Kirsten Gillibrand Is Running On Girl Power
In her bid for the White House, the New York senator is campaigning on being a woman, caring about women, and getting other people to care about women. Will it work?
Kirsten Gillibrand sits across from me at a coffee-shop-bar-performance-space in Concord, NH, on a crisp May Saturday morning, and we’re geeking out about horoscopes. On her two-day-long visit to New Hampshire, the sixth to the key first-primary state, the senator and presidential candidate has already talked to dozens of voters in coffee shops like this one: around 50 types of latte flavors, beers you’ve never heard of on tap, twinkly string lights, well-worn couches, paintings by local art students. I’ve just told her that I recently learned she has the same birthday as her friend and political rising star Stacey Abrams, December 9 — "Wow, no wonder I love her so much! I begged her to run for the Senate!" — and now we’ve gotten so off-track that her traveling press secretary has to remind us of the time. Gillibrand tells me that she’s not only a Sagittarius, but was born in the Chinese zodiac year of the fire horse.
“You’re going to have to analyze that for me and do a whole piece on it. Because I think it shows enormous strength,” she tells me. She leans forward, eyebrows raised mischievously and cheeks turning a brighter shade of pink as her tone shifts from presidential candidate to excited mom. She takes a sip of her coffee. Decaf is a must, which makes sense considering she seems to possess endless energy. She never loses eye contact as she speaks in quick, staccato phrases, clearly experienced in translating passion into talking points. The Chinese zodiac is one of her favorite subjects, she says; she famously studied abroad in China in college, where Connie Britton from Friday Night Lights was her roommate.
She’s got a point about strength. According to i.TheHoroscope.co, Sagittarians born in the year of the horse are both “courageous and enthusiastic” — fitting, as “Brave Wins” is her campaign’s tagline — and “smart and sensitive.” According to FengShuiWeb.co.uk, “The fire horse is destined to lead an exciting and eventful life and make their mark in their chosen profession. They have a forceful personality and their intelligence will bring them the support of many people.”
When it comes to making a “mark in her chosen profession,” Gillibrand's done it: A Dartmouth-educated former attorney, she's climbed the ranks from representing a district in New York state with “more cows than Democrats,” as she says in her stump speech, to becoming a high-profile senator and Democratic star. In the Senate, she’s put issues such as sexual assault in the military and paid family leave on the legislative map, and campaigned for the repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell. Since Donald Trump was elected president in November 2016, she's emerged as a major force for women and one of his most vocal critics, voting against more of his cabinet nominees than any of her colleagues and sometimes even breaking rank to stick up for women when it isn't politically expedient, like when she led the call for the ouster of former senator Al Franken, who was accused of sexual harassment. Now, she’s seized the moment to speak up for women’s rights and is trying to spin her scrappy breakout into a real chance of becoming the most powerful person in the world. Whether she can rally “the support of many people” is the question surrounding her campaign for president.
There are 24 Democrats vying for the chance to take on Trump in 2020. Among them are six women — the most of any presidential election in history. Because of this historic first, the female candidates are laying the groundwork for what it means to be a woman aspiring to the highest office in the land. Each has carved out her own niche: Elizabeth Warren as the woman with a plan for a brighter economic future, Kamala Harris as the prosecutor who will fight for justice, Amy Klobuchar as the “senator next door.” Kirsten Gillibrand? She’s the girl’s girl, not solely a woman running for president but a woman running for president who has made being a woman, caring about women, getting other people to care about women, and highlighting the need for female leadership the centerpiece of her campaign, at a time when women still struggle to be taken seriously. It’s the logical sequel to Off the Sidelines, the PAC she founded in 2012 that has raised millions for women running for office.
As women’s rights are under siege, Gillibrand has helped position so-called “women’s issues” — reproductive rights, paid family leave, maternal mortality, child care — as mainstream issues that affect the economic wellbeing of the entire nation. She recently introduced her Family Bill of Rights, a wide-ranging proposal tackling maternal and child health, affordable child care, and more, which would take effect within her first 100 days as president. She also has the most comprehensive LGBTQ+ rights agenda of any of the presidential candidates, seeking to reverse Trump’s transgender military ban, enact a nationwide ban on “conversion therapy,” and combat the disproportionate levels of violence against trans women of color. Beyond policy, there’s a girl-power flavor to her campaign: All the swag is Elle Woods pink. And if that turns some people off, it’s perhaps because we’re primed to see stereotypically feminine presentation as less serious. Gillibrand is flipping the script, positioning this femininity as a strength. In her stump speech, she likes to recall how her first opponent used to say she’s “just another pretty face.” Instead of being offended at his sexism, she said, “Oh, thank you!” (and proceeded to beat him in the election).
