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The Rise Of Kirsten Gillibrand: How Hillary Clinton's Heir Is Winning Battles And Silencing Critics

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WASHINGTON -- On a recent morning in November, Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand marched briskly through the Capitol at about 8:30, two hours before the Senate was due to open. Her blond hair was pulled back in a ponytail, and she was clad in workout clothes -- an unusual sight in the legislature's marble halls. As she walked, she munched from a to-go cup of cereal.

"I rarely have luxury time, so I try to be efficient," the New York Democrat said in an interview in her office.

She was talking about a recent shopping trip to a Capitol Hill Safeway with one of her two sons and her mother. Finding the line long, she left them to hold the place while she scouted the crowd for a faster-moving checkout counter.

"My life is intense for many reasons, but the most significant reason is that I have two young children," Gillibrand said. Her eldest, Theo, was born in 2003. Henry was born in 2008. "So my time at the grocery store is limited. I gotta get in and get out, because I have to pick Theo up from baseball or soccer, and get them home, get them fed and get them in bed. … I'm not surprised I was looking for the shortest line."

Gillibrand, 46, has approached politics with the same sense of urgency. Most recently, as a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, she has pushed relentlessly to reform the military justice system, following a volley of reports showing thousands of cases of sexual assault going unpunished, with disastrous results.

It's a stain on the military that has shown no signs of fading since 1991's infamous Tailhook scandal. Gillibrand and most advocates believe the best solution is to remove the reporting and prosecution of such cases from the military's chain of command, thereby taking away the incentive for officers to cover up deplorable conduct in their own units.

Gillibrand was within a handful of votes of passing an amendment designed to do just that on Nov. 21. But that was also the day that Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) decided to nuke Republican filibusters of White House nominees, making collateral damage of Gillibrand's measure.

To get to that point, Gillibrand had bucked Democratic party leaders, who had killed the amendment in committee. Rather than wait for another year, as lower-ranking lawmakers tend to do, the first-term senator decided to try again by building support outside of the committee and reintroducing her amendment when the National Defense Authorization Act of 2014 hit the Senate floor.

And despite the fact that her vote -- as painstakingly as she had gathered support -- was brushed to the side in one of the Senate's internecine battles, Gillibrand remains undeterred. She still may succeed in pushing her amendment through, whether it's when the Senate returns after Dec. 9, or next year. She may have to coax some Republicans to stick with her, or perhaps detach her measure from the NDAA altogether and offer it as a standalone bill. But she doesn't intend to let the matter drop.

"I think she's worked extremely hard, and we're going to get it, one way or the other," Rep. Jackie Speier (D-Calif.), perhaps the leading proponent in the House for removing sexual assault allegations from the chain of command, said of Gillibrand.

While the fate of her amendment remains uncertain, in many regards, Gillibrand has already won. Not only has she cast a spotlight on an important issue, but she has also added to her growing list of credits as a champion of women. In doing so, she has silenced critics who saw her as little more than an audacious striver when she entered the Senate in 2009. And she has emboldened her supporters, who see her as a potential presidential candidate in 2016 or beyond.

"Without her persistence and passion, we would not be here today," said Sen. Jack Reed (D-R.I.) during Senate floor debate on Gillibrand's amendment, even though he opposed it. "She perhaps has done more than anyone else to focus our attention on this incredibly heinous crime."

GOODBYE TRACY FLICK

Not so long ago, Gillibrand's tenacious pursuit of her goals earned her the nickname Tracy Flick, an unflattering reference to the conniving, ambitious high schooler played by Reese Witherspoon in "Election."

The former Wall Street lawyer has been extremely adept at identifying her goals and determining how to get there -- and who can help her. Gillibrand targeted her upstate New York congressional district (where her family has deep roots and political connections) well before she won a House seat in the Democratic wave election of 2006. Along the way, she enlisted the help of New York senatorial powerhouses Hillary Clinton and Chuck Schumer.

She met Clinton by raising money for her 2000 Senate bid, and forged a bond with the then-first lady, who reportedly told her not to run in 2004. She met Schumer in her characteristic determined fashion -- ambushing him after a fundraiser at a law partner's apartment.

