Senator Kirsten Gillibrand ’88 Takes on Trump

New York’s junior senator talks about faith, fortitude, and the fight between good and evil.

When she was 7, Tina Rutnik told her younger sister and cousin she wanted to be a senator, not understanding what that really meant. In high school, saying she wanted to be a lawyer sounded more reasonable, less “presumptuous for a girl,” she would later recall.

After Dartmouth, where she majored in Asian studies, played squash, and joined Kappa Kappa Gamma, she graduated from UCLA’s law school and joined the prestigious Manhattan law firm Davis Polk & Wardwell in 1991. (She also dropped her childhood nickname and became Kirsten.) She took a leave the following year to clerk for the U.S. Court of Appeals in Albany, New York, and then returned to Davis Polk.

A pivotal moment came in 1995, when First Lady Hillary Clinton addressed the UN’s Conference on Women and declared, “Human rights are women’s rights, and women’s rights are human rights.” Something clicked for the young attorney, and an “unfiltered childhood sense of self came rushing back,” she wrote in her 2014 memoir, Off the Sidelines: Raise Your Voice, Change the World.

Rutnik got involved in Democratic Party politics, working for then U.S. Housing and Urban Development Secretary Andrew Cuomo (now governor of New York) and Clinton’s 2000 U.S. Senate campaign. The next year she married venture capitalist Jonathan Gillibrand and moved back to Albany to run against Rep. John Sweeney, R-N.Y., in 2006. She won, but her time in the House was brief: In January 2009 Gov. David Paterson appointed her to Clinton’s Senate seat after President Obama picked Gillibrand’s former mentor to be secretary of state. In 2010 Gillibrand won the seat handily. In 2012 she won reelection with 72 percent of the vote, the largest victory margin for a New York candidate.

Gillibrand is often mentioned as a presidential candidate. But as we sat down for lunch at the Senate Dining Room in early April, she made it clear she’s “entirely focused” on 2018.

What is it like as a senator to be living in this new environment?
It’s a very intense time for everyone, especially for New Yorkers. When I travel around the state, people are anxious about the future. They’re concerned because President Trump has really attacked basic institutions. Whether he’s attacked the freedom of the press, the independence of the judiciary, or the independence of the Department of Justice, or the notion that we’re a country founded on immigrants by not protecting DACA kids, or freedom of religion with his Muslim ban, or the United States’ leadership in the world by walking away from the global climate accords, this is making people feel unsettled.

I really feel my voice is more relevant now than ever before. I am eager to do my job and jump out of bed and do it well. I feel like my job is two things right now: one, speaking out loudly when the president’s wrong and is harming people, my state, my constituents; and two, constantly reaching across party lines to find bipartisan ideas to move good legislation forward. Both jobs are really important right now, and I feel energized.

In December, Gillibrand and Sen. Lindsey Graham introduced a bipartisan bill to prevent sexual harassment in the workplace. Photo by Jocelyn Augustino/Redux

You talk about reaching across the aisle. You voted against almost every single Trump appointee.
I didn’t vote against [former Veterans Affairs Secretary David] Shulkin, and I didn’t vote against [U.S. Ambassador to the UN] Nikki Haley. I voted for Haley because she stood up and took down the flag as governor [of South Carolina, where the state legislature passed a bill in 2015 mandating removal of the Confederate flag from the grounds of the state capitol]. That was meaningful leadership when it was really needed. I voted for Shulkin because his record under President Obama wasn’t horrible.

But with the exception of those two, you voted against every Trump appointee.
Mostly because they were either not qualified or their values were antithetical to mine and my state’s.

Some people might look at it and say, this is you posturing for 2020.
I reject that. It’s not true at all. I wasn’t keeping score. Pundits started keeping score. I just looked at each nominee uniquely, and the one that does set me apart is the vote against [Defense] Secretary Mattis. I stand by that vote today. I will stand by that vote tomorrow. He did not have the relevant experience. President Trump might have thought a general is a good secretary of defense. We decided in the Constitution that it was not a good idea. We believed in civilian control of the military. The job is to create oversight over a huge enterprise of civilians and military personnel and to be able to look into the Department of Defense and decide what’s wrong, then advise the president what’s good for the country, based not on your acumen as a commander but on what’s right for our national security.

