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Kirsten Gillibrand on the Kavanaugh Fallout, What She Expects in the Midterms, and Her 2020 Plans

Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand. Photo: Zach Gibson/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Kirsten Gillibrand, the New York senator who may run for president, does not sit on the Senate Judiciary Committee. Late last month, however, she grabbed a seat in the room for Christine Blasey Ford’s testimony against Brett Kavanaugh, to get a personal view of the proceedings.

That searing morning didn’t change her view of the midterms, but it did further confirm her view that today’s Republican Party simply doesn’t value women, says Gillibrand, a longtime advocate for women — including those running for office — who’s been dubbed “The #MeToo Senator” by 60 Minutes and “the Senator from the State of #MeToo” by GQ.

She’s been busy since then. Gillibrand hasn’t been the highest-profile campaigner for other Democrats (that distinction goes to Barack Obama and Joe Biden), and she’s stayed away from states like Iowa, New Hampshire, and South Carolina, where the presidential primary process will begin, just as some of the other potential White House contenders — Cory Booker, Bernie Sanders, Kamala Harris … — have inched closer. But Gillibrand’s political group, Off the Sidelines, has backed more than 90 women candidates running for office in 2018, and in recent days she’s swung through four states that voted for Trump, but where Democrats now have clear shots at electing statewide candidates.

In the last two weeks, she visited Arizona (for Congresswoman Kyrsten Sinema, the Democrat running for Jeff Flake’s vacant Senate seat), Tennessee (where Democrats are trying to pick up another GOP-vacated Senate seat), Michigan (with Gretchen Whitmer, who’s favored to reclaim the state’s governor’s mansion for the party), and Georgia (with Stacey Abrams, who’s looking to become the first African American woman elected governor of any state, and congressional candidate Lucy McBath). She’s headed to Pennsylvania on Friday for her colleague Senator Bob Casey and four women candidates running for House seats.

New York caught up with Gillibrand after she returned to D.C. from Atlanta. We talked Kavanaugh aftermath, midterm fury, and a little 2020. (I tried, at least.)

How have you seen things change in the Senate, among your colleagues, since Judge Kavanaugh became Justice Kavanaugh, and in the last two weeks?
Um [long silence], I don’t think they’ve changed since the vote.

Why? Because things went roughly as you expected?
Hmm. I think we largely expected this to be a party-line vote. I think because the grassroots were so effective, and so dedicated to being heard and speaking out, there was a lot of hope we might flip a couple votes at the last minute, so not flipping the votes we needed was disappointing. But I think women and those who participated are even more determined now to be heard, for the midterms. So what I saw when I was traveling was extraordinary investment of time, and energy, and sweat to affect these outcomes. And I was in red parts of the country, I mean I was in Georgia, I was in Tennessee, even blue/purple places like Michigan. Everywhere I went there were exponential numbers of volunteers, and people interested in supporting those who are running. And I got to meet amazing first-time candidates who are so inspiring because they just know this fight is theirs and that they have to put their whole person in there, that they have to put their whole body in this breach that President Trump has created. And the number of people that are around each one of them who are willing to support them and help them I found to be inspiring.

Okay, Tennessee — you know, red, red, red — I got to meet with about a dozen young first-time candidates who were running for state house and state senate, and even Congress, and each one was just as inspiring as the last. And they were all just on fire to make a difference in their community, and they’re just trying to push back a supermajority. But they’re going to do it, I really believe it. I just was really inspired. So despite the disappointment on the final vote, it just only motivated women across the country to do even more.

The places you’ve been recently — Tennessee, Michigan, Georgia, Arizona — are either purple or red, and we’ve heard a lot from Republican senators, led by Mitch McConnell, about how the Kavanaugh fight has excited GOP voters, too. What do you think about their analysis, now that you’ve been on the ground out there?
I think it’s just wishful thinking on their part, because all the energy is in the activists fighting for Democratic candidates in red and purple places. And the energy is profound. I mean it’s not insignificant in all of those red places I’ve been in the last two weeks, the number of volunteers was just inspiring. I don’t know how to fully explain it, but for example I was at an event for Stacey Abrams. And I had not heard her give her full stump speech. I started to cry during her stump speech, it was so good. She was telling about her personal journey and what it was like growing up in poverty, what it was like with two parents who are both religious leaders. The values that they taught her, and how those values apply to today and why she’s running, and why she wants to serve.

It was just a dynamic presentation of this vision for America that’s really different. And then I went and phone banked with a bunch of her volunteers, who were phone banking for the whole slate, and the room was filled with young women and young men who just want to do everything they can to elect someone that they value, someone that they’re inspired by. So I just feel like all energy is in the Democratic base, and it’s a new base, it’s a new group of people in a lot of ways, that are really just on fire. And I think the Republicans have shown their hand. That they really don’t value women. That’s very clear, in their behavior, in their words, in their deeds. That they do not value women, starting from President Trump on down, and I think that’s sticking with people, and I’ve read a lot of reporting in the last few days that it’s affecting women everywhere in red places who are sometimes unlikely ones who you’d think would be voting for Democrats. But they are.

