Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand describes her shift from defender of Second Amendment rights to advocate for gun control as an epiphany of sorts.
It came after a February 2009 meeting with the parents of Nyasia Pryear-Yard, a 17-year-old high school student fatally shot in Brooklyn.
Gillibrand had been appointed to the Senate weeks earlier by then-Gov. David A. Paterson.
She comes from a family of hunters and had never before met someone directly affected by gun violence.
But she was moved by the encounter, particularly as a mother.
"I felt the pain of those parents was something that I couldn’t dismiss," Gillibrand recalled in an interview in her U.S. Capitol office, adorned with artwork by her two young sons.
“I was wrong,” she said. “I just didn’t take the time that I should have to understand the issue from someone else’s perspective, not just from my own family or from my own community.”
Gillibrand, 51, of upstate Brunswick, shares the story when she is asked about the policy reversals she made after transitioning from congresswoman representing a largely rural Hudson Valley district to senator representing the entire state.
She formerly held more conservative views on guns and immigration, but, in her nine years as New York's junior senator, she has swung steadily to the left on those and other issues.
In February 2009, Gillibrand told Newsday that she kept two rifles under her bed. The disclosure made headlines.
She had an "A" rating from the National Rifle Association then, but has an "F" now. And she is no longer a gun owner.
As a congresswoman from 2007 to 2009, Gillibrand had opposed amnesty for immigrants living in the country illegally and former Gov. Eliot Spitzer's plan to distribute driver's licenses to such residents. She supported the Secure America through Verification and Enforcement, or SAVE Act, which in part called for beefing up U.S. Border Patrol resources.
In the Senate, she is a leading defender of immigrants who were brought illegally to the country as youths and are protected from deportation under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA, initiative.
Last month, she became the first sitting senator to call for abolishment of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE, calling the agency a "deportation force."
Soon after President Donald Trump announced his Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh last Monday Gillibrand and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, New York's senior senator, voiced their strong opposition, saying the judge would endanger reproductive rights and health care protections.
She's also a critic of sexual harassment and assault in the military and has become a prominent voice of support in the #MeToo movement.
Gillibrand's trajectory, combined with her condemnation this past winter of fellow Democrats Bill Clinton and Al Franken because of sexual misconduct, has drawn accusations that she is motivated by political ambition.
And it has fed speculation that she is positioning herself to seek the Democratic nomination to challenge Trump in 2020.
Gillibrand has deflected questions about a potential bid for the White House.
“I want to be a New York State senator,” she told Newsday. “I think it’s a huge honor and a privilege to serve. And I’m 100 percent focused on serving New Yorkers.”
Is she ruling out running for president?
“I ruled out anything that’s not focused on ’18,” she said. “So I’m just literally focused on getting reelected and being able to keep serving in the U.S. Senate.”
And what about after the November election?
“I’m sure I will look at things in the future, but I’m very focused serving in the U.S. Senate,” she said.
Opponents, particularly New York Republicans seeking to boost their Senate candidate Chele Farley's long-shot bid to unseat Gillibrand in November, say her timing is calculated.
Former Sen. Alfonse D’Amato, a Republican, was close to Gillibrand’s lobbyist father, Doug Rutnik, employed her as an intern in his Albany office and stood alongside Gillibrand onstage when her appointment to the Senate was announced. But he has endorsed Farley.
“The Kirsten Gillibrand of today is unrecognizable to the person who interned for me or even the person who served in Congress,” D'Amato said in a statement. “She has abandoned New Yorkers in her pursuit of her presidential ambitions.”
Allies, particularly liberals whose views Gillibrand has embraced, say her positions on pivotal issues are genuine and her advocacy for survivors of sexual harassment and assault has been consistent.
Gillibrand said she is listening to her gut and acting on what she believes is right – whatever others want to believe of her.
“They just don’t know me,” she said. “You’re always going to have political opponents. But I am who I am and I hope I can continue to serve and make a difference in people’s lives.”
Supporters see authenticity
Barbara Gil, who was principal of Nazareth Regional High School, where Nyasia was an honors student, initiated the meeting with Gillibrand and remembered the new senator’s demeanor as she listened to stories of gun violence.
“I honestly could almost see her face change,” Gil said. “You could see that it was a very emotional and eye-opening event for her. Where she came from, people hunt deer, they hunt whatever, that’s how guns are used. But she had never really realized how they could be abused.”
Gillibrand has reintroduced an anti-gun trafficking bill named in part for Nyasia, but it faces resistance in Congress. She also wants to expand background checks and ban bump stocks, which allow semi-automatic rifles to fire more quickly, among other measures.