Do you think your push to change the way sexual assault and rape are reported in the military is your most important mission, so far, as a legislator?
I don’t think it’s the most important. Some of the early things I had to do as senator were vital for my state. Getting the 9/11 health bill passed, protecting first responders who literally answered the call of duty, raced up towers when everybody was racing down—that was probably the most significant piece of legislation I’ve ever passed. I think working on repealing “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” is one of the most important civil rights issues of our time. Fighting for LGBTQ equality in all spaces in all ways will be a lifelong goal of mine because I really believe in equality for all.

The issue of sexual violence in the military goes to that fundamental principle. We don’t value women with equal pay. We don’t value women by not having a national paid-leave plan. We don’t value women by not having universal pre-K and affordable daycare. And we don’t value women by not prosecuting sex crimes in the military, on campuses, in society, in Congress.

In your first House race, right before the election, it came out that police had written a report in which your opponent was accused of domestic abuse. Did that inform this mission of yours, or has this always been part of you?
Interestingly, this issue came to me. I heard about the problem of women serving abroad who needed abortion services and couldn’t have access to them because they had to tell their commander they were raped—and they didn’t want to tell their commander. I thought, “I don’t understand. This doesn’t make sense. I don’t understand why it’s so hard to tell your commander.” That was my first red flag.

The more I got involved, the more I learned and realized this is a systemic problem across all institutions and that institutions typically protect the powerful.

“I don’t think the #MeToo movement has gone far enough.”

Your attempt to be consistent on this issue has opened you up to criticism from Democrats, such as when you said that if the Bill Clinton scandal happened today he would have to resign. You were attacked by one of Hillary Clinton’s top aides for that. Then you were the first Democratic senator to call on Al Franken to resign.
It was very difficult. I considered Al Franken a friend, and I thought he was a very strong senator and did excellent work on the judiciary committee. But we had eight credible allegations, and I got to the point where I felt enough was enough. I believed these survivors, particularly the congressional staffer who told her story. While the senator was entitled to every bit of due process he wanted, it was his choice. He could have stuck it out and gone through his ethics investigation. He could have sued any of the people who made allegations against him, but what he wasn’t entitled to was my silence.

Do you still talk to Hillary Clinton at all? Is that a relationship that continues?
I’ve not talked to Hillary. I certainly hope to talk to Hillary in the future.

Have you ever been sexually harassed?
I’ve certainly been treated poorly. I don’t know if it would rise to the level of harassment. Some people might have considered it harassment. I didn’t.

This was when you were a lawyer?
Throughout your career people are boorish. People say rude and obnoxious things. But I didn’t take it as harassment in any of the places I worked. The few examples I gave in my book were about the inappropriate and disproportional focus people have on our appearance and how that undermines you not only as a worker but as a politician. I wanted to make the point to those readers that just because someone tries to reduce you to your looks, don’t take anything from that. Push past it. Start your own business. Become the boss. Change the climate. Do whatever you can to know that you should not be judged on your appearance, that your value shouldn’t be based on your appearance.

Your appearance has been discussed quite a bit as a U.S. senator.
Yes, it has. All the time.

When you lost a lot of weight several years ago, there were articles about it and knowing the U.S. Senate as I do, it’s hard to imagine there hasn’t been one time when a senator said something inappropriate about your looks, even if he meant it in a complimentary way.
I put all the good ones in my book. One time an older member of Congress said to me, “Don’t lose too much weight. I like my girls chubby.”

You didn’t write who said that?
No. It’s irrelevant. The whole point is that this is pervasive. Another guy, while I’m pregnant, said, “Oh, Kirsten, you’re even pretty when you’re fat,” in a thick Southern accent. Then another guy, working out in the gym, a much older member of Congress, said, “Good thing you’re working out. You wouldn’t want to get porky.” This was also when I was pregnant. I just smiled. I didn’t say anything. In my mind I was saying something inappropriate.

