On Capitol Hill

Kirsten Gillibrand’s fight to bring power to the powerless

The senator’s relentless efforts, both inside and outside the beltway, inspire awe in admirers but leave critics calling her “Tracy Flick”

Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, D-NY. (MANDEL NGAN/Getty Images)

Senator Kirsten Gillibrand stands at the front lines of some of the country’s most critical social and economic conflicts, fighting for what she once described  as “broader issues of injustice . . . things like equal pay and no paid leave and no affordable day care or universal pre-K or the minimum wage. Women have such a powerless place in society. It infuriates me.’’

That ire fuels the New York Democrat’s tireless legislative multi-tasking. At present, she’s escalating her fight with the Pentagon over sexual assaults in the armed forces and what she considers lax prosecution and underreporting of the crimes. She’s pushing bipartisan legislation to require universities and colleges to establish rules to stanch the epidemic of sexual violence on American campuses and protect student victims, mostly young women. At the same time, she’s ramping up her long-haul drive to pass paid-leave legislation for all workers, an item that finds strong resistance or indifference in the overwhelmingly privileged and male U.S. Senate. And she’s pitching a bipartisan measure she co-sponsored that would allow patients to use medicinal marijuana: That issue moved her personally last week, when she heard heartbreaking stories of suffering children whose pain could be relieved by the medication.

“I’ve got enough to keep me fighting forever,” she says.

When Women in the World spoke to her last week, she had just denounced the Pentagon’s new survey on sexual assaults in the military for not including civilian spouses of service members and civilian women who live or work near military installations. She believes those women may be especially vulnerable to sexual assault and should be counted. The Pentagon, which released its report on May 4, told The Associated Press it has no authority to include civilians in its surveys.

But Gillibrand is not relenting. “The problem is worse than we thought.”

An analysis she commissioned of 107 case files from four large U.S. military bases—documents the Pentagon released to her after repeated requests—found that sex assailants were likely to receive light punishment and were more likely to be believed than their victims. The review also found that half the number of victims ended up withdrawing their cases. It goes to the question of retaliation, she says, and a military culture in which the attacker is often protected but the victim is not. “It doesn’t create confidence in the process.”

There is a common theme to the issues she champions. “I am fighting institutional bias,” she says. That means the military chain of command, which she believes does not properly prosecute sexual assaults in the ranks, college and university administrators who have turned away from or play down sexual violence on their campuses, and a criminal justice system that she says often fails victims.

“They close ranks around favorites,’’ she says. “They rally around their own, like football teams around their quarterbacks. It’s power versus the powerless. I am working for the voiceless, the ones who are vulnerable—and those are most likely women.”

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Telegenic, wonky and ambitious, at 48 Gillibrand is among the youngest members of the Congress, a distinctive force in the women’s rights movement and a conspicuous player in and out of Capitol Hill. In her seventh year in the Senate, working in Hillary Clinton’s former office in the Russell Senate Office Building, she has made allies in her party and across the aisle.

But then there are the skeptics, who say she’s pushy, too intense, a showboat, some of the same criticisms leveled at Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, a potential rival for a Democratic presidential bid in 2020 or beyond. Like Warren, Gillibrand published a best-selling memoir in 2014. Titled “Off the Sidelines: Raise Your Voice, Change the World,” Gillibrand’s manifesto made its debut at No. 8 on the New York Times hardcover nonfiction best-seller list. Media attention on the book focused on anecdotes about male legislators who made sexist comments to Gillibrand about her weight and appearance: Though the handful of anonymous derogatory comments took up less than a full page of her book, they became the tabloid headline.

Gillibrand’s critics have called her Tracy Flick, after the blonde, ambitious Reese Witherspoon character in the film “Election,” while her admirers and friends trumpet her stamina and intellect. “She’s going to be a rising star for a long time to come because she’s so young,” Representative Debbie Wasserman Schultz of Florida, who heads the Democratic National Committee, told Women in the World. “Kirsten is that rare combination of warmth and grit.”

She’s also the hands-on mother of two young boys, 11-year-old Theo and 7-year-old Henry and the wife of Jonathan Gillibrand, a British-born financial manager. Vogue has featured her in a flattering spread and the Capitol Hill daily The Hill named her “the most beautiful politician in Washington.” And she’s mentioned often enough on short lists of post-Hillary presidential candidates that a future KG candidacy is almost taken for granted.

One of her many skills will prove invaluable if that comes to pass: She’s a prodigious fundraiser, donating millions of dollars to fellow female Democratic candidates. Her “Off the Sidelines” PAC, which she launched in 2011, has outraised all current members of Congress, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.

“Women’s voices need to be heard,” she says frequently. She won’t rest, she says, until half the Congress is female.

There’s been little time for rest in her recent schedule. Last week she received an award for her work on women’s issues at a reception at the home of the Japanese ambassador, and addressed Mika Brzezinski’s women’s empowerment convention. On Thursday, May 21, she will headline the annual gala of the Center for American Progress, a progressive organization that supports her agenda. So far this month she pitched her medical marijuana bill to health institutes in New York; discussed the benefits of national paid leave at the Small Business Majority Summit at the National Press Club in Washington; supported a bill to extend veterans’ benefits to Vietnam-era Navy vets exposed to Agent Orange; held a press conference in Manhattan to introduce legislation to end discrimination against potential LGBT adoptive and foster parents; and gave the commencement speech at SUNY (State University of New York) in Long Island.

