a decade, she has a found a way to turn the dichotomies to her advantage. Kirsten Gillibrand is determined to have it all—and, along the way, perhaps give Democrats their next bright, young national star.
"My own view is that I think Gillibrand is one of the people in the United States of America that I think can be president of the United States," Hoyer says.
It's a stretch to imagine Gillibrand running for president any time soon: There's a Hillary-sized shadow hanging over 2016, and Governor Andrew Cuomo also appears above her on the New York depth chart. But this is a Democratic Party desperate for new blood and new talent. At 46, Gillibrand fits the bill perhaps better than anyone—and she has begun to build a national persona that can match her ambitions. Her battle against the Pentagon over sexual assaults in the military has won her headlines and praise. At the same time, she's a stunningly adept fundraiser who earns loyalty from her colleagues the old-fashioned way—by doling out money. It's telling that when potential women presidents are mentioned, the list tends to begin and end at Clinton. There is opportunity there.
But to reach that place in the firmament, Gillibrand will have to pull off what many politicians before her have had to do: reconcile her past political identities with her present ones. Gillibrand isn't the first Democrat from a rural, centrist background to try to build a bridge to the progressive wing of the party. (See: the other Clinton, Bill.) And often, it can be easier to accomplish than those liberals trying to convince rank-and-file voters that they are one of them, as both Barack Obama and John Kerry before him struggled to do. But that doesn't mean she won't have some explaining to do on what can be politely termed her evolution.
How she navigates those questions will say a lot about her readiness for the grand stage.

Left Turn

In 2009, two days before Gillibrand was sworn in to the Senate as Hillary Clinton's successor, the 100-year-old Spanish-language newspaper, El Diario, splashed her picture across their cover with the headline: "Anti Inmigrante." The piece quoted Peter Rivera, an Assembly member and now New York's commissioner of labor, as saying her "hard-line stance" of opposing amnesty for undocumented immigrants "borders on xenophobia." At the same time, a slew of House members, such as Reps. Carolyn Maloney and Carolyn McCarthy, threatened to run against her in 2010 because of her conservative record on guns.
But Gillibrand was already working to court progressives. One of her earliest moves in the Senate was to hire the MirRam Group, a public-affairs consulting company with ties to the Hispanic community, including then-Assemblyman Rivera. MirRam set up meetings throughout New York City between Gillibrand and Hispanic leaders in order for her to "listen and learn" about priorities within the Latino community.
She met with Rep. Nydia Velazquez, D-N.Y., a meeting in which Gillibrand would offer her support on the Dream Act, the proposed legislation that would grant legal status to some children of illegal immigrants. For someone who had once opposed Eliot Spitzer's plan to provide undocumented residents with driver's licenses and who supported cutting aid to sanctuary cities, it was more than a tonal shift. Gillibrand sat down with policy experts like Muzaffar Chishti of the Migration Policy Institute, who told National Journal he was "extremely intrigued by how quickly she changed her stance." She also met with El Diario.
"I was stressed out," Luis Miranda of MirRam said about the encounter. "But she was such a good listener and so empathetic that she immediately disarmed people. Just take a look at the coverage from before the meeting, and how it ended in just a couple of weeks."
It was all right out of the Hillary Clinton playbook; 16 months before her own election to the Senate, Clinton traveled the state on her own "listening tour." Gillibrand says today that her evolution makes sense, as she now represents an entire state instead of just one congressional district. For that transformation to be credible, however, Gillibrand needed to undertake what Clinton had before: an observable period of "education," even if it was one that was noticeably brief. (According to The New York Times, Schumer even had to tell her to "slow down" so that it didn't look quite so blatantly political.)
Take her stance on guns. When Gillibrand was in the House, representing her upstate district, she voted with the NRA 100 percent of the time. She supported a bill lifting gun restrictions in the District of Columbia, cosponsored legislation that would make it more difficult for law-enforcement agencies to access gun-trace data, and was called by the Daily Beast a "bizarro version of Sarah Palin."
But the day after she was appointed to the Senate, Gillibrand made her way to a rally in Harlem held by the Rev. Al Sharpton. She told the crowd she could potentially be flexible on the issue of gun control, and left to a standing ovation. She spent the next few weeks talking with advocates and victims of gun violence.
"There aren't a lot of drive-by shootings or anything up in her old district," says Jackie Hilly, who at the time was executive director of New Yorkers Against Gun Violence, and who organized sit-downs with the senator. "Once she started talking to all the victims and seeing that side of the devastation, she was pretty much open right away to supporting different kinds of bills."
Within months, Gillibrand came out and opposed one of the very bills she had cosponsored in the House. She, instead, added her name to a bill to fight gun trafficking with McCarthy, the same congresswoman who had been threatening to challenge her in a primary. Her grade from the NRA tumbled to an F, something that a spokesman said he couldn't remember seeing during his decade at the organization.
And yet Gillibrand's reversal has not been completely persuasive to the gun-control crowd. "If people change their positions, even if it's in the direction you like, you also have to think how committed are they to it," says Arkadi Gerney, who was the political director of Mayors Against Illegal Guns at the time of Gillibrand's ascension and who now works at the Center for American Progress.
Part of the problem is that Gillibrand has not been a perfect ally for the gun-control movement. While Congress was in the midst of an epic struggle to pass a bill on background checks, gun-reform advocates were doing whatever they could to pull vulnerable members off the fence. When Gillibrand brought up her bill on gun trafficking—a bill that would make it a federal crime for straw purchasers to legally buy weapons in states with loose gun laws and sell them to people in other states with stricter laws—some worried that the background-check bill, one of deep importance to Schumer, would suffer.
"The background-check bill was both the biggest policy fix and the most salable," says one Washington gun-reform advocate who believed that Gillibrand was more interested in building her brand than ushering in successful legislation. "Neither of those facts was persuasive to Gillibrand, who was so eager to introduce the first bill with bipartisan support that she screwed Schumer by rushing out a trafficking bill. It was watered down, it was politically low-hanging fruit, and it gave members in both chambers an excuse to say they supported something. It let them off the hook way too easy." The background-check bill has yet to make it to a vote.
National Journal's vote ratings help tell the story of Gillibrand's political journey. In 2007, after her first year in Congress, NJ ranked her as the 185th most liberal member of the House. By 2010, one year into her Senate tenure, she had become Schumer's ideological twin, tied with him as the 10th most liberal member of the chamber. The following year, she sat atop those rankings, along with Oregon's Jeff Merkley.