Facing downstate critics of her conservative stances, Gillibrand upon her Senate appointment to replace Hillary Clinton in January 2009 conducted a listening tour of sorts in New York City.
She almost immediately visited the Rev. Al Sharpton at his National Action Network headquarters in Harlem. Gillibrand has returned frequently.
“She could be symbolic of many people that had to grow on this, so she shouldn’t hide her evolution,” Sharpton said. “I see her as an advocate that has credibility as one that says, ‘I used to feel this way.’”
Another stop Gillibrand made nine years ago was to the Brooklyn home of Rep. Nydia Velazquez, who had condemned the immigration views Gillibrand held then.
“It was not a pleasant conversation at the beginning,” said Velazquez, a Democrat. “There were some tears. But she was able to see the human aspect of the immigration debate. And it was a lasting impression on her. I am proud of whatever change of heart and understanding she was able to have.”
Frank Sharry of the immigrant advocacy group America’s Voice is also among Gillibrand's former critics.
“I think she’s got a really coherent narrative,” Sharry said, “which is: ‘I represented a district. I tried to reflect the views of my district. And when I represented a much larger jurisdiction that included New York City, I learned more and my views evolved.’”
Opponents call it opportunism
The New York GOP has used Gillibrand’s leftward swings as fuel for criticism, saying she displays a “disturbing pattern of eschewing principles for political expediency."
Farley, the former Manhattan financier who is running for Senate, said of Gillibrand: “Her positions have changed dramatically. . . . She’s moving radically to the left.”
Democratic suppporters of former President Bill Clinton and former Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.), both of whom were accused of sexual misconduct, also accused Gillibrand of opportunism after she spoke against the two men.
Gillibrand’s political allies, including Velazquez, cited her record advocating against sexual assault in the military, on college campuses and in Congress years before the #MeToo era. She sought to curb offenses at the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy in Kings Point in a bill to require training of administrators, satellite telephones for those at sea and a helpline for students on campus.
But billionaire businessman George Soros, angered by Gillibrand leading the call for Franken’s resignation, told the Washington Post in June that Gillibrand turned on Franken, a one-time friend and squash partner of hers, “in order to improve her chances," alluding to unspecified ambitions.
Gillibrand, the first Democratic senator to urge Franken's ouster (two dozen others followed suit), said: “I value women, I listen to women, I believe women. In that instance, there were eight credible allegations. Enough was enough.”
Gillibrand told The New York Times last November that she believed it would have been “the appropriate response” for Clinton to resign the presidency after his affair with Monica Lewinsky came to light.
Asked about Gillibrand's comments in a CBS interview in June, Clinton said he shouldn't have stepped down. Of Gillibrand, he said: "She’s living in a different context and she did it for different reasons.”
A longtime aide to Hillary Clinton, Philippe Reines, tweeted more accusingly: “Over 20 yrs you took the Clintons’ endorsements, money, and seat. Hypocrite. Interesting strategy for 2020 primaries.”
Hillary Clinton was a mentor to Gillibrand and wrote the foreword in the senator’s 2014 memoir, "Off the Sidelines." Bill Clinton campaigned for Gillibrand in her successful 2006 bid for Congress.
Trump also weighed in on the rift, tweeting that Gillibrand was “very disloyal to Bill & Crooked,” a reference to Hillary Clinton.
Gillibrand's defenders said Trump unintentionally rallied support for her when he tweeted that the senator was “someone who would come to my office ‘begging’ for campaign contributions not so long ago (and would do anything for them).”
Gillibrand responded on Twitter, sending a similar message later in a fundraising email: “You cannot silence me or the millions of women who have gotten off the sidelines to speak out about the unfitness and shame you have brought to the Oval Office.”
Trump’s post was retweeted 22,000 times. Gillibrand’s reply was retweeted 150,000 times.
Gillibrand shook her head and responded with a soft “no” when asked if she has spoken to either Clinton since her remarks about the former president in December. “I think I said all I wanted to say about Bill Clinton," she said.
Thinking about 2020?
Gillibrand announced in February that she would no longer accept campaign donations from corporate political action committees, joining Sen. Bernie Sanders and Sen. Elizabeth Warren in rejecting corporate PAC cash.
And she has voted with Trump the least of anyone in the Senate, according to an analysis by data-crunching website FiveThirtyEight.
Distancing herself from the Clinton family also could be seen as a step toward claiming the mantle of the next generation of Democratic leaders, experts said.