What’s the larger lesson other than this exists, and it’s unacceptable?
The larger lesson is the #MeToo movement. You have to have the courage to speak out. When you do have the courage, it creates space for other people to tell their stories. Courage builds on courage, so it allows more people to have the courage to tell their stories, which eventually will cause transparency and accountability.

The movement so far has been able to take down powerful people and well-known people, but the real test of the movement will be when anybody can come forward, even if they’re a low-wage worker, even if they work in a manufacturing facility or on a farm or in a company where your harasser might not be famous, and you can’t take him down with a tweet. It might just be your supervisor. It might just be your boss. It might be someone that has so much power over you that you cannot speak out without risking your job, your paycheck, your family. We still have a ways to go, but that does tell you why speaking out is so relevant, because you could maybe stop him from doing it to somebody else.

I can imagine Dartmouth alumni thinking, “That’s great, but haven’t some instances gone too far? Aren’t there people who didn’t deserve to have their careers destroyed?”
I don’t think any woman or man who thinks about this issue thinks all of it is the same. What we’re talking about is having transparency and accountability. You might want to sue your perpetrator. You might want a criminal investigation. You might just want to tell your story and let the facts have whatever impact they might have, whether [the accused] gets fired or shunned or disregarded.

If someone’s falsely reporting against you, call the police. There may be instances where unfairness has taken place. I can’t opine on all instances. I don’t think the #MeToo movement has gone far enough.

Were you a feminist at Dartmouth?
I probably didn’t even analyze the question at the time. I never asked myself  “Am I a feminist?” or “What’s a feminist, anyway?” It wasn’t part of the conversations my colleagues, friends, and I were having.

How did you end up at Dartmouth?
I went to Emma Willard for high school, and I very much wanted to play on a tennis team when I went to college. One of the upperclassmen I admired the most chose Dartmouth, and so it made me interested in looking at that school. When I visited it I fell in love, and I thought, “This is a campus I can see myself on.”

You played tennis for Dartmouth?
I did. I started on the JV team my freshman year, then got recruited for the squash team. I loved it so much I decided to do varsity squash and switched. It was a fun, new sport. I really liked the girls on the team. I loved our coach, the extraordinary Aggie Kurtz.

I read in Politico that your nickname at Dartmouth was “Elbows.”
It’s not Elbows. It was never Elbows. I don’t know who made that up, but I didn’t have a nickname except for Tina. You don’t use your elbows in squash. You don’t move someone out of the way with your elbow. You move somebody out of your way by backing into them.

The nickname makes me wonder, though, if you think your ambition is held against you in a way it isn’t held against a man.
Generally, yes. Specifically, not necessarily. But people shouldn’t confuse ambition with likeability.

Meaning?
You can be as ambitious as you want, but you still need to be likable as a woman.

You think men don’t need to be likable?
Not in politics.

But women do?
Absolutely. And in business. In all things.

Photo by Albert Watson

You first ran for the House in 2006. How have you changed since then?
I’m older. I think I’m wiser. I’m a mom. I have been raising kids for 14 years. That’s definitely changed my perspective on the world and what’s most important. I think it simplifies your life. It has simplified my understanding of issues my constituents care deeply about. People are worried about their families. They want to make sure their kids have more opportunities than they did. It’s about the basics of life. That’s what public service is about. Are you helping people? Are you making people’s lives better? Are you caring about other children as much as you care about your own? That is the standard.

You have two boys, Henry, 9, and Theo, 14. Do you talk to them about politics?
Yes, but not often. I explain to them when I need to go to work and what I’m doing and why I might be missing that one thing they want me to go to.

Are they interested?
Henry really likes politics and he wants to go on the trail with me. He’s a people person. He likes to travel.

Theo’s more like your husband?
Theo’s an introvert: quiet, reserved, thoughtful.