Upstate Roots

So far, Gillibrand's inconsistent record hasn't damaged her. Even when her opponent in the 2012 election, conservative lawyer Wendy Long, tried to make an issue of it, it didn't get much traction. "People don't like flip-floppers, but it was hard to make the case because she was not coming out to engage," Long says. "And it was less of a political liability since she had aligned herself up to fit in with one of the bluest states."
Not only did her record not hurt, but in a sense having multiple personalities may be, in an odd way, a boon to Gillibrand's long-term prospects. Sure, her haters have plenty to glom on to. ("I regard her as being one of the worst kind of politicians I can think of," says Roy Beck of the anti-immigrant group NumbersUSA. "Her flip-flopping is just indicative that she's just completely in it for herself," Long grouses.) But most of her constituents get the opportunity to see in her what they want to see.
"She understands that even when she takes positions that might be seen as restrictive to gun enthusiasts, she can talk to them and explain her position and her background," says Democratic strategist Joe Trippi. "It disarms people …. That sounds bad in that context, but that's what she does." In other words, if she no longer votes like a centrist, she still knows how to communicate like one.
Never mind that she spent 15 years as a Manhattan lawyer; to upstaters, she's the closest thing to one of them they can hope for in the Senate. It's why at a press conference, held just hours after the hamburger cook-off, on invasive species harming the Finger Lakes—one in which Asian clams, not Republicans, were the enemy—she could say this: "I was just reading the Farmers' Almanac, and it's going to be one of the most brutally cold winters." And no one laughed at her. Schumer could never pull off a line like that. That could partly explain Gillibrand's strong showing last year: She got 72 percent of the vote, a higher percentage than the senior senator has ever garnered.
"It's a pretty conservative area around here," says Robert Harding, a local reporter who was covering the event. "And there's this really pessimistic view of New York City. You'll hear people talking down about New York City politicians all the time, but you don't hear that about Gillibrand."
Gillibrand's credibility upstate has been built up over generations. Her maternal grandmother, Dorothea "Polly" Noonan, paved the way for her in Albany. She was a plain-speaking dynamo of a woman who wielded influence behind the scenes. She worked as the right-hand woman for Erastus Corning, the so-called Mayor for Life of Albany, for years. The only job Noonan was ever able to hold for him was secretary, but the title belied her importance.
"She was as powerful as they let women be in that era," says Paul Grondahl, the author of Mayor Corning: Albany Icon, Albany Enigma. "She was a power broker who could get out the women's vote, help enforce retaliation against those who went against the machine, and wasn't afraid to spout profanities and go toe-to-toe with the men."
Naturally, Noonan was an "inspiration" for Gillibrand and, two generations later, the young, aspirational woman took that same drive and added a little big-city polish to it. And Gillibrand's own ambition is well-known. Early in her congressional career, her colleagues went so far as to call her Tracy Flick, a reference to the blond, ladder-climbing character from the film Election.
Her upstate roots are genuine: Born in Albany, Gillibrand studied at an all-girls school in Troy before attending Dartmouth. She interned with Republican Sen. Al D'Amato, attended UCLA law school, and from 1991 to 2000 worked at the Manhattan white-shoe firm of Davis Polk & Wardell. Her work with the corporate firm included representing Philip Morris in the Justice Department's probe into the tobacco industry, a role documented at length by The New York Times. But if Gillibrand's work would have alarmed local Democrats, her efforts at raising money and organizing women on behalf of Hillary Clinton's senatorial campaign more than made up for it.
"She just wouldn't ever take no for an answer," remembers Karen Finney, a former Democratic National Committee spokeswoman, who along with Gillibrand helped form a group of young professional female fundraisers. Gillibrand began to seek out an opportunity to run for office herself. Believing that the city was already overcrowded with quality candidates, she asked her husband, Jonathan, how he felt about raising kids upstate, and they moved the family to Hudson.
Itching to get into a race for the 20th District, an area that gave 54 percent of its vote to George W. Bush in 2004 and which runs from the Upper Hudson Valley north into the Adirondacks, she toyed with the idea of running in 2004, only to be told by Clinton that 2006 would be a better year for her. Democrats gained 31 seats in 2006, and with the help of old Clinton hands like Howard Wolfson, Gillibrand would be one of them.
It was a nasty election—the kind that would have made her grandmother proud. During the campaign, present-day photos circulated showing her opponent John Sweeney at a fraternity party; questions were raised about money he received from disgraced lobbyist Jack Abramoff; and a police report was leaked in which Sweeney's wife said her husband was "knocking her around the house."
Sweeney tried unsuccessfully to paint Gillibrand as just another New York City carpetbagger, but Gillibrand's connections to the area were evident. Many of the campaign staff spent the campaign living in Noonan's old house. Gillibrand won with 53 percent of the vote.
Once in Congress, she joined the Blue Dog Coalition of conservative Democrats, voted against the bank bailout, and earned support from good-government types for publishing her schedule online. The Times heralded her decision to offer a level of transparency "simply unheard of in Congress."
When Clinton was appointed secretary of state, Gillibrand—with her conservative district and voting record—may have seemed like an odd choice to replace her. But despite being a relative unknown, Gillibrand had powerful supporters—most notably Schumer. Even with her stances on gun control and immigration, New York's senior senator lobbied New York Governor David Paterson to appoint her. "I understood that people do grow and evolve," Schumer told me when asked why he supported Gillibrand. "And she has."
Did she give him any assurances that she would change her tune?
"She didn't have to," he says. "I just used my judgment."
Senator Kirsten Gillibrand listens as Senator Rand Paul speaks about efforts to curb sexual assault in the military during a news conference at Capitol Hill on July 16 , 2013. (Kevin Lamarque/Reuters)

