The Washington sky was darkening outside her window, and Kirsten Gillibrand slumped down in her chair. It had been a long day. In the morning, the New York senator hosted a news conference with a mother whose twin 6-year-old daughters had been allegedly raped by their father’s military commander. As she walked off the podium, she’d been confronted by questions about her colleague Al Franken’s reported history of groping women, news that broke for the first time that morning. “Deeply concerning,” she replied, adding that she believed the story of his accusers. “I expect to hear more from Senator Franken.” And she had just come from a podcast interview with the New York Times in which she’d blown through the Democratic code of silence on Clinton misdeeds by saying that yes, if Bill Clinton were president now, he would have to resign after something like the Monica Lewinsky affair.
That last one wasn’t a piece of news Gillibrand had planned on making that morning. She had long been a supporter of the Clintons, both of them. She inherited Hillary Clinton’s seat in the Senate, and credits her with the decision to run for office in the first place. Bill Clinton campaigned for her in her first run for Congress. She strongly supported both of Hillary’s campaigns for president. But Gillibrand is no longer a rank-and-file Clinton Democrat. As the nation is convulsed with a deluge of allegations of sexual harassment and assault, one that seemingly every day fells another star, Gillibrand is at the political center of it. For years she has been battling against sexual assault in the military and on campus, and talking about sexual harassment in politics, and now at last it seems as if the rest of the world has caught up to her concerns. And so once the question has been put before you, in this political moment, when at long last it looks like all of that work is finally paying off and progress is being made, what else can you say about Bill Clinton lying about having oral sex with his 22-year-old intern other than that he should have stepped down and “things have changed today”?
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The blowback was immediate. “Over 20 yrs you took the Clintons endorsement, money and seat. Hypocrite,” wrote Philippe Reines, a longtime Clinton confidant, on Twitter. “Interesting strategy for 2020 primaries. Best of luck.”
The first half of the tweet was predictable, a Clinton loyalist biting back at a perceived threat to the family. But the second half was telling. The world is paying attention to Gillibrand in a new way. At least since the day after Donald Trump’s inauguration, when Gillibrand thrilled the crowd at the Women’s March, jabbing the air with her finger and telling them, “This is the moment of the beginning of the revival of the women’s movement. This is the moment you will remember when women stood strong and stood firm and said never again. This is the moment that you are going to be heard!” The 51-year-old Gillibrand has come to represent a rising generation of Democratic leaders, one who came of age in an era when equality of the sexes was something almost taken for granted. And the buzz about her presidential ambitions has only grown.
For years, the issues that Gillibrand has made her name on—aid for 9/11 workers, ending “don’t ask don’t tell” in the military, transgender rights—were important but distinct, touching on segments of American life that most people never interact with. And now, at a moment when the cover has been ripped off toxic workplaces from Hollywood to Wall Street, Gillibrand is finding that the rest of the world has caught up with her crusades.
“She was on this before anybody else was,” said Brian Fallon, a former aide to both Chuck Schumer and Hillary Clinton. “It’s a moment that has come to her rather than her grabbing the spotlight.”
“I am not surprised,” Gillibrand told me as we ran down the list of the latest prominent men who thought their abusive behavior would stay secret. “This is the world we live in. This is how people behave in many instances. It is sad, and it is horrible and what you see everywhere is the institutional bias against survivors, and in favor of the powerful. You see it in every instance—the military, Congress, college campuses, Wall Street, the movie industry. You see it over and over again that perpetrators are protected.”
Gillibrand has her own stories. There was the time in the congressional gym when a male colleague told her, “Good thing you’re working out, because you wouldn’t want to get porky!” Or when, after giving birth and losing 50 pounds, a male senator said, “Don’t lose too much weight now. I like my girls chubby!” There was the time Sen. Harry Reid called her the Senate’s “hottest member” at a fundraiser, something she now dismisses. “I didn’t see it as harassment on any level. He was not my boss.”
But even in an environment as testosterone-heavy as Capitol Hill, she acknowledges, it could have been worse. “I have had a lot of people say sexist and disgusting things and inappropriate things, but I was never in a position where I felt like I was being harassed,” she said. “I don’t think I’ve mentally counted all the times I have been dismissed and not listened to, but every woman has those stories.”
I don’t think I’ve mentally counted all the times I have been dismissed and not listened to, but every woman has those stories.”