To what degree do you think this latest burst of energy is a product of the Kavanaugh experience, specifically?
It all started with electing Trump — I mean, the fact that you elected somebody who had been credibly accused multiple times of sexual harassment and sexual assault, that’s what fueled the Women’s March. I mean the fact that you had millions of people marching globally in an intersectional way was one of the most powerful showings of what the grassroots can do that I’ve ever seen. So the Women’s March really started it, and it’s only built from there, and I think it was added to with the kids’ marches against gun violence, I think it was added to with the Kavanaugh nomination, I think it was added to with ACA debate, the fact that they wanted to put forth Trumpcare, and that motivated people in all 50 states.

Like, everything President Trump has done from attacking transgender troops to transgender kids, to the Muslim ban, to attacking DACA kids, to separating parents and children at the border, all of this, I mean, I’ve never seen the number of protests, even in Washington. The fact that we had hundreds of women doing sit-ins in the Hart Office Building, getting arrested, doing vigils, the expanse of activism is so extraordinary — everything from marches to vigils to silent protests, to getting arrested, to locking arms in solidarity, it’s literally been everything under the sun. And it’s just women finding ways to express themselves effectively, and I think they’re as motivated as ever, and they’ve just recommitted themselves, fight after fight, with each indignation after indignation.

Did the Kavanaugh process feel like something new to you, or a continuation —
Yes, very much so, of this hateful agenda by President Trump, and this notion that he and his administration, and his party, unfortunately, do not value women. And it’s an extension of all of it. I’ve also seen it in New York, the more I’ve traveled around the state this summer and fall doing town halls, every town hall is oversold — not that we charge for it, but you know what I mean, double the number of people showing up. It’s pretty remarkable that people — even if they agree with their elected leader, want to tell their elected leader what they care about, what’s on their mind, what they’re angry about. And that willingness to just be heard and to own this democracy in a way that I don’t think people have thought of before, at least not in my generation.

You were just in Tennessee. Phil Bredesen, the Democratic Senate candidate, wasn’t at your event, but obviously he’s a main character in the Senate fight right now. He said he would’ve voted for Kavanaugh. What did you make of that? Do you still support him in his bid?
I do support him in his bid.

But what did you make of his statement that he would’ve voted yes?
Well, if he was here in the Senate, I would have an opportunity to advocate for a No vote. So I would rather get him here and spend my time explaining why a No vote is a better vote for this moment in time.

What do you think when you hear of outside groups saying they’ll never again support Bredesen? Or, say, Joe Manchin, who voted for Kavanaugh?
The fact that Joe Manchin stood with us when we were defeating Trumpcare, when Trump wanted to allow insurers not to cover people with preexisting conditions, I was really very grateful that Joe Manchin was there. So I think you win some, you lose some, but to have someone with you there nine out of ten times makes a huge difference. And to have someone who shares your fundamental values also makes a huge difference.

So how does what you see when you’re on the road, and then what might happen in November, inform the decision you have to make about what comes next, in 2020?
Well, my focus, along with a lot of my colleagues, really has been: How can we possibly flip the House and flip the Senate in this moment, as the best way to defeat Trump’s agenda? It’s not about ’20, it’s really about now. And because the issues are so urgent — like access to health care, like, you know, basic issues related to education, with Betsy DeVos being unwilling to enforce Title IX, to a jobs agenda that actually helps people and gets them the jobs they need, the training they need, as opposed to cutting the workforce training, and other things that really matter — it goes down to these core issues. Health care, education, and jobs. And we just need to have accountability over Trump, and so that’s why, to me, ’18 is so important. And I think anybody who’s mentioned, those considerations will be after the elections, because if we don’t do this right, we won’t get to do anything right in the future.

Did watching the Kavanaugh experience, and being in the room that morning for Dr. Ford’s testimony, change your thinking about what’s next, or your thinking about ’18?
No. I’ve been as committed as I possibly can since this president got elected to defeating him in the midterms because I knew from what he ran on, and I knew from what he said that women’s reproductive care was at risk, I knew that access to basic health care as a right and not a privilege was at risk, I knew that he was going to support the for-profit colleges and make education outside of the reach of many people, and I knew he wasn’t going to help our economy grow. So I already knew, in advance, that President Trump was not going to be our friend on these issues and so it’s been my entire focus in terms of campaigning with people across the country, and raising money for them across the country, that it’s all about flipping the House and hopefully flipping the Senate.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

Kirsten Gillibrand on Kavanaugh Fallout and Her 2020 Plans