“Beating up on Bill Clinton is probably a net positive for her,” said Washington, D.C.-based Democratic consultant and pollster Brad Bannon. “Basically, the Clintons’ star is diminished significantly.”
Bannon added, however: “A lot of progressive Democrats are angry at her for greasing the skids for Al Franken.”
And Gillibrand lacks the national name recognition of former Vice President Joe Biden, 2016 Democratic presidential candidate Sanders (I-Vt.) and Wall Street antagonist Warren (D-Mass.).
In a University of Southern California Dornsife/Los Angeles Times poll on prospective 2020 Democratic candidates from January, Biden, Sanders and Warren had support in the double digits. Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.) was at 5 percent, Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) was at 3 percent and Gillibrand was at 2 percent.
Experts were divided about the impact on a national audience of Gillibrand's changed policy positions.
“When no one knows who you are, you can flip-flop on issues because no one knows where you stood in the first place,” Bannon said.
Bob Shrum, a veteran Democratic consultant and USC political science professor, said: “Voters care more about whether or not you ended up in the right place. Where it hurts you is if people believe that you’re just doing it for political convenience.”
In June, Gillibrand shared a stage with Booker, Harris, Sanders and Warren at a summit in Washington, D.C., hosted by progressive groups including the Communications Workers of America, the Working Families Party and Indivisible, which was formed after Trump’s election to oppose his agenda. Organizers said they seek to collectively pull the Democratic Party to the left.
Gillibrand faced no questions on her history of conservative positions and announced her support of a progressive policy: a financial transaction tax, or levy on the sale of stocks, bonds and other investments to raise revenue, several attendees said in interviews.
A focus on 2018
Gillibrand has the polling and fundraising edge in her re-election contest.
A Siena College poll in June showed that 61 percent of likely voters in the state would cast a ballot for Gillibrand versus 28 percent for Farley.
That poll showed 91 percent of respondents said they don’t know or had no opinion of Farley.
Gillibrand’s campaign had raised $17.6 million for this year’s election cycle as of June 6, according to her federal campaign financing filings. It had $10.5 million cash on hand.
Farley had about $701,000 in net contributions and $342,000 cash on hand, according to her filings. She said she is focused on filling her campaign war chest. Fox News host Sean Hannity headlined a June 26 fundraiser for her in Manhattan.
Farley, a state Republican Party fundraiser, said Gillibrand is ineffective for her constituents.
“She certainly has been running around the country and pushing a potential campaign for president in 2020,” Farley said.
Gillibrand and her aides responded that much of her proposed legislation is focused on economic improvements for those in her home state.
She noted that her bipartisan Made in America Manufacturing Communities Act recently passed in the Senate as part of the National Defense Authorization Act. She also said she negotiated benefits for dairy farmers in the Senate farm bill and that she fights to improve water quality, brownfields cleanup and services for military veterans and active-duty members.
Farley’s campaign argued that Gillibrand in her 11-year legislative career has introduced more than 300 bills but gotten none passed.
Fact-checking blog Politifact rated the claim as “half true.” Although Farley is correct that Gillibrand has not been the sole sponsor on a bill that became law, some of her proposals have come to be included in larger bills sponsored by other elected officials, the blog said.
Gillibrand’s campaign pointed to her contributions to and successful advocacy of the Zadroga 9/11 health care bill, the STOCK Act against insider trading and the repeal of "Don't Ask, Don't Tell," which forced LGBTQ military members to hide their sexual orientation or be discharged, saying colleagues across the aisle and beneficiaries credit her role even if her name wasn’t on the final bills.
The early years
Gillibrand comes from a deeply political family.
She wrote about her grandmother and mother as her role models in “Off the Sidelines.” She has a leadership PAC of the same name that since its founding in 2012 has contributed more than $1.5 million to Democratic female candidates for federal office, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.
Gillibrand’s grandmother, Polly Noonan, began as a secretary in the New York State Legislature and became an influential mainstay in the powerful Albany Democratic machine.
Noonan had a close relationship with Albany's 40-year mayor, Erastus Corning, and "rumors flew" as she attended "parties, Elks Lodge dances, and strategy meetings" with him as well as Democratic national conventions, Gillibrand wrote in her memoir.
"He may well have been in love with my grandmother," Gillibrand wrote. "From my perspective, the mayor was simply part of our family."
Gillibrand’s mother, Polly Rutnik, was one of only three women in her law school class and stood for her New York Bar character exam days before giving birth to Gillibrand.