This is the perfect moment for Gillibrand to emerge as one of the leading voices in the Democratic Party, a perhaps fleeting window when gender seems to have trumped class or race as the animating principle in American political and cultural life. It is a moment she helped bring about, by seizing on the issue of sexual assault in the military, bringing victims up to Capitol Hill to share their stories publicly and challenging the Pentagon to hold itself accountable. But it is a moment, too, that is fraught, since it involves telling one-time allies like Franken and Bill Clinton that their time is up—Gillibrand was the first senator to call for Franken to step down on Wednesday, which he did 24 hours later—and forcing revered institutions like the military or your alma mater that they need to change their ways, and quickly.
Her campaign has earned her some powerful enemies in the Pentagon, but Gillibrand makes no apology.
“They can’t empathize,” she said of the military commanders who have resisted her efforts to change the way the military investigates allegations of sexual assault. “They can’t see themselves in it. They can’t see how wrong they are.”
“That is bullshit,” responded retired Colonel Jeff McCausland, a commander of a field artillery battalion in the first Gulf War and a CBS radio military analyst, one of a number of former military officers who say Gillibrand has gone too far. “I do see a need for a correction but that is a wholesale change in the way the military operates. I believe she is sincerely outraged by sexual harassment, but politicians do things because they want to gain notoriety.”
For Gillibrand, the question is how far can she push on an issue that at last has the world’s attention. She argues that if the military can fix this problem, it will have a cascading effect, as the rest of the country will look to the armed forces to see how to deal with the predators in their midst.
“These people will literally die for their country,” she said of the military sexual assault victims she’s championed. “They are just trying to do their job, and they are disbelieved by commanders that are supposed to protect them and retaliated against. It’s infuriating. Our institutions are protecting predators.”
That Gillibrand would become the Senate’s leading voice on gender discrimination and sexual violence—that she would be a second-term senator at all—seemed unlikely when she was first named to Hillary Clinton’s seat. Then-Governor David Paterson spent eight weeks publicly vacillating between Caroline Kennedy and roughly half the members of New York’s congressional delegation before tapping Gillibrand, who was then representing a heavily rural Hudson Valley district, to replace Clinton. His final selection was seen as a concession to the state’s senior senator, Chuck Schumer, who wanted a low-profile politician who wouldn’t dim his own star power, as well as a sop to the upstate region in a state where nearly all of the political power was concentrated in New York City.
In January 2009, when Paterson introduced her to the voters of the state at a news conference in Albany, Gillibrand went on for so long that she didn’t even pause for a congratulatory phone call from President Barack Obama, instead thanking no fewer than 22 of her fellow New York elected officials and running through a laundry list of policy priorities, including helping the financial services industry recover, investing in health care, transportation and energy, middle class tax cuts, high speed rail, global warming and the upstate manufacturing economy. She mentioned Clinton’s famous “women’s rights are human rights” speech as motivating her to get into politics, and gave a shout-out to her fellow female lawmakers in Congress (“I know this will get me in trouble with all the men colleagues here, who I do love and admire” she added by way of preface) but mostly eschewed the language of women’s empowerment in favor of a glancing reference to Hillary Clinton’s more milquetoast focus on families and children.
A former corporate lawyer, Gillibrand had at that point served just one term in the House. She had volunteered for Clinton’s 2000 Senate run—“wandering in off the street,” as a former Clinton adviser later put it—and here she was, at 42, a U.S. senator herself despite being completely unknown to most New Yorkers. And with her high-pitched voice, wide-eyed awe at being named to the seat, and Blue Dog record—she gave a shout-out to gun owners at the introductory news conference—Gillibrand looked unlikely to survive the Democratic primary a year and a half away.
But Gillibrand turned out to be a far more aggressive and astute political player than many realized. Her family hails from the wards of Albany’s political machine; her grandmother was a longtime companion to legendary mayor Erastus Corning II and president of the Albany Democratic Women’s Club. Her father, Doug Rutnik, is a veteran Albany lobbyist who had a long relationship with a longtime aide to Republicans like George Pataki and Al D’Amato.
Gillibrand came to Congress styling herself as upstate’s own Annie Oakley, someone who bragged about keeping guns under her bed and spoke reverentially about the culture of hunting. In fact, the woman whose college nickname was “Elbows” for her aggressive manner on the squash courts of Dartmouth spent the early part of her career in a white shoe law firm in Manhattan where, among other clients, she represented cigarette-maker Philip Morris. She got involved in Democratic politics, walked on to that first Hillary Clinton campaign, and moved back upstate with Hillary’s encouragement and a congressional seat in mind.