"When he was leaving I jumped on to the elevator and said, 'Sen. Schumer, I'm running for Congress in this upstate district, I know it's a long shot, but I'd be grateful if you would look at it and see if you think you can help me,'" Gillibrand recalled.

Schumer did help her, and backed her for the Senate job when Clinton left to become secretary of state in 2009.

When then-Gov. David Paterson, a fellow Democrat, picked her, critics sniped that Gillibrand had jumped the line in front of more seasoned politicians. They howled again when Gillibrand seemed to shift her positions radically.

She had mostly distinguished herself in her two years in the House by taking conservative stances against gun control, immigration reform and the Wall Street bailout. Emerging suddenly into the spotlight, she tacked swiftly to the left, embracing gun control, immigration reform and the gay rights movement, which she had previously been quiet on.

The hurried transition led to perhaps her most memorable gaffe. The then-NRA A-rated congresswoman and mother of two young children admitted to Long Island Newsday that she kept two guns under the bed in her upstate home. (She doesn't do that anymore.) She was criticized not just for the flip-flopping, but for the remarkable speed with which she did it.

But it worked. Gillibrand's vigorous assault on "dont ask, don't tell" not only helped win its repeal, it set her on the way to building an energetic new base and raised her name recognition. She won her 2010 special election easily and crushed her opponent in 2012, winning 72 percent of the vote -- a point better than even Schumer in his biggest win.

Gillibrand has long argued her conversions were not rank opportunism, but the result of getting to know a new constituency with different views. Her switch on guns was nearly instantaneous, she said, coming just after she met the parents of Nyasia Pryear-Yard, a 17-year-old killed by a stray bullet.

It wasn't a matter of pandering, but an example of the empathy women can bring to politics, Gillibrand told HuffPost.

"I think it also goes to the issue of emotional intelligence," she said, explaining how she went from representing 600,000 people in the Albany area to 20 million New Yorkers, including Pryear-Yard's parents, whom she met in the Bronx.

"My heart broke. I couldn't believe the pain that parents have to face when their children are taken away so quickly and unjustly, and the outrage, the fury -- just the burden -- is so strong. And it only took that moment," Gillibrand said. "Even though another senator might have taken a year or two to decide that he or she was going to do something about gun violence, it took me a moment looking into those parents' eyes. It's not a question of expediency. It's a question of need."

Pryear-Yard's parents saw Gillibrand's concern as genuine, but she likely will be haunted by accusations that the "need" is actually her own.

If it is, she has also shown a remarkable effectiveness in deploying her own desire for success in the service of others. She picked up the mantle of 9/11 champion from Clinton, and took the stalled James Zadroga 9/11 Health and Compensation Act to within inches of passage in the fall of 2010, much to the surprise of Democratic and Republican leaders, aides said at the time. She pushed it over the goal line on Christmas Eve, with a late, vital push from Schumer.

And now, she's won the public support of 53 senators in her bid to win passage of a reform to the Uniform Code of Military Justice that is staunchly opposed by the military, Sens. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) and Carl Levin (D-Mich.), and Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel. She needs just seven more votes to break the 60-vote filibuster-proof threshold and defeat the McCaskill-led opposition.

She's gotten there by employing the same brand of pushy audacity that may rub some the wrong way but has helped her build an unlikely bipartisan coalition. Despite rating as one of the most liberal members of the Senate, she reached out and won to her side Democrats' current public enemy No. 1, Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas), who penned an op-ed with her. She also won over libertarian tea partier Rand Paul (R-Ky.), who took up her cause in his own right, as well as cantankerous Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), Sen. Dean Heller (R-Nev.) and Reid.

"Quite frankly, how she has handled this is a lesson to go forward on how to accomplish great things," Grassley said at a press conference the day before Reid went nuclear on filibusters.

"There are many issues on which Sen. Gillibrand and I disagree," Cruz told HuffPost, "but on the issue of sexual assaults in the military, she has been a courageous leader."