Do you want them to go to Dartmouth?
Of course. I was just recruiting for Dartmouth over the weekend.

You’re a fan of The Lord of the Rings. Is there a character you identify with?
I do like those books, but no.

What do you like about the books?
It’s a good-vs.-evil story. Good wins. It’s about how one person can make a difference and how every person has a role to play. It’s in line with my worldview that all of us are placed here for a reason, and we have to do our best to help others and make a difference. As a person of faith, I feel very much called to that work, and that’s why I do public service.

Do you still attend Bible study groups?
I do a Bible study on Tuesday mornings with Republicans, mostly freshmen. On Wednesdays there’s a prayer breakfast, an old Senate institution. Retired senators come. It’s really intimate. Then Thursdays at lunch Barry Black, chaplain of the Senate, hosts another Bible study that’s bipartisan. It’s a different group of people and a different kind of study. He’s lovely, and I really relish going to that.

So you’re Catholic, and your faith is a big part of your life.
Yes.

Some people in the Catholic Church might say that some of the legislation you support goes against church doctrine. Especially when it comes to LGBTQ or women’s reproductive rights.
Absolutely.

Is that something you struggle with, or do you just think they’re wrong?
I think they’re wrong. One hundred percent. Our Constitution demands separation of church and state, and the church is meant to be an individual faith. Everyone is entitled to have their own faith, freedom to express their faith or to not have a faith, but anytime you’re trying to impose your religious belief on somebody else, it’s unconstitutional and morally wrong.

Your political views have become more progressive. Is that a manifestation of you going from representing one district to one giant Empire State that is more liberal?
It’s as a result of listening more and learning more. If you take the two issues that are typically raised in this discussion, immigration and guns, I had a limited view. I didn’t spend a lot of time analyzing the issues affecting other parts of my state. I should have. That was my mistake. Now I know that I’m in the exact place I want to be in, the exact right place. I think you need common-sense gun reform. I don’t think it’s a violation of the Second Amendment. I don’t think it’s about hunters’ rights. I think the debate needs to be about the greed of the NRA and its desire for more gun sales, even to teenagers, even silencers to criminals, even military-style assault weapons, and they’re wrong. I should have been better at it, but I wasn’t, and I think I understand the issue a lot better. I’ve had more time with families. When you sit down with a mom who’s lost her 4-year-old son in a Brooklyn park, you’re going to do something about gun crime. When you meet the parents of a teenager who was at a party and was killed by a stray bullet, you’re going to do something about gun crime. And I’m doing something about it. After those experiences, I wrote a bill about anti-trafficking, and I’m pushing as hard as I can to get a vote on universal background checks, banning assault rifles, banning large magazines.

Your mom is a hunter.
She doesn’t bow hunt anymore. Her arms aren’t strong enough.

Did your dad hunt?
Yes, and my brother.

What do they think about your change on the gun issue?
They think my views are fine. Most Americans and most NRA members support all the common-sense reforms I just listed. They do not believe people should be able to buy assault rifles. They do not believe that criminals should be able to buy weapons. They don’t believe people on the terror watch list should be able to buy weapons. That’s consistent with most of my state.

You’re up for reelection this year.
I’m hoping the voters of New York will allow me to continue to serve them in the U.S. Senate.

It doesn’t seem like you’re particularly vulnerable.
I have an opponent. I’m going to work hard, not take anything for granted, and, hopefully, earn everybody’s votes.

People have talked about you running for president in 2020. How do you go about having that conversation with your husband, your staffers, your team?
I’m entirely focused on 2018 and haven’t thought about that.

Can Donald Trump be defeated?
Yes.

Who’s going to beat him?
Someone who is passionate, authentic, and is fighting for everyday people to be able to provide for their kids and keep their communities strong and keep their communities safe. Someone who connects to voters. Someone who is fighting for them and they believe is fighting for them. It’s going to be about who inspires the most confidence and who will make a difference in families’ lives.