Gillibrand wanted to run in 2004 in a district that had more cows than Democrats; her advisers talked her out of it. In 2006, she badgered Rahm Emanuel, then the head of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, to put her on the Red-to-Blue list of preferred Democratic candidates. When he told her she needed to raise more money, she spent 14 straight hours dialing for dollars, netting $125,000 in the course of a day. She attended not one but three candidate boot camps, and at that introductory news conference, told an otherwise harmless story about how she was chatting with three of her fellow New York members of Congress just the day before and how they had each pledged to support whoever was Paterson’s pick—never mind that two of them were already making noises about running against her.
Once in the Senate, Gillibrand moved quickly to the left, including on issues like the Second Amendment and immigration, thus undercutting the rationale for any Democrat who might challenge her, raised $13 million for her re-election and then another $16 million when she ran for a full term two years later.
And she found a set of issues that kept her out of Schumer’s way. Among them, and one that Schumer understandably couldn’t touch, was the issue of women in politics and in the workforce. “The fact remains that too many American women are sitting on the sidelines,” she said in a 2011 speech. “Off the Sidelines” became a brand—it grew into a book, a podcast and a political action committee, one that has raised more than $6 million for female candidates and built for Gillibrand an enthusiastic army of female grass-roots supporters around the country.
But what brought Gillibrand to the center of this moment was when she was handed a copy of “The Invisible War,” a 2012 movie about sexual assault in the military. The film showed not just that sexual assault in the military was rampant, and devastating to those who were victims of it, but that the military actively worked to cover up the scale of the problem.
“I couldn’t believe it,” Gillibrand recalled. “I couldn’t believe that the military could be this clueless.”
She held a screening for staff. When a couple of male aides ducked out to make phone calls, Gillibrand ordered the screening paused until they returned. She flew to Los Angeles to meet with the filmmakers over dinner, and took on the issue as her own as the ranking member of the Senate Armed Services Subcommittee on Personnel, meeting with victims to coax them to come forward and publicly share their experience. When the Armed Services Committee hauled in the military brass to discuss sexual assault, Gillibrand dressed them down in full view of the cameras. Even now, the footage can be painful to watch as decorated military leaders squirm before her questioning.
“A rape is a violent crime. It is not, ‘Ask her when she is sober’” Gillibrand said at one point, nearly leaping out of her chair with outrage. “If you think you are achieving discipline and order with your current convening authority framework, I am sorry to say you are wrong.”
“It is superhero stuff,” said Amy Ziering, the director of “The Invisible War.” “She was unrelenting.”
It is superhero stuff,” said Amy Ziering. “She was unrelenting.”
“I don’t know,” Gillibrand said when asked why this issue become the one that she grabbed on to. “I know it took several knocks on my door for me to pay attention to it. I had been told by different people around the country and around the state that it was something that I needed to look into, but it wasn’t until somebody handed me the film and said watch it that I thought, ‘Oh my God. This is a huge issue.’ It made me so angry.”
It has been a long time since any senator, let alone a Democrat, let alone a first-term female senator, took on the military in quite the way Gillibrand has. That she didn’t back down after it put her at odds with senior members of her party, like Carl Levin and Claire McCaskill, was even more unlikely. Gillibrand grabbed on to the issue just as the military was reeling under a string of high-profile cases, including that of an Army two-star general stationed in Japan who failed to act on the report of sexual assault alleged by a Japanese civilian against a longtime associate of his; a judge advocate who was in charge of nearly two dozen military prosecutors who attempted to kiss and grope an underling during a sexual assault legal conference; an Air Force lieutenant colonel who was the head of the sexual assault prevention and response office who was arrested for sexually assaulting a woman in a parking lot; the member of the sexual assault response team at Fort Hood who was accused of running a prostitution ring, and on and on. A 2012 confidential Pentagon survey estimated that there were 26,000 sexual assaults in the military that year, and of those, fewer than 4,000 were ever reported. The next year, with Gillibrand’s attention on the issue, more than 5,000 were reported, but only 484 went to trial and 376 resulted in convictions.