Battling the Pentagon

In the Senate, Gillibrand made a name for herself quickly, fighting for compensation for 9/11 first-responders and for repeal of the military's "don't ask, don't tell" policy. (She ultimately was on the winning side of both battles.) The victories earned Gillibrand a respect from the liberal base and a reputation for tenacity.

More notable recently has been her quest to combat the scourge of sexual assault in the military. The Pentagon has estimated—based on anonymous surveys—that 26,000 cases of sexual assault occurred in 2012 alone. Compounding the problem, in Gillibrand's view, is that commanding officers take part in the adjudication process of offenders. "The chain of command has failed them," she said in an interview, noting that less than 4,000 of those cases were actually reported. "And if you can't trust them to deliver justice, it makes it much less likely to even report cases."
Gillibrand's push to remove sexual-assault cases from the chain of command has pitted her against her more seasoned colleagues in the Senate. Carl Levin, the chairman of the Armed Services Committee, and Claire McCaskill, a former prosecutor, have whipped against it, supporting instead their own legislation that reforms the process but keeps the chain of command intact. They, along with Pentagon officials, argue that Gillibrand's proposal would be detrimental to the authority of commanding officers.
But Gillibrand has shown an ability to connect across the aisle in a way that many of her fellow Democrats haven't. When she announced her sexual-assault plan, she was flanked by two of the most conservative members in the Senate: Ted Cruz, from the military-heavy state of Texas, and Rand Paul, the Tea Party stalwart from Kentucky. "She made a very strong argument," Cruz would say.
Gillibrand, who has been cajoling her colleagues relentlessly on the legislation, maintains she is drawing close to a majority, but finding a filibuster-proof 60 votes could elude her. Still, her work has drawn attention to the issue—and to her. There's been a spot on the Daily Show, a profile on NPR, and chatter in the margins that she could mount a presidential campaign.
Gillibrand's own team, however, says she isn't acting like a politician who wants to land on the national radar. "If Kirsten Gillibrand was using polling to decide what issues to attack, she would not have chosen gay marriage, 9/11, and military sexual assault," says Jefrey Pollock, the senator's pollster. "These are definitely not going to rank as top three things in average voters consciousness …. These are issues that have been left for dead, and she said she wasn't willing to give them up."
That doesn't mean there aren't benefits. The 2012 presidential election saw the largest gender gap since Gallup began measuring such things in 1952. President Obama was able to overcome losing the male vote by 8 percent because he had a whopping 12-point advantage over Mitt Romney with women. It was the first time since 1996 that a candidate for president won by winning women and losing men.
Along that line, Gillibrand has introduced a series of bills aimed at increasing women's standing in the economy. The multipart legislation would increase the minimum wage, expand paid family medical leave, provide universal pre-K, make quality affordable day care accessible, and mandate equal pay for equal work. "These are not new ideas," Gillibrand says. "There just has not been action on it. It's important to put them in the spotlight and have a national debate about it."
The best way to drive the issues forward, she says, is to increase the number of women on the Hill past the record numbers (about 20 percent in both chambers) that are there already. And when that happens, Gillibrand will be a major reason why. During the last cycle, she raised $1 million for women candidates—including McCaskill—with her Off the Sidelines PAC. This time she has pledged to double it. That gives her leverage in the Senate that others lack.
