WASHINGTON — If there were a chutzpah caucus in the United States Senate, Kirsten Gillibrand of New York would be its natural leader.
Gabriella Demczuk/The New York Times December 7, 2013
Senator Kirsten E. Gillibrand of New York has elevated issues like sexual assault in the military.
On a fund-raising swing through Chicago this fall, she told donors to pressure their hometown senator — Richard J. Durbin, a Democrat who is one of the most powerful men in the Senate — because he had yet to sign on to her bill to address sexual assault in the military. Mr. Durbin fumed when he heard about the move, an unusual breach in the protocol-conscious Senate.
She defies her party in smaller ways: After a bipartisan farm bill was cobbled together with great effort by her colleague Debbie Stabenow of Michigan, Ms. Gillibrand tried to block cuts to food stamps that other Democrats said were needed to retain Republican support and brought in high-profile foodies from New York, including the celebrity chef Tom Colicchio, to fight it.
Her other tactics include cornering colleagues on the Senate floor and refusing to stop talking, and popping out a news release picking apart a senator’s competing legislation as it is being announced.
If her colleagues grumble about her ambition in a body where freshman members are applauded for keeping their heads down, so be it. “I’m trying to fight for men and women who shouldn’t be raped in the military,” she said of her work on the sexual assault legislation. If her approach “makes a colleague uncomfortable,” she said, “that’s a price worth paying.”
But Ms. Gillibrand’s savvy has quickly brought her national prominence in a chamber in which she has served less than five years and has elevated the issues she has championed, like the sexual assault bill and gays in the military. Her relentlessness is combined with a personal warmth and charm — she steps an inch toward anyone who approaches her, not away, locking eyes as they speak — and she deftly uses outside advocacy groups and the news media to push her agenda.
“She just approaches colleagues differently than other Republicans and Democrats from New York,” said Senator Charles E. Grassley, Republican of Iowa. What distinguishes her, he said, is “her determination and knowledge and willingness to sit down one on one with senators and explain what she is up to.”
An outside player in her caucus, the New York Democrat is nonetheless admired for her ample fund-raising, especially by women; she has raised nearly $30 million since beingappointed in 2009, a tally that has scared away potential challengers from both parties and turned her into a mentor for female candidates around the country.
Ms. Gillibrand, who is 46, was the youngest senator when she was sworn in, and she seems a distinctly modern figure in a sometimes cobwebbed institution. She can swear like the litigator she once was, and runs one of the most informal offices in the Senate; her staff members are welcome in jeans and even in something resembling pajamas, and they call her Kirsten, rather than Senator, largely unheard-of on Capitol Hill.
She appeared in an elegant dress in Vogue magazine, and is co-captain of the congressional softball team. Seemingly always working — she has a book out next September — Ms. Gillibrand nonetheless leaves the office promptly at 5 every night to pick up her children from school. If there is a vote at that hour, she has developed a system to signal her aye or nay from a doorway off the Senate floor — where children are not permitted — so she can hold onto her 5-year-old’s hand. “She is ubiquitous,” said Senator Susan Collins, Republican of Maine, “and I mean that as a compliment. I don’t know how she does it.”
Some of Ms. Gillibrand’s Democratic colleagues are less enamored, likening her zeal to that of the Tea Party Republicans who hew to a belief and won’t let it go, ignoring some of the structural protocols of seniority.
“She is unwilling to knuckle under to demands for deference,” said Eugene R. Fidell, who teaches military justice at Yale Law School. “It is very rare that you see a relatively junior member of the Senate staking out a position and sticking by it.”
Ms. Gillibrand’s taste for a fight was presaged in her decision to run for the House in 2006, when she took on Representative John E. Sweeney in a Republican-rich district in upstate New York.
When she approached Howard Wolfson, a Democratic strategist, for help, he told her she could not win. “She told me she was going to run, was going to win, and I would either be the winning consultant or someone else would be,” he said. “I took the race.”
The campaign was one of the nastiest of the cycle, with a spate of negative ads that depicted Ms. Gillibrand as alternately dippy and a war profiteer for investing in war bonds, and ended with the release of a police report that detailed a domestic violence call made from Mr. Sweeney’s home. Ms. Gillibrand won over 50 percent of the vote. “She never wavered, never faltered,” Mr. Wolfson recalled.
A low-profile House member who was appointed to the Senate with the backing of Senator Charles E. Schumer in 2009, despite the interest of better-known figures like Caroline Kennedy, Ms. Gillibrand ran in a special election for the seat in 2010 and won with 63 percent of the vote. In 2012, she was re-elected with 72 percent of the vote.
She has skillfully aligned herself with causes with visible, moving human characters who have helped amplified her policy goals. Early to the fight for ending the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy for gays in the military, she set up a website that featured videos of gay veterans telling their stories.
She was equally canny pushing through health care legislation for the first responders who worked on the cleanup after the Sept. 11 attacks, helping them appear before the cameras, which helped lead to a coveted spot on “The Daily Show With Jon Stewart” to press what at the time seemed doomed.
Ms. Gillibrand has also made victims of sexual assault in the military more visible to her Senate colleagues, handing out copies of a documentary about their tribulations, which helped sway Senator Harry Reid of Nevada, the majority leader, to support her legislation.
“I’ve always seen myself as a voice for the voiceless,” Ms. Gillibrand said about her choice of issues. “When I hear these stories, they outrage me.”
The sexual assault fight exposed some of the tensions surrounding Ms. Gillibrand’s methods, and divided some in the party, as a fellow Democrat, Senator Claire McCaskill of Missouri, offered competing and less aggressive sexual assault legislation.
Last month, in a private meeting, female senators tried unsuccessfully to bridge the gap between the measures. Ms. McCaskill, a former prosecutor, was outraged when an ally of Ms. Gillibrand’s, the advocacy group Protect Our Defenders, took out an ad in Ms. McCaskill’s hometown paper that suggested she did not care about sexual assault.
Fellow lawmakers saw this as another stop on Ms. Gillibrand’s for-me-or-against-me campaign to get votes. Ms. Gillibrand told one member on the Senate floor that he needed to “stand with women,” even after he made it clear he supported Ms. McCaskill’s legislation, which angered him.
“When I talk to my colleagues, I want them to know all the facts,” Ms. Gillibrand said in an interview at a Starbucks near Capitol Hill. She dismisses any talk of tension, saying that she gets along with her Democratic colleagues. “I don’t have any adversaries.”
Ms. Gillibrand cuts an unusual personal swath in the Capitol. Her sons, Theo, 10, and Henry, 5, go to school near the Capitol Hill home she shares with her husband, Jonathan, who commutes to New York during the week.
After fetching her boys from school, she brings them back to work if needed, where they hang around Mr. Reid’s office. A sitter takes over at 6:30 p.m. if she has an evening event to attend. The children are fixtures around the Senate, and can be seen horsing around with Senator John McCain, Republican of Arizona, or Mr. Schumer. “She is a very good mother, and she gets things done,” said Mr. Schumer, Ms. Gillibrand’s mentor and, according to other senators, sometimes her friendly competitor. “She’s a formidable figure.”
In the interview, Ms. Gillibrand began to lay out her agenda for the coming year: pushing her sexual assault amendment, even if it fails, raising the minimum wage, trying to restore cuts in food stamps, even as she fights, once again, with her own party. “All of these issues are about speaking truth to power,” she said, as her aide nudged her. It was time to pick up the kids.