“It wasn’t popular, and it wasn’t easy,” said Ziering. “A junior senator taking on the Pentagon? We are so cynical these days, we think everything is just a calculation with these politicians, but the way she took it on, we were blown away. It was like, ‘I’m not doing any calculation with this. This is outrageous and it has to stop.’”
The military, Gillibrand told me, is “hard to beat. They are a monolith. They are very powerful. They have staff throughout the Senate and the House; there is a revolving door. They didn’t want to integrate, they didn’t want women in combat, they didn’t want to overturn ‘don’t ask don’t tell.’ They want to maintain the status quo.”
A bill Gillibrand has been pushing for years, the Military Justice Improvement Act, would make the procedure for investigating and prosecuting serious crimes more like the civilian one, streamlining the layers of obstacles and sending cases to trial with an experienced military prosecutor. Opponents say that such a reform would undermine the military, where commanders are expected to maintain good order and discipline.
“She is pushing an agenda. She wants to hold political office,” said Greg Rinckey, a former attorney with the U.S. Army Jag Corps who also appeared in “The Invisible War.” “You have a senator who hasn’t served in the military who is pushing these changes, and it’s very dangerous. The commander is responsible for what happens with his unit. You are getting at the core of what the military is supposed to do.”
The MJIA is one of the rare bills that has bipartisan support, with Republican luminaries like Ted Cruz and Rand Paul joining the bulk of the Democratic conference. A 2014 vote on the bill received 55 yeas, not enough to break a filibuster. In 2015, the number of yeas dropped to 50. In 2016, it was dropped from consideration in a Senate policy bill.
“I know some of my colleagues on the Republican side are nervous about it because they think that it’s anti-military. It’s very pro-military,” said Senator John Kennedy (R-La.), who joined the bill after being approached by Gillibrand. “I had no idea there were so many pigs out there. I understand that there are different kinds of pigs—there are major league pigs and minor league pigs and amateur pigs, but they are all pigs. I have to give [Gillibrand] credit. She has been working on this for a while. And while it certainly seems timely right now, at the point where she started working on it it wasn’t dominating the news.”
How many workplaces tolerate harassers who are powerful? Look at Congress. We have a system designed to protect predators,” says Gillibrand.
For Gillibrand, the cases of sexual misconduct that are now coming to light are not about male hormones, or changing social mores. They are about institutions, and how institutions protect the powerful at the expense of those they prey upon. It’s why she is so focused on the military; if it can hold its predators to account, so can college campuses, and then so can Hollywood studios and newsrooms and workplaces and congressional offices on Capitol Hill.
“The system is rigged,” she said, borrowing a line from Democratic populists like Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders when they talk about Wall Street. “How many workplaces tolerate harassers who are powerful? Look at Congress. We have a system designed to protect predators.”
The same is true of military brass who refuse to own up to the problem of sexual assault in their midst, she said.
“They have this backwards view of the world that is uninformed, and frankly sexist, where they don’t value female service members, they value the man who looks like them, who has had three tours of duty and who is great at his day job. They know what they need and they value that, and to them the problem is the woman who alleged the assault.”
It is hard to imagine a better moment for Gillibrand to push through her military justice bill. Who, after all, after Harvey Weinstein, wants to be seen as anything other than standing on the side of victims and against predatory men? Behavior that was quietly sanctioned for years has suddenly led to the swift end of careers.
But Gillibrand doesn’t see it that way. The Weinstein allegations, she said, will be used as an excuse by the military and others as a way of showing that the problem is more widespread and less containable than lawmakers imagine.
“Is this a sea change? I don’t know. I think it’s just a moment,” she said. “I hope it’s not, but I know how hard this issue is. Something is happening, I agree. I just don’t know if it continues to be important to people.”
Something is happening, I agree. I just don’t know if it continues to be important to people.”
Gillibrand’s main opponent on the military justice measure has been Senator McCaskill. When the bill was first introduced, the optics of two Democratic women sparring over a bill about sexual assault helped give the issue more media attention than it otherwise might have received.
McCaskill’s alternate bill gave every survivor of sexual assault in the military an independent lawyer known as a special victims counsel and stripped commanders of their ability to overturn convictions. That bill passed easily, and McCaskill says her reforms are working, citing statistics that show the number of reported incidents are ticking upward while the overall rate is ticking downward, proof that there are fewer instances and more women coming forward. She cites a study by an independent group called the Response Systems Panel, which included former Rep. Elizabeth Holtzman (D-N.Y.), who was the author of the federal rape shield law, and Mai Fernandez, the executive director of the National Center for Victims of Crime, which found that stripping commanders of their power to launch courts-martial, as Gillibrand has proposed, would actually hurt the ability of victims to receive justice.