It's not just Gillibrand's persuasion that won Cruz and the like over, of course. Fighting against sexual assault in the military gives the Republican backers a rare issue to burnish their pro-women credentials, and in this case aligns them against Hagel and the Obama administration. Gillibrand said their embrace shows "common sense" on an issue that goes beyond politics.

Gillibrand's toughest opponent has probably been McCaskill, who won her own reelection last year against Rep. Todd Akin (R-Mo.) in large part thanks to his offensive comments about rape. While McCaskill has not been as strong on the issue as most advocates would like, she has argued that taking such cases out of the chain of command would harm commanders' authority, and that her own reforms -- already included in the NDAA -- are enough, though she has more recently introduced additional measures.

Gillibrand and her aides like McCaskill's reforms, and profess to take the Missourian's opposition to taking a step further at face value. But McCaskill herself suggested that part of the problem was that Gillibrand's higher-profile stance has overshadowed her own efforts.

"I'm frustrated that the reforms we have done have not gotten the attention they deserve," McCaskill said at a press conference in November, called to announce her own new sexual assault reform amendment as debate on the NDAA was about to start and Gillibrand's efforts looked close to succeeding. McCaskill's new measures would go further than what she put in the defense bill during the committee markup, but not as far as Gillibrand's.

GILLIBRAND FOR PRESIDENT?

What Gillibrand will do with her rising notoriety is an open question. EMILY's List ranks her high on its roster of potential future women commanders in chief, and she increasingly is mentioned as a potential presidential or vice presidential candidate. But neither spot would be in the cards in 2016, with both New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo and Hillary Clinton standing higher up the would-be White House pecking order.

Gillibrand, for her part, professes to not even think about such a possibility.

"No. I really love my current job. I feel so blessed I get to serve my state. I feel grateful I get to work on issues as wide-ranging as sexual assault in the military to immigration reform to ending gun violence," she told HuffPost. "And I feel like we have an amazing candidate in Hillary Clinton, and I'm so excited to make sure she runs and wins, and I think she has not only the gravitas but the life experience to be an extraordinary president."

Yet, Florida Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, chair of the Democratic National Committee, said she thinks something as lofty could be in Gillibrand's future.

"I had the wonderful experience of being the person who recruited her when we were trying to get her to run for the House of Representatives. I was like her mom adviser who had been through it when she was deciding whether she was going to run," Wasserman Schultz told HuffPost. "Kirsten is a committed, fierce, passionate leader. She is someone who has earned her stripes and developed a tremendous amount of respect, legislative chops that show that she's a real policy leader, as well as someone who's incredibly savvy politically."

How far can that take her?

"I think the sky's the limit," Wasserman Schultz said. "There's no question that there is an unlimited potential for Kirsten Gillibrand, and I'll be cheering her on and fighting by her side."

Gillibrand has been extremely busy building a national base, in many ways inheriting Clinton's role of promoting the power of women. She's started her own political action committee called Off the Sidelines, aimed directly at women and getting them to go vote and run for office. She raised more than $1 million for candidates in the last election cycle -- including nearly a quarter-million dollars for McCaskill. And while she is a partisan, she's picked out a five-point "#OpportunityPlan" that works across the aisle, seeking paid family leave, a hike in the minimum wage, affordable child care, universal pre-K and equal pay.

Maybe that effort in the near term gives her tools to help Clinton in 2016 and other women next year. But Gillibrand is aware of her own future potential. Her answer to the question about the White House was nearly identical to the responses Clinton was giving in late 2005. It's hard to believe Gillibrand really doesn't ever ponder her chances of winning the highest office.

For now, she'll keep working on legislation like sexual assault reforms. She'll keep building her national donor network. If Clinton runs, as Gillibrand seems sure she will, Gillibrand will do her all to see her mentor crack that last glass ceiling. And, not so coincidentally, none of that does anything to harm a White House run by the New Yorker who would be in her mid-fifties after a presumed two terms by Clinton.

"I can't imagine it today," Gillibrand said, "but you can ask me in eight years."

Michael McAuliff covers Congress and politics for The Huffington Post. Talk to him on Facebook.

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