"She's one of those senators that if she's not with you on something, she's probably not going to be persuaded," says a staffer who has worked with her. "But no one will completely try and shut her out because she can raise so much money for you. She's a lot of senators' 'frenemy.' "
"This is what makes her a major inside player," adds Hank Sheinkopf, a New York Democratic strategist. "New York is the ATM of American politics."

Wall Street's Own

There are problems that come with that. Obama, the liberal populist, had to court Wall Street in his presidential run, was criticized for then taking it too easy on large banks, and ultimately reversed himself and accepted super PAC funds to finance his reelection. In the 2012 cycle Gillibrand, the erstwhile upstater, raised more than $3 million from the finance, insurance, and real-estate industries; Schumer, a longtime supporter of Wall Street, raised $212,000. (It was, of course, a non-election year for Schumer. The last time he was up for reelection, in 2010, he pulled in north of $5.5 million. Gillibrand came in second that year.)

Over the summer, Gillibrand made the pilgrimage to one of the holy sites for rising stars of the left: the Daily Show. In the past, it's been friendly territory for Gillibrand, as Jon Stewart helped her achieve hero status for her work on the 9/11 First Responders Health Fund. But Stewart was on sabbatical, leaving Gillibrand to contend with John Oliver, who despite his gee-whiz British earnestness, wasn't about to give the senator a pass. "I'm uncomfortable about something, and, I think, I'm hoping that you're going to make me feel better about it," Oliver said. "Help me understand the relationship between banks and politics. Because on the Venn diagram of that, you are right in the middle of that …. What I deeply want to know is, what do you have to do for that?"
It's a question, too, that many progressives want to know as well. As the left continues to push to de-consolidate the industry's power, some say that Gillibrand's record since coming to the Senate has been less than stellar.
"She's actually a problem," says Bart Naylor of Public Citizen. "She's not someone we go to when we want change on banking reform."
Naylor points to a letter she wrote asking for the delay of the "Volcker Rule," a proposal in the Dodd-Frank legislation that would reign in risky trading by the country's largest banks. While Gillibrand likes to say she supports the rule, the language of the letter echoes arguments of those interests that have sought a more extensive delay.
The New York Times' editorial board also raised concerns about Gillibrand in July of this year regarding yet another letter she signed, in which the senator urges delay of another portion of the Dodd-Frank law, this one involving derivatives. In doing so, The Times contended that Gillibrand was "going against the cause of reform, lobbying for delays that would derail the law."
"It's impossible to prove that the money influenced her, but all we can say is, Gillibrand gets money from Wall Street and does things as far as I can tell that Wall Street wants," Naylor says.
In answering Oliver, Gillibrand channeled the rural populist she once was, sounding far more like Rand Paul than Chuck Schumer. "Let me give you some confidence," Gillibrand said smacking the table. "We had a very large vote about the banking industry—it was called the bailout. I voted against the bailout."
Of course, that was a vote in 2008—back when her constituents all lived more than 100 miles from downtown Manhattan and when she raised less than a quarter of what she did last cycle from Goldman Sachs. Back when she never had to pick between bean burgers and beef ones and could happily boast about the guns under her bed. It looks like that person is gone for good. But should Gillibrand seek national office beyond New York, don't be surprised if she has a second life. Or would it be a third?