Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) jumped into the slate of 2020 Democratic presidential candidates on Tuesday with an announcement on CBS’s The Late Show with Steven Colbert that she has formed a presidential exploratory committee.
With little in the way of accomplishments, and an unremarkable political career characterized by very public reversals on most of the key issues that first helped her get elected to Congress in a conservative upstate New York district — including a stunning about-face from her original position strongly in support of the Second Amendment — it is unclear what constituency will be drawn to her candidacy.
Gillibrand is the fourth Democrat to announce the formation of a 2020 presidential exploratory committee, and as many as 20 more may throw their hats in the ring.
In this very crowded field, it is hard to see how Gillibrand will distinguish herself from four likely well-known candidates — former Vice President Joe Biden, 2016 Democratic nomination runner-up Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT), former Rep. Francis “Beto” O’Rourke (D-TX), and Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), who has already announced an exploratory committee — and the ever-growing field of additional candidates, which already includes Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (D-HI) and former San Antonio Mayor Julian Castro.
Gillibrand is virtually unknown nationally — and received only one percent support in a recent poll of Democratic caucus-goers in Iowa, an asterisk far behind Biden, who finished first with 32 percent support, Sanders with 19 percent, O’Rourke with 11 percent, and Warren with eight percent.
“Well I’m going to run for President of the US, because as a young mom I’m going to fight for kids, we should have better public schools, healthcare is a right, anybody who wants to work hard enough should be able to work their way into the middle class, take on systems of power, racism, corruption, greed in Washington, special interests. I know I have the compassion, courage, and fearless determination to get that done,” Gillibrand told Colbert on Tuesday.
Gillibrand has worked to distinguish herself as a champion of women’s issues, as NPR reported:
The 52-year-old Gillibrand has long been seen as a possible presidential candidate. In the Senate, she’s worked on legislation to combat sexual assault in the military and on college campuses, championed federal family leave and worked to elect more women to office.
“Sometimes people say, ‘Well, why do you just focus on women’s issues?'” Gillibrand told NPR in 2013. “Well, why do you focus on issues that pertain to 52 percent of the population? It’s pretty important. And women are such the untapped potential in this economy.”
Gillibrand’s previous work on sexual assault and gender equality led to her becoming a leading voice in the #MeToo movement on Capitol Hill. In 2017, she was the first senator to call on Sen. Al Franken, D-Minn., to resign after he was accused of sexual misconduct. That provoked the ire of some Democrats, who saw Franken as a progressive hero standing up to Trump, and said that Gillibrand had rushed to judgment before the accusations against Franken had been vetted. Politico reported that could hurt her with some potential donors in a presidential campaign.
Born in Albany, New York, she attended an elite private school, the Emma Willard School, before graduating from Dartmouth and UCLA Law School. She returned to New York City where she practiced law for the high-powered firm of Davis, Polk, & Wardwell, where her primary client was Phillip Morris, the giant tobacco company.
She went from Davis to another New York City-based law firm, this one founded by David Boies and, in 2005, decided to run for Congress from the upstate New York district where she was born. She defeated the incumbent Republican, John Sweeney, 53 percent to 47 percent, in a hard-fought campaign in which she raised and spent more than $2 million.
Her platform in that election is unrecognizable when compared to her current political positions. In 2006, she supported the Second Amendment and opposed amnesty for illegal aliens.
In 2019, as NPR reported:
She told CBS’s “60 Minutes” last year that she was “wrong” about her previous stances on gun control and was “embarrassed” by them.
“What it’s about is the power of the NRA and the greed of that industry. Let’s be clear. It is not about hunters’ rights, it’s about money,” Gillibrand said.
Gillibrand’s abandonment of moderate or conservative positions began almost immediately upon her appointment to the United States Senate in 2009 by Gov. David Paterson after former Sen. Hillary Clinton (D-NY) resigned to become Secretary of State in the Obama administration.
The New York Times described Gillibrand at the time as “a 42-year-old congresswoman from upstate who is known for bold political moves and centrist policy positions.”
Her evolution from “centrist” to far left happened quickly.
Just four months after she was appointed to the Senate in January of 2009, the New York Times reported in May of that year that Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-NY) told her she had to “slow down” with the political transformation.
Gillibrand’s challenge in the 2020 Democratic presidential field will be to increase her name recognition and her personal political brand at the same time.