Saturday, December 07, 2013

The new and improved Kirsten Gillibrand

By Michael J.W. Stickings

What a difference a few years can make.

Back in 2009, when then-New York Gov. David Paterson named then-Rep. Kirsten Gillibrand to fill Hillary's vacated spot in the Senate, I said it was "a horrible, horrible pick": 

Earlier, I suggested that Gillibrand, who represents a pro-Bush district, is "almost a Republican." Almost? I'd say she pretty much is, what with a 100% approval rating from the NRA, support for the Iraq War, and, as she herself put it, "one of the most conservative" voting records in the state, including voting for the FISA bill that included telecom immunity and to lift the ban on the possession of semi-automatic weapons in D.C. Her father was close to former Republican Governor George Pataki. She even once interned for former Senator Al D'Amato, a conservative and hyper-partisan Republican.

Was that wrong? No. But has Senator Gillibrand emerged as something altogether different? Yes.

The fact is, Gillibrand represented a fairly conservative district in upstate New York. (Obama won it decisively in 2008 and 2012, but Bush won it by fairly large margins in 2000 and 2004.) And so her views very much lined up with what she had to do to succeed there. That's not to say she was lying about herself. While she was strong on civil liberties and a proponent of same-sex marriage (and gays in the military), there is no doubt that she was genuinely a conservative Democrat, and that's why many of us were concerned when she was appointed to the Senate.

But give her credit. She's adapted to her role as New York's junior senator and broadened her views, or at least her positions, to reflect a significantly more progressive outlook.

And she's not just sitting around following the party line or otherwise keeping her mouth shut, as this profile in yesterday's New York Times makes clear: 

If there were a chutzpah caucus in the United States Senate, Kirsten Gillibrand of New York would be its natural leader.

On a fund-raising swing through Chicago this fall, she told donors to pressure their hometown senator — Richard J. Durbin, a Democrat who is one of the most powerful men in the Senate — because he had yet to sign on to her bill to address sexual assault in the military. Mr. Durbin fumed when he heard about the move, an unusual breach in the protocol-conscious Senate.

She defies her party in smaller ways: After a bipartisan farm bill was cobbled together with great effort by her colleague Debbie Stabenow of Michigan, Ms. Gillibrand tried to block cuts to food stamps that other Democrats said were needed to retain Republican support and brought in high-profile foodies from New York, including the celebrity chef Tom Colicchio, to fight it.

Her other tactics include cornering colleagues on the Senate floor and refusing to stop talking, and popping out a news release picking apart a senator’s competing legislation as it is being announced.

If her colleagues grumble about her ambition in a body where freshman members are applauded for keeping their heads down, so be it. "I'm trying to fight for men and women who shouldn't be raped in the military," she said of her work on the sexual assault legislation. If her approach "makes a colleague uncomfortable," she said, "that's a price worth paying."

And she's not exactly planning to slow down, embracing an impressively progressive agenda going forward:

In the interview, Ms. Gillibrand began to lay out her agenda for the coming year: pushing her sexual assault amendment, even if it fails, raising the minimum wage, trying to restore cuts in food stamps, even as she fights, once again, with her own party. "All of these issues are about speaking truth to power," she said.

Unfortunately, the Times article's narrative pits Gillibrand against her own party, which isn't exactly the case. There are a lot of other Democrats who share her views and who are fighting for similarly progressive things. What Gillibrand has become is a vocal champion of certain progressive causes, and in that regard she is very much a loyal member of the Democratic Party. Sure, she often comes up against her congressional leadership, against people like Dick Durbin, but her views are very much in line with Democrats across the country. The difference is that, like Elizabeth Warren, she's speaking up and getting things done. And of course the alternative to Gillibrand (and Warren) isn't Durbin and the party leadership, it's Republicans. Politically, they're who Gillibrand is really fighting against.

In any event, I have come to admire Senator Gillibrand more and more over the past few years, and I would like to think that she has a bright future in national Democratic politics, perhaps even with a serious run for the White House down the road. As current and former New York senators go, she's well behind Hillary in terms of presidential possibility, understandably so, but she is proving again and again that she should be considered a serious contender post-2016.

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