Kirsten Gillibrand tells a story about her first election. I first heard it when I met her for lunch in Albany in December of 2008. She hired a pollster to analyze her chances for a win in what was then the NY-20 congressional district. He told her there was no chance -- the upstate district was firmly Republican and was held by long-term incumbent John Sweeney.
Gillibrand asked him, "What if I run a perfect campaign?" No. "What if I raise a lot of money?" No. "What if Sweeney makes a mistake?" Maybe? Never mind. No. Kirsten, you can't win this district.
Gillibrand went on to win that election. And then she won her next election... by a landslide, against a self-funded millionaire. In 2009, New York Governor Patterson appointed Gillibrand to replace Hillary Clinton as the Junior Senator to New York, amidst a sea of controversy from both the right and the left. She faced a special election ten months later. She won that election handily. Last night, she won a full Senate term by 72%.
The easy narrative is that Kirsten Gillibrand is scrappy, tenacious and optimistic. And she is all those things. But that doesn't scratch the surface. The truth is, Kirsten Gillibrand might just be our future.
Upon her appointment to the Senate, one of her first phone calls was to gay rights groups to let them know that she was in favor of full marriage equality. She followed that by championing the repeal of "Don't Ask Don't Tell," years before her peers regarded gay rights as a meaningful part of a civil rights platform. When she arrived in Congress, she published her schedule online. It included earmark requests and her own personal financial statement. Her "Sunlight Report" was decried by her colleagues even as it ushered in a new era of transparency.
When she first approached her bid for NY-20, Gillibrand felt she understood the voters. She grew up outside of Albany and knew the Republicans in Columbia and surrounding counties to be old-school Rockefeller Republicans, folks who weren't invested in social issues and might be willing to elect a Democrat. Once in Congress, she set up tables outside local grocery stores on Saturday mornings and talked to the people she represented. Since Hurricane Sandy, she hasn't stopped getting New Yorkers the help they need. She has never faltered in recognizing that her job is to serve her constituents.
Gillibrand gave birth to her second child while in Congress (the sixth woman in history to do so). While in the Senate, she initiated a movement to help other women enter politics through the Off the Sidelines campaign, which helped Tammy Duckworth (among others) attain their victories last night. She's also well liked by her peers, even the stodgy old guys across the aisle. Plus, she's totally relatable. She gains and loses weight. She takes care of her kids. She's saucy and candid. She tweets.
Given her ease with social media, gay rights and the Internet, Gillibrand can certainly be seen as a product of her generation. Given her understanding of New Yorkers and New York, she's also a product of her upbringing. Given her ease with intricacies of legislation, you can see her law degree and years at a firm. But it's her easy bravery in pushing for things before they're popular that that separates her from the crowd.
Kirsten Gillibrand is a campaigning juggernaut and a brilliant lawmaker; a gracious opponent and a fierce defender of civil rights; a tenacious advocate and a humble winner.
And she could campaign to become our first woman President in 2016.
She has demurred at that suggestion. She enthusiastically points to Hillary Clinton as the obvious candidate for 2016. Besides, Gillibrand said, she's eager to focus on the work ahead of her in the Senate.
It's not that I don't believe her, it's just... well, she would just be so good at the job.