Welcome to Hindsight 2020, Refinery29's column reflecting on the women running for president and the lessons learned (or not!) from 2016.
Brooklyn attorneys Ella Frederick, 43, and Jolevette Mitchell, 31, were among the earliest to arrive at Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand's strategically positioned rally in front of Trump International Hotel in New York City last week. Because of that, they got to stand right in front of the stage as Gillibrand formally announced her candidacy for president, decrying the glassy “shrine to greed, division, and vanity” behind her and calling President Donald Trump a coward. After the rally, they took selfies with Gillibrand as she mingled with the crowd, and Frederick’s young children mugged at the podium where the candidate made her address moments earlier, her daughter Lee in the familiar pink knit hat iconic to the Women’s March. (Emmy Bengtson, Gillibrand’s Twitter-ubiquitous digital and communications pointwoman, posted a photo of her.)
Frederick and Mitchell are self-described Gillistans, an on- and offline community of avid supporters of the three-term New York senator who are as impressed with her woman-centric message as they are with her energetic, passionate demeanor. The Gillistans are almost without exception former Hillary Clinton supporters. The day of the rally, Frederick wore a Hillary pin on her Chanel messenger bag, next to "Black Lives Matter" and "Tish James for Attorney General." Frederick and Mitchell met at an event for New York Congresswoman Yvette Clarke (“We’re Clarkistans, too!”) held at a friend’s house in 2017, both looking for a way to get involved after the 2016 election. The friends are both in politics because of Gillibrand: After reading her call-to-action book Off the Sidelines and listening to her podcast of the same name, the two, fueled by the desire to act, started helping each other go door-to-door and collect petition signatures to run for office. Now, they’re “literally off the sidelines” and sit on Brooklyn’s local Kings County Democratic Committee.
Gillibrand’s most vocal supporters on Twitter are an “extremely online” and tight-knit group — sometimes it’s a blurred line between “stans” (a.k.a. diehard supporters) and people who actually work for the campaign in some capacity. The campaign's digital coalitions director Justin Jenkins slid into Sara Rodriguez’ DMs after seeing the Gillibrand 2020-themed collages the New York activist had made for fun and recruited her to make posters for last week’s rally. Kelcy Beckstrom, a student from upstate New York who now volunteers for the campaign, said she was won over when digital mobilization director Alexis Magnan-Callaway took time to get to know her on the phone before she joined. And lest you think all the Gillistans are women, there is a roving gang of “Gillibros” on Twitter, too: “I coined the term Gillibro to (sorta flippantly) point out how friendly Sen. Gillibrand's staff and supporters are, especially when juxtaposed next to some of the supporters of the male candidates,” Danny Barefoot, 30, who does Democratic ads and strategic communication for the firm Anvil Strategies, tells Refinery29.
And then there is, of course, @Gillistans itself: Abby, who prefers not to disclose her last name, registered the account back in February 2018, predicting Gillibrand’s eventual announcement. She is active on Twitter and also runs a Gillibrand 2020 Facebook group. “I met her at a small fundraiser in late 2009 or early 2010 and she was just absolutely electric, dynamic, incredibly personable,” Abby tells Refinery29. “She'd already begun showing signs of becoming more progressive, and she just totally won me over in person.”
Many Gillistans say that this early on, they are open to some of the other Democratic candidates, most often citing Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren. But for the hardcore ones, their candidate tops the list: Kirsten Elizabeth Gillibrand née Rutnik, a former representative from upstate New York who took over Hillary Clinton’s Senate seat when she became Secretary of State, is the shining beacon of light who will, as she herself said in front of Trump International, “defeat the darkness” now enveloping our nation. She’s made fighting Trump the central core of her message, and she has the chops needed to take on powerful men, having stood up for sexual assault victims when it wasn’t politically expedient, most notably Al Franken, for which she has taken undue amounts of flak. (In fact, Gillibrand reintroduced legislation to combat sexual assault on college campuses on Tuesday.) Gillistans believe she is the one to take on Donald Trump — the only thing that, at the end of the day, truly matters for Democrats in 2020.
For Gillistans, Gillibrand is not just the logical counterpoint to Trump, but the one with the soundest policies because she’s been a champion on issues such as paid family leave and maternal mortality long before anyone else was talking about them. She also has plans for how to make her ideas happen; she recently spoke in detail about a path to transitioning to Medicare for All that wouldn’t disrupt people’s existing insurance. And as the 'stans will tell you, these “big ideas” (and the smaller, incremental ones, too) are often ignored when they’re introduced by women.
