Women's History Month

How Kirsten Gillibrand Went From Tracy Flick To Possible 2020 Contender

Can the New York senator steer the Democratic Party to victory again?

This Women's History Month, A Plus is featuring a series of "History Makers" — women who are having the kind of impact that we think will make them future Women's History Month honorees.

Kirsten Gillibrand began her rise to national prominence in 2008, when President-elect Obama chose then-Sen. Hillary Clinton to be his nominee for Secretary of State. Then a New York Congress member, Gillibrand stealthily — and successfully — campaigned Gov. David Paterson to pick her for the Senate seat vacated by Clinton. She then went on to win the special election in 2010, and crushed her opponent in the 2012 election. 

Since her ascension to the Senate, Gillibrand has distinguished herself as a fierce champion for women's rights and progressive issues. She waged a zealous war on the military's "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy, which was ultimately repealed — a success she made sure to claim some credit for; she came close to pushing through a measure that would provide care to thousands of victims whose health was affected by exposure to Ground Zero; she co-sponsored the DREAM Act in 2011; she worked with the likes of Ted Cruz — who is particularly abhorred within his own Republican party — to tackle military sexual assault. In addition, Gillibrand supports gun control laws, reproductive health care, LBGT rights, immigration reform, and the Affordable Care Act, to top off her strong feminist credentials

But Gillibrand was not always so liberal in her views. During her time in the House, she held a strongly conservative stance on immigration — opposing amnesty for undocumented immigrants, supporting local officers enforcing federal immigration laws, and even advocating for English to become the United States' official language. She was also virulently anti-gun control, with an A-rating from the NRA. (In 2009, she told NewsDay that she kept two rifles under her bed, which she later said had been removed.)

Gillibrand's evolution on these issues weren't gradual; they seemed so sudden, in fact, that it drew accusations of pandering and contributed to her reputation as a tough and ruthless politician. But she has credited her change in views to her expanded and diverse constituency as senator — she told the Huffington Post, "I think it also goes to the issue of emotional intelligence."

Despite being an early supporter of Clinton's presidential campaign and having been labeled her protégé at times, Gillibrand managed to avoid the fallout from the former Secretary of State's election loss, maintaining her independence, as well as her reputation. But her public standing today is in stark contrast to her early years in politics, when she was nicknamed Tracy Flick after Reese Witherspoon's cutthroat character in the film Election

In a 2009 article about her unpopularity, Politico quoted several people who spoke disdainfully of her:

"Nobody really likes her," sniped one New York City-area member, speaking on condition of anonymity. "She's smart and capable, but she's rubbed people the wrong the way," said another.  

The tired trope of the too-ambitious working woman plagued Clinton, too, but Gillibrand has managed to shrug it off, at least for now. Most recently, Gillibrand drew praise for her fierce admonition of the military leadership at a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing over the nude photos scandal. 

"It is a serious problem when we have members of our military denigrating female Marines who will give their life to this country in the way they have, with no response from leadership," Gillibrand, a fierce proponent against sexual assault and rape in the military and on college campuses, told Commandant Robert Neller. "I can tell you, your answers today are unsatisfactory. They do not go far enough. And I would like to know what you intend to do to the commanders who are responsible for good order and discipline."

Gillibrand has been considered a rising star in politics for years now, and from the ashes of the aging Democratic party's bruising election defeat, she has emerged as one of its most promising and competent figures. Faced with a Republican-dominated Congress and the Trump administration, Gillibrand has, at times, seemed like one of the left's better bets. She was, for example, the only Senate Democrat who voted "no" on all of Trump's cabinet picks except Nikki Haley for UN Ambassador. Her impassioned speech at a Battery Park protest against Trump's immigration policies was well received, and her accessibility to her constituents has distinguished her from New York colleague and Democratic party leader Sen. Chuck Schumer. 

As her name gets thrown around as a possible 2020 Democratic contender alongside the likes of Sens. Elizabeth Warren, Kamala Harris, Bernie Sanders, and Cory Booker, this is Gillibrand's chance to assert her values and steer the party towards solid progressive ground — and perhaps be the one to finally shatter that highest, hardest glass ceiling. 

Cover image via lev radin / Shutterstock.com

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