So far, Gillibrand’s pitch seems to have really worked with a diehard crowd primarily made up of young women. She has the highest percentage of female donors out of all the candidates, and it's the young women who seem the most enthusiastic about her on the campaign trail (and on Twitter). Of course, as we learned in recent years, presidential elections can be unpredictable, and it’s still very early in the primary. But Gillibrand says it’s never too early for women to start rallying around the female candidates they believe in — in a sisterhood-supportive way, she doesn’t say around her specifically — because who women choose will be the choice.
“Unfortunately, a lot of the young male supporters have already made their choice. They’re supporting Bernie, or others they think carry their message. So, women need to do the same,” Gillibrand says, with a fiery intensity. “The heart and soul of our party is women, particularly Black women, and if you can inspire women, you will be the nominee. ... So don’t listen to the pundits, don’t listen to the reporters, actually listen to your heart about who carries your message and who carries your values.”
It remains to be seen whether she carries the message that ultimately most resonates with voters. Gillibrand’s polling numbers have hovered at 1% or under, and she raised about $3 million in the first quarter of 2019, which put her below the other well-known senators in the race. This means that instead of focusing on winning the primary, her campaign’s raison d’etre, until this past weekend, had been making sure she’s on the stage in the first Democratic primary debate on June 26 and 27. Because of the unusually large number of candidates, the Democratic National Committee (DNC) has tightened its requirements: To qualify for the first and second debates, candidates need to register 1% or more support in three polls, or receive donations from at least 65,000 individual donors, and their chances are higher if they do both. With just a few days to go before the June 13 deadline, Gillibrand’s campaign victoriously announced that she has checked both boxes. Since the DNC has upped the stakes for the third and fourth debates, she’ll need 2% or more support in four polls and 130,000 individual donors to qualify for the next round.
One reason to bet on Gillibrand: She — like Warren, Harris, and Klobuchar — has won every election she’s run in, something you can’t say for Joe Biden, Pete Buttigieg, Beto O’Rourke, or Bernie Sanders. Still, Biden and Sanders top the polls, with Warren polling at around 10%, and Harris at 7%. As Gillibrand tries to stand out among the 2020 contenders, it remains to be seen whether this fire horse can pull ahead in the horse race.
At the Velcro factory in Manchester, NH, Gillibrand toured the plant and spoke to high schoolers who are part of a vocational training program. A dozen or so reporters and camera crews circled around her, peppering her with questions about why she’s not doing better.
“Is Joe Biden’s 20-point lead about his name recognition right now, or…”
It’s the kind of horse-race question Gillibrand has little patience for. Just a few moments ago, she had been excitedly talking about her grand plans for “rural broadband, a new electric grid, high-speed rail.” A question like this feels like a distraction.
“Yes,” Gillibrand responded, her sunny smile cracking in the harsh glare of the spotlight. She fiddled with her wedding ring and shrugged as if to say, “Isn’t it obvious?”
“Well, how do you overcome that?” asked the reporter.
“Through building up my own name recognition. … I believe that this is a marathon, not a sprint.”
In our interview, Gillibrand expresses frustration about political reporters’ obsession with polls and fundraising. “I think the 'horse race' is so much less important than who you are, why you’re running, what your vision is for the country,” she says. “I wish they would focus more on the substance of why you’re running, and what you’re going to do when you get there.” She would rather lay out all the plans she has for her first 100 days: reengage on the global climate accords, end the inhumane practices at the U.S.-Mexico border, decriminalize marijuana, address the racial injustice responsible for the high maternal mortality rate, get the ball rolling on universal healthcare.
What’s perhaps even more frustrating than reporters asking horse-race questions is that voters do it, too. At a packed campaign stop at Tilton Brothers in coastal Hampton, NH, a brewery with long wooden tables and colorful murals, an older woman took the mic during the question-and-answer part. “I’m a really big fan,” she started. “You’re the first political candidate I have ever donated to. Because of your recent polls...how do you plan to stand out in a crowded field beyond your record? Just because it is so crowded, but I believe in you so thoroughly.”
Gillibrand was in a punchy mood, drinking a beer called Majestic Elly Fonts (which she renamed “Majestic Donkeys,” for Democrats) and had just gone through her stump speech with more gusto, and more dirty jokes, than usual. She responded: “Beyond my record, beyond my experience, beyond my electability? Hmm, I don’t know...” A sly smile made its way across her lips, and more than a hint of sarcasm revealed itself in her voice. The brewery erupted with laughter.