“She watched these women and saw the way they operated,” Albany historian and former state Assemb. Jack McEneny said of the senator. “She also saw them do a lot of good for people.”
Gillibrand, who was nicknamed Tina in her youth because her brother couldn’t pronounce Kirsten, attended college at Dartmouth, law school at UCLA and worked as an attorney at Manhattan’s Davis Polk, where she defended tobacco company Philip Morris.
Around that time she met her husband, Jonathan Gillibrand, a British native who works in finance in Manhattan.
She began her foray into politics by donating to and fundraising for Hillary Clinton’s 2000 Senate campaign, but couldn’t get a full-time job with the campaign.
So she served as special counsel to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development when Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo was its secretary in the Clinton administration.
Cuomo, himself floated as a 2020 hopeful, spoke warmly of Gillibrand.
“I recruited her. It’s one of the best things I ever did,” Cuomo said in an interview.
Gillibrand has endorsed Cuomo over his progressive Democratic opponent, former “Sex and the City” actor Cynthia Nixon, in September’s gubernatorial primary.
She also had endorsed House Democratic Caucus chairman Joseph Crowley of Queens over Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the first-time candidate and self-described Democratic socialist who upset Crowley in last month's Democratic primary.
‘You learn and grow’
Gillibrand herself has never lost an election.
In 2006, she upset a four-term Republican congressman, John Sweeney, to represent a heavily GOP district in the capital region.
"She told me, 'This is going to be tough race, but I’m going to win,'" said Bill Hyers, who was her campaign manager.
Gillibrand met the high fundraising goal the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee set for her, Hyers said. “She was calling everybody saying, ‘We need X amount of dollars right now,’” he said. “She put the fear of God in people. You give her a goal and a measurable, and she will get there.”
Sweeney remembered Gillibrand’s tenacity in a less complimentary light. “This is a person who would do or say anything to achieve whatever her personal goal was,” he said.
Sweeney, who was a legal counsel for Trump’s campaign and a Trump transition team member, criticized Gillibrand as a “child of privilege” without “any modicum of philosophy belief” and who had far less in common with the upstate residents of the 20th District than he did.
Paterson said he noticed Gillibrand's potential early and sought to have her run for state Senate in 2004.
Paterson said he believes that even with Gillibrand's leftward turn, her roots in upstate New York and familiarity with moderates and conservatives would give her an advantage if she chooses to run in 2020.
“She better knows who these people are, these people who voted for Obama in ’08 but voted for Trump in ’16,” Paterson said.
He said Gillibrand endeared herself to him when she came to interview in December 2008 for the U.S. Senate seat and surprised him by offering her unsolicited opinion about a “Saturday Night Live” skit that had mocked his disabilities.
“Sometimes it isn’t all political; it’s the human moment,” Paterson said.
Gillibrand expressed a similar sentiment about legislating, saying that her job is to listen and learn.
In the interview, she rattled off the ways she seeks to improve job opportunities for New Yorkers, even as her aides reminded her she had to get to the Senate floor for a vote. She rushed off, hobbling in a boot protecting a foot she injured playing tennis.
“Politicians who never change their mind, who never thought they were wrong, who never wished they did it differently, I would question that as well,” Gillibrand said. “Because you learn and you grow and you become a stronger, better person and you recognize where you didn’t have it right and you recognize where you did and you move forward.”
Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand
- Resides: Washington, D.C. and Brunswick, Rensselaer County
- Born: Dec. 9, 1966, in Albany
- Education: Emma Willard School, 1984; Dartmouth College, 1998; UCLA School of Law, 1991
- Family: Married to Jonathan Gillibrand, two school-age sons
- Experience: Attorney at Davis Polk & Wardwell in Manhattan; special counsel at U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development; partner at Boies, Schiller & Flexner in Manhattan; U.S. representative, elected in 2006 and 2008; U.S. senator, appointed in 2009, won special election in 2010, elected to full term in 2012
Senate Committee memberships, 115th Congress
- Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry
- Armed Services
- Environment and Public Works
- Special Committee on Aging
- James Zadroga 9/11 Health and Compensation Act of 2010
- Stop Trading on Congressional Knowledge Act, or STOCK Act, of 2012
- Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell Repeal Act of 2010
- Military Justice Improvement Act, first introduced in 2013
- Campus Accountability and Safety Act, first introduced in 2014
- Hadiya Pendleton and Nyasia Pryear-Yard Gun Trafficking and Gun Prevention Act, first introduced in 2015
- Made in America Manufacturing Communities Act, introduced in 2017