President Trump sent a tweet that was interpreted as a sexist slur, that you would do anything for a campaign contribution. What was that like?
I was at my Bible study, and my chief-of-staff kept calling, so I answered the call, stepped out of the room. He tells me I’ve just been tweeted at. I want to go back into the Bible study. But he was like, “No, no, no. We’ve got to answer this now.” I decided what to say and answered it and went back into the Bible study. Then I asked my Senate colleagues to pray for me, because I’d just gotten attacked by the president. At the end they’re like, “What did he say?” I was like, “Well, he basically called me a prostitute.” And they said, “Oh, no. Yes, we’ll pray for you.”

Did it hurt?
No.

What did it make you feel?
That he’s a child and is irresponsible and should not be the president of the United States. This is, literally, the level of discourse coming out of the president of the United States. It’s so outrageous and absurd. But it was just intended to silence me. And it was intended to silence the millions of women who have been marching since the inauguration against his policies and what he’s trying to do as president. It wasn’t going to work.

It’s interesting, though, amid all of this you clearly like your job.
I love my job. I love my job.

Your face lit up when you said that.
I feel like now more than ever each one of our voices is so important. You in the press, you have to be the clarion of truth and accountability. You have to fight for transparency every single day. You can’t be bullied. You can’t be marginalized. You have to speak truth to power every day. I think all of us are really important to be that voice of truth and justice and hope and what’s right in the world.

I really believe there is good vs. evil, and, unfortunately, evil is winning, so all of us need to push back hard against that, as hard as we can, to right the ship to make sure that people aren’t being marginalized, aren’t being attacked, to make sure every kid has a chance to reach their God-given potential in life through a good education, through healthcare as a right, not a privilege, through an economy that’s growing and working for everybody. We have to all work 100 percent to strengthen our country right now, when it’s being attacked from within. Our core values are being attacked and undermined every day.

You talk about this as a struggle of good vs. evil. That’s what you also said about The Lord of the Rings.
I do think the story is an analogy to life. There’s always good vs. evil. There’s always a mountain that you have to climb and one thing you must accomplish, and you must stand up when evil is spreading. I feel that’s exactly what’s happening today. We are going in the wrong direction. The fact is that hate crimes have increased exponentially across my state against all groups—anti-Semitism, racism, misogyny, anti-LGBTQ, anti-Muslim, anti-immigrant, horrible hate crimes. Bullying in schools has gone up. It’s affecting everyone, and we have to fight against that. It is terrible for this country. It’s terrible for the world. It’s not up to any one person. It’s up to all of us, and all of us have a role to play, and I feel like my role right now is an important one. I could be a voice for truth and for justice and for what’s right in the world, and I can work hard with my colleagues to try to do good things for people.

 

THE BIG GREEN CAUCUS
Alumni in Congress

U.S. SENATE
KIRSTEN GILLIBRAND ’88, D-N.Y.
Up for reelection: 2018
Previous office: U.S. Representative, D-N.Y. (2007–09)
Major: Asian Studies

JOHN H. HOEVEN III ’79, R-N.D.
Up for reelection: 2022
Previous office: Governor of North Dakota (2000-10)
Major: Economics, History

ANGUS KING JR. ’66, I-MAINE
Up for reelection: 2018
Previous office: Governor of Maine (1995-2003)
Major: Government

ROB PORTMAN ’78, R-OHIO
Up for reelection: 2022
Previous office: Director, U.S. Office of Management and Budget (2006-07)
Major: Anthropology

TINA SMITH, TU’84, D-MINN.
(Named to replace Al Franken when he resigned)
Up for special election: 2018
Previous office: Lt. Governor of Minnesota (2015-18)

U.S. HOUSE OF REPRESENTATIVES
MIKE CAPUANO ’73, D-MASS.
Up for reelection: 2018
Previous office: Mayor, City of Somerville, Massachusetts (1990-99)
Major: Psychology

ANN MCLANE KUSTER ’78, D-N.H.
Up for reelection: 2018
Major: Environmental Studies

 

Jake Tapper is an anchor at CNN.

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