The female candidates have been struggling with skepticism that a woman can beat Trump from a large part of the electorate. We could be facing a “self-fulfilling prophecy” when it comes to who is considered electable, as Gillibrand herself suggests. Kate Manne, an assistant professor at Cornell University, interprets this concept as a risk-averseness: I’m not biased, but my neighbor might be, so I ought to vote for a man. Male candidates have received an outsized amount of fawning attention (think Beto O’Rourke’s gratuitous Vanity Fair cover, which he himself has said he regrets) and donor money. It doesn’t help that two-thirds of political reporters are men, which can lead to skewed coverage, for example asking the female candidates about the men but not doing the inverse, as Gillibrand recently complained to Politico. Just as the quirky coffee shops of New Hampshire, with their older, predominantly white audiences, don’t represent the entirety of the United States — but, along with the county fairs of Iowa, have effectively become a stand-in because of the way the system is set up — the candidates with the most money and attention don’t necessarily represent the people.
But the people do absorb narratives about who the safest bets in the race seem to be, so voters seem to be divided on whether a woman with a feminist campaign can pull in a meaningful amount of support.
“I do worry about, with the whole #MeToo movement, a lot of men are put on the spot,” says Melody Lynn, 43, who says she has two sons just like Gillibrand. She says she is undecided about who she will vote for, although she likes Gillibrand. “#MeToo is good, but I think there’s a little bit of danger. And there’s a little bit of danger with a candidate being too focused on women’s issues. I don’t know about framing the campaign around mothers and stuff... I don’t know.” She trails off. “I want her to win.”
Other voters — again, primarily young women — say they’ll definitely vote for a woman, because it’s time. “I’m not personally very excited by any of the male candidates,” Josie Pinto, 22, who lives in Concord, tells Refinery29. Pinto says Gillibrand and Warren are currently her top two choices, and while she’s drawn to Warren’s policies, she admires “how emotionally in touch Gillibrand is with everything.”
Pinto, who is part of the New Hampshire Youth Movement and a reproductive rights activist, says none of the male candidates are addressing abortion in a way that makes her confident in their ability to do the job on the issue. “I don’t think anybody is going to be as competent on reproductive rights, which is really my top issue. So I’m just really hoping we get the energy needed to get a woman president this time around,” she says.
Gillibrand has been on a much-needed upswing lately, precisely because she’s so in her element when fighting for reproductive rights. According to her campaign, in May, her daily donors spiked by 2.5 times. Last week, the campaign septupled its daily donor average. Somewhat improbably, she can thank Fox News. It was her performance in a Fox News town hall Sunday, June 2, that has gifted her the biggest media moment and online-donor boost of her campaign. Instead of pandering to the Fox News audience, she debunked anti-choice myths about third-trimester abortions after host Chris Wallace scolded her for not being “very polite.” In an extremely on-brand move, her campaign promptly made “Frankly, not very polite” tote bags (yes, hot pink). In another viral moment from the town hall, she patiently explained to Wallace that the phrase “our future is female” means we need more women in politics. He responded, “What about the men?” to which she said, “They’re already there — do you not know?”
It could be that people are starting to see her campaign as representative of and responsive to the moment in which women are right now. It also helps that after the wave of abortion bans, a new poll found Democratic voters are increasingly prioritizing issues such as reproductive rights and equal pay, with 6% saying they were top priority at the beginning of May compared to 14% at the beginning of June. Gillibrand, before any of the other candidates did, announced that she is committed to only seating pro-choice judges on the Supreme Court. And, shortly after Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp signed into law a ban on abortions once a "fetal heartbeat" is detected, she showed up on the steps of the Georgia statehouse with local elected officials to advocate for patients.
Will Gillibrand’s star continue to rise into 2020? It’s hard to tell. But she has an internal guide that won’t let her down, regardless of whether she succeeds. Amid the daily demands of the campaign, Gillibrand says she finds strength in reading about women in history like Alice Paul and Harriet Tubman, who have fought on behalf of others. “I took a lot from these biographies and these role models about what allows you to have faith in yourself to fight a battle that might be harder than anything you’ve ever done,” she says. It keeps her from becoming discouraged, as does her devout faith — she is Catholic, but worships at various Christian churches. She gets sermons on her phone when she can’t make it to church on a Sunday, which is often these days.
She also grounds herself in working out, religiously. She says daily workouts — she went to a 6:30 a.m. cycling class before our interview — help her find clarity. “If I can have a workout, it’s my time,” she says, adding that she likes to support women-owned studios. “It’s the time when I get to think about my goals and my values and who I am, and it’s a strengthening time.”
Perhaps inward-seeking and working out will help Gillibrand maintain her stamina in the race — there are still plenty of undecided voters, after all. And she’s banking on the fact that the horse people bet on isn’t always the one that wins.
At one of the coffee-shop campaign stops, 44-year-old Melanie Currier says she’s keeping an open mind about the candidates because it’s still early. “I didn’t say to myself, Oh, she doesn’t have very high polling rates, so why should I bother to go see her? No, I still think it’s important to see her. Because I think anybody can come from the bottom up.”