At an intimate gathering in Downtown Las Vegas last night, U.S. Senator Kirsten Gillibrand (D-New York) introduced herself to Nevada voters. As The Stratosphere’s famous tower stood behind her, Gillibrand spoke of the power of her conviction and her values.
As Gillibrand put it, “It takes courage. It takes bravery. Do the right thing because it’s the right thing to do, not because it’s the easy thing to do.”
“Your fancy law firm does not need you. Public service needs you. Go!”
– Jonathan Gillibrand’s advice to his future spouse Kirsten
This has turned out to be one of those weeks when a bevy of presidential candidates have been swinging through our fine early nominating state. Amidst an already packed 2020 Democratic field, Senator Kirsten Gillibrand has sought to stand out as the one who’s brave enough to stand up to President Donald Trump, members of her own party who were accused of abusing their power, the “powers that be” who were afraid to take bold action to protect military service members who survived sexual assault, and even the top “Democratic establishment power brokers” in her own State of New York.
Last night, she opened up and shared more of her story with prospective caucus-goers at Atomic Liquors. In opening, Gillibrand recalled her early dream for her future: “I said I wanted to be a Senator. I had no idea what a Senator was, but I knew I was a girl who wanted to dream big ideas and do big things.”
That dream returned years later, when Gillibrand watched then First Lady Hillary Clinton give her famous 1995 “Women’s Rights Are Human Rights” speech in Beijing. Gillibrand recalled how her then boyfriend (now spouse) Jonathan encouraged her to go ahead and pursue her dream of public service: “Your fancy law firm does not need you. Public service needs you. Go!”
“We need to be brave enough to take up the fights no one else is willing to take on.”
– Kirsten Gillibrand
Kirsten Gillibrand was first elected to Congress in 2006, when she defeated the incumbent Rep. John Sweeney (R-New York) in the 20th Congressional District. As Gillibrand was preparing to run, her pollster warned her, “There are more cows than Democrats in your district. You can’t win this district.”
Gillibrand sought to prove her pollsters and her naysayers wrong by running on her own terms. As she noted, “I won on Medicare for All in a two-to-one Republican district. Even back then, people were frustrated over the cost of health care.”
Gillibrand used her first 2006 victory, her second and much wider victory in 2008, and her wide margins of victory ever since her ascension to the U.S. Senate in 2009 as proof that Democrats don’t need to sacrifice their principles to win. “We need to be brave enough to take up the fights no one else is willing to take on,” Gillibrand declared. She continued, “I stand up for what’s right, even when it’s hard.”
“Let’s dream big. Let’s pass a Green New Deal! Let’s do something on climate change, something on job creation, and something on bipartisan infrastructure programs. This can’t be more common sense than that.”
– Kirsten Gillibrand
One thing I’ve noticed thus far in this early stage of the 2020 election cycle is the occasional disconnect between the big debate over “going big” with “huge” ideas that’s occurring among the Democratic presidential candidates, and the more laserlike focus on targeted policy fixes that local leaders like Senator Catherine Cortez Masto (D) and Rep. Susie Lee (D-Las Vegas) have stressed during their respective visits home this week.
While she’s definitely on the side of “going big”, Gillibrand also discussed her big ideas in a way that made them feel practical and doable. When she explained why she’s all in for the “Green New Deal”, Gillibrand evoked then President John F. Kennedy’s “crazy” idea of sending a man to the moon. As she sees it, “Let’s dream big. Let’s pass a Green New Deal! Let’s do something on climate change, something on job creation, and something on bipartisan infrastructure programs. This can’t be more common sense than that.”
Gillibrand also took time to explain her plan for comprehensive immigration reform, including a proposal for immigrants with undocumented status to pay into Social Security for ten years to earn their citizenship. In addition she explained her plan to provide free college to students who are willing to commit to community service, her plan to ensure equity in public education by investing more federal dollars in schools serving working poor communities while also encouraging states to “divorce property taxes from school funding”, and her voting rights plan that includes nationwide expansion of programs like vote-by-mail and online voter registration.
Though Gillibrand has not always espoused the most progressive positions on everything, she’s been open about the process that led her to where she stands now. And now, Gillibrand is unbothered by certain pundits’ hand-wringing over the bold progressive stance she takes on just about everything. For her, “It takes courage. It takes bravery. Do the right thing because it’s the right thing to do, not because it’s the easy thing to do.”
“I think what Americans are looking for is someone who has bolder and better ideas.”
– Kirsten Gillibrand
While other Democratic candidates have begun grappling with intersectionality more recently, Gillibrand used her answers to questions from the audience at Atomic Liquors last night to demonstrate she understands the need for an intersectional approach to fighting inequality across the board. When an audience member identified himself as a queer person of color, he asked Gillibrand why he should pick her over fellow Senators Kamala Harris (D-California) and Cory Booker (D-New Jersey). In her response to that question, Gillibrand traced her advocacy for LGBTQ+ civil rights from the successful repeal of “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell” for gay, lesbian, and bisexual military service members to the current fight over Trump’s push to ban transgender service members as she promised to always stand for civil rights and equality.
Gillibrand then shared the story of a trans* boy who happens to be one of her children’s classmates in explaining why this fight is very personal for her. As Gillibrand described this situation, “For Donald Trump to do that, to make him feel less than, is the most cowardly act he could ever do. We can not let that stand.”
Whether it’s finishing the job on LGBTQ+ equality, advancing criminal justice reform with proposals to end the practice of cash bail and legalize marijuana, expanding job training programs to guarantee full employment, or allowing postal banking to expand financial services to underserved communities, Gillibrand voiced confidence that her brand of big ideas and commitment to courage is the right recipe for Democrats to defeat Trump next year: “I think what Americans are looking for is someone who has bolder and better ideas.”
For Gillibrand, it comes back to this key motto: “You do it because it’s right. You do it because you should. You do it because we must.” And yes, she cited it one more time as she closed the evening’s program: “I do what’s right, even when it’s hard. I will continue to do that as President of the United States.”