The dispute isn’t personal so much as technical. “This is simply one policy area where we disagree,” McCaskill said in a statement to POLITICO. “As a former courtroom prosecutor for sex crimes, I continue to have deep concerns with this alternative proposal, one that independent experts have shown could backfire and result in less protections for victims and fewer prosecutions of predators.”
“You are just asking for problems if you take the commander out of the equation,” agreed William L. Nash, a retired major general in the U.S. Army who commanded the 1st Armored Division in Bosnia in 1995. “Yes, commanders haven’t fulfilled their responsibility to the standards we would like but neither has anybody else. This is a reflection of our society. We have a commander in chief who is accused of the most egregious examples of sexual harassment of anyone, so who are you going to call? Why do we have to start fucking with battalion commanders?”
Commanders haven’t fulfilled their responsibility to the standards we would like, but neither has anybody else,” says retired Maj. Gen. William L. Nash. “We have a commander in chief who is accused of the most egregious examples of sexual harassment of anyone, so who are you going to call?”
It hasn’t gone unnoticed among Capitol Hill insiders that the ongoing saga plays to Gillibrand’s strengths. Now, every time there is a sexual assault story, in the military or elsewhere, it is Gillibrand who stands alongside victims, urging her colleagues to act.
“I think the question with her has always been is she operating from principle or is she only looking to advance her career by finding these wedge issues,” said one longtime Senate aide. “She is very good at finding issues that she can ride in a white-hot media market.”
But compared with Schumer, or Governor Andrew Cuomo or Mayor Bill de Blasio, Gillibrand is seemingly far less concerned about getting regular coverage from the New York papers, focusing instead on carving out a profile in the national press, and in particular on female-focused websites and magazines. She has been profiled twice, and glamorously photographed, in Vogue during her eight years as a senator, and is regularly featured in outlets like Glamour, Refinery29 and The Cut. Let others hold Sunday news conferences in the suburbs of Utica warning about dangerous Christmas toys; there is Gillibrand, not having completed a full six years in the Senate and being profiled in The New Yorker along with photographs of her young children.
Although she was a Blue Dog in Congress, and as recently as 2010 was speaking at a “No Labels” conference, citing her bipartisan work with then-Senator Tom Coburn (R-Okla.), she is now firmly on the left side of her caucus, voting almost uniformly against Trump’s Cabinet appointees and emerging as one of the most anti-gun senators in the chamber—proof of a change of heart, or proof of how assiduously Gillibrand works to get where she wants to be. She is both someone who is known to wander around the Senate floor with notecards, counting where her colleagues are on her bills, and someone who volunteers to get to the bar early to hold down a table for drinks with the organizers after the recent Women’s Convention in Detroit. The little-known backbencher who walked out onto the national stage in Albany that afternoon is long gone, replaced by someone nearly leaping out of her chair and shouting when the conversation turns to sexual assault.
“Speaking as a woman, I’ve done my best for a long time to keep my head down, do the work and just get things done, but at some point you just have to say, ‘enough with this shit,’” said Alyssa Mastromonaco, a longtime Obama aide who hails from the same upstate district that Gillibrand represented in Congress. The two met over margaritas soon after Gillibrand was sworn in, and remained friends. “A fucking pedophile is about to become a U.S. senator. How much more can we take? Our eyes are wide open.”
For Gillibrand, the outrage the country now feels about how men in high places have been abusing women is something she has been living with a long time. It was her long hours meeting alone with survivors of sexual assault and harassment in the military that led her to make the issue her defining cause, and her persuading of them to go public with the stories that helped create the space for other women to go public. It led her to focus on college campuses, and the NFL, and then Congress itself. She isn’t overly sanguine about where it leads. There have been waves of outrage about sexual assault before, with little result. The chances of a vote on her sexual assault in the military bill seem nil in the current Congress. Yes, the public is more aware today than in the past, but the president of the United States and the Republican National Committee lined up behind Roy Moore.
“We are having a reckoning,” she said. “I think it’s important.”
As for Trump, an opponent many believe she might end up facing in 2020?
“The president has his own stories of women who have come forward to say what he did to them was wrong,” she said. “I think the president should be held accountable for his crimes.”