But it’s more than personality or even ideas. It’s her evolution from being a centrist politician on key issues that her supporters most often cite as the reason they feel so strongly about her.
When Gillibrand was in the U.S. House of Representatives in upstate New York’s 20th Congressional District, she held more conservative views on guns. "My community didn’t have the gun violence, so the biggest issue was hunting rights," Gillibrand said at a recent MSNBC town hall in Michigan. "My mother didn't just cook the Thanksgiving turkey, she shot the Thanksgiving turkey, too." She said her position dramatically changed after she met with survivors of gun violence. Since becoming a senator, she has been a vocal critic of the National Rifle Association and proponent of gun restrictions.
While she served as a representative from 2007 to 2009, Gillibrand was also against "amnesty for illegal immigrants" and voted to raise funds for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). After conversations with advocates, she began to reverse her positions and challenge Trump on his hardline immigration stance, calling for abolishing ICE and expanding rights for undocumented immigrants.
“She had one episode [of her podcast] where she was talking about her evolution on gun control, when she met with the parents of victims of gun violence, understood that her former position was wrong, and declared that gun rights are a woman’s issue,” Frederick tells Refinery29. “She connected so many dots for me. On guns, she unequivocally admitted she was wrong, and now she’s on the right side of history. Some other candidates are still defending their prior positions on gun violence, on gun laws, and that’s why I support her.”
We spoke with over 20 Gillistans around the country, and every single one said a version of the same thing: “She’s evolved,” “She grows,” “She’s real AF.” Moreover, they like that she “doesn’t frame her views as, ‘That’s how it was at the time’ as an excuse,” Diane Alston, 24, who lives in Houston, TX, tells Refinery29. “She explains how she got to where she is now, and flatly says that her past views were because she was wrong. Period.” Meanwhile, former Vice President Joe Biden has yet to offer a detailed explanation of his racial justice record and Sen. Bernie Sanders, who has evolved on gun reform as well, hasn’t fully addressed his past record.
“I think that voters see that as refreshing and authentic and human, that we live in a very fast-changing world and all of us can relate to the fact that our views change as we learn more about challenges in the world today,” Matt Canter, a Democratic strategist with Global Strategy Group, tells Refinery29. “It’s a process that we all go through in everyday life. So to see a politician doing the same thing demonstrates that they are a real person.”
The contrary, added Canter, is a politician who is “stubborn in the face of facts and unwilling to change their position, and frankly, that’s what we have in President Trump.” In Gillibrand, her supporters see someone who can thoughtfully reevaluate their stances without being defensive.
One issue on which many of her supporters are hoping she will pull off another Gillibrand-style evolution is the opioid legislation she recently introduced with Sen. Cory Gardner, which faced backlash from disability advocates. The bill would limit the supply of initial opioid prescriptions for acute pain to seven days, which many in the disability community said would make it harder for people to get the treatment they need, on top of not actually helping combat the serious opioid overdose problem.
Gillibrand responded to the criticism in a Medium post, and in a statement to Refinery29 said, “I believe a key part of public service is truly listening to your constituents, understanding where they’re coming from, and having the courage and strength to change your mind. I believe that’s how you get the best results for the American people.” Campaign staffers, like Bengtson, took to Twitter to mitigate the fallout and answer questions.
“To the patients and disability advocates who have raised concerns: Thank you for sharing your stories. I am listening,” Gillibrand wrote in the post. She reportedly met with Matthew Cortland, a disabled, chronically ill disability rights lawyer, and other advocates last week after many emailed and called her Senate office.
Alston says she hopes the senator makes a turnaround on this issue. “Sen. Gillibrand might not always get it right — nobody does — but when you point out the things she’s done wrong, she listens,” Alston says. “Listening to the people, changing course once you’ve been proven wrong, and taking accountability instead of making excuses are important qualities for me in a candidate, so it’s my hope that her ability to listen and course-correct and not make excuses is at the forefront of this opioid-bill situation.”
For now, most of the tuned-in Democratic electorate is more interested in Biden, Beto, and Bernie: Gillibrand is polling around 1% and is also behind when it comes to major endorsements. Taking on Trump is what matters to Democrats right now, but there are still gendered ideas around who is tough enough to do it. But Canter cautions against making too much of this early stage. “I think she has a growing support,” he says. “It’s a very big field, and I think her introduction has been met with great support and most primary voters are still undecided. I think we have a long, long way to go in this process. Voters are going to keep an open mind.”