With all of this juggling, what are her main priorities? All of it, she says, but it’s clear she’s making a big push for her paid-leave legislation, playing up the benefits to families—from babies to seniors—and to the women who are usually the care givers.

“People support it, small businesses support it, tech companies like Google, You Tube and Vodafone support it,’’ she says, noting that the United States is the only developed nation in the world without a national paid-leave program. “I’m trying to make the case it’s good for the economy, trying to build support among Democrats and Republicans in the Senate.”

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Certainly, given her own daunting work-life balance challenge, Gillibrand speaks with authority in this regard. Senator Susan Collins of Maine, a Republican who has worked alongside Gillibrand on “don’t ask, don’t tell’’ and the military sex bill last year, told Women in the World, “She is extraordinarily hard working,” then added the phrase so often used to sum up the working mother’s dilemma: “I just don’t know how she does it.”

Gillibrand has a standard response: “For me, it’s all about finding the ability to do your job well but also be a parent or the spouse or the daughter that you desperately want to be, and that means really trying to build a life that’s consistent with your values, and so that’s what I’ve tried to do.” Balancing work and home is what most women do every day, she says.

For Gillibrand, that daily mission begins in an understated three-story brick rowhouse on Capitol Hill: a comfortable kitchen with a dining table, a sparsely furnished living room with an upright piano, a carport with her husband’s old Porsche and her van. Her mornings begin around 6, making breakfast for her boys, seeing about the day’s chores, taking them to school. Occasionally, not nearly as often as she would like, she has time for a game of squash before she arrives at her office by 9. Unless there’s a night vote or an evening function, she picks up the boys at school in late afternoon. She has no daily household help but hires babysitters, or her husband looks after the boys, when she has evening functions and speaking engagements like out-of-town commencement addresses and press conferences. She cooks dinner regularly, chopping and slicing, boiling and grilling while sweeping and picking up after the kids and carrying on a conversation. After dinner it’s off to sports practice for the boys. By 10:30 or so she’s usually in bed. “I get irritable and emotional if I don’t get enough sleep.”

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Gillibrand comes to her politics naturally. Born into a middle-class Roman Catholic family in Albany, Kirsten Elizabeth Rutnik was driven to excel early on and was influenced by strong-willed women in her family. Her maternal great-grandmother, Mimi, an Irish immigrant, worked at an ammunition arsenal during World War II and chose to raise her children alone. Mimi’s daughter, Kirsten’s grandmother, Dorothea “Polly” McLean Noonan, became a dynamo in Albany backroom politics, the leader of the Albany Democratic Party machine, doling out favors and patronage.

Kirsten (nicknamed Tina) learned electoral basics from her grandmother, licking envelopes, pasting bumper stickers on cars, handing out fliers. “I really wanted to follow my grandmother into politics,” she says, “and I liked that she was passionate about what she did.”

Kirsten’s mother, also named Polly, founded a law firm in Albany with her then husband, Douglas P. Rutnik. Polly Rutnik ran the household and practiced law. She cooked, looked after her three children, Douglas, Kirsten and Erin, earned a black belt in karate and hunted turkeys for Thanksgiving.

Paradoxically, Gillibrand’s early career as a highly paid corporate lawyer in Manhattan placed her somewhat outside of New York City’s liberal political circles, and she was not universally welcomed into that club when she was tapped to fill Hillary Clinton’s Senate seat. Opponents caricatured her as a pro-gun, pro-tobacco, anti-immigration lightweight, a rube from a conservative Upstate district who seemed too cozy with Wall Street and the embattled industry that she had represented during the 1990s tobacco wars.

Heightening the subtle class subtext, she had to play second fiddle to the patrician Caroline Kennedy, who was Governor David Paterson’s first choice to succeed Senator Clinton. When Kennedy withdrew her name, Paterson tapped Gillibrand, who had made a name for herself as a fundraiser for Hillary’s senatorial campaign and as a “giant killer” for her unexpected defeat of an incumbent Republican in her first run for the U.S. House, in 2006. She also had the support of then Senator Alfonse D’Amato, a Republican in whose Albany office she had interned while at Dartmouth. She was sworn in on Jan. 27, 2009. At 42, she was the youngest member of the U.S. Senate.

Influenced and at times guided by Senator Clinton, Gillibrand took up and helped win tough causes like “don’t ask, don’t tell.” She made overtures to blacks, Latinos and other liberals, immersed herself in the data and minutia of Senate life, and became proficient in intricate legislation from milk prices to financial derivatives. She won the election to finish Clinton’s term in 2010 and the re-election in 2012.

By reputation, Gillibrand is above all a workaholic. But she redefines the sociopathic, type-A variety often associated with corporate law and the beltway shark pool. She combines the soft power of networking and personal magnetism with fierce idealism and the kind of ambition once considered a male trait. In doing so, she has become a new kind of political role model: one who regularly leaves the office to have a life—with her family. In her book, Gillibrand wrote that her own mother “prioritized both work and family.” And the busiest woman in Washington “never imagined” she would do otherwise.

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