just asking questions

A Long Talk With Kirsten Gillibrand

The New York senator on the NRA, Al Franken, and the line between capitalism and greed.

Photo: Celeste Sloman/Redux
Photo: Celeste Sloman/Redux
Photo: Celeste Sloman/Redux

“Money is a symptom of the problem, it’s the love of money that’s the evil” in politics, says Kirsten Gillibrand, the New York senator running for president. Or, technically speaking, still exploring a run. “The money in politics is just the juice on which the game is played.” We’re at a corner table in a crowded Le Pain Quotidien just off of Central Park South on a cold and rainy Sunday morning, and Gillibrand is just recently back from another swing through Iowa. She’s also in the middle of a campaign fundraising blitz, and she’s about to return to Washington to promote legislation that would make the compensation fund for victims of the September 11 attacks permanent. The next night, she’ll appear on Fox News, where she’ll spar with Chris Wallace over a coming fundraising event she’s holding with a Pfizer executive. It’s been over a month since the senator, who won her second full term in November, announced she would run on Stephen Colbert’s show, and other patrons keep peeking over their croissants, clearly pretty sure they recognize her. After the 2016 election, Gillibrand reminds me, she started traveling New York to hear from citizens about what went wrong. “I got a much bigger sense of how deep the dissatisfaction and disillusionment was,” she says. The former congresswoman is far from a front-runner — she’s polling around one percent nationally, according to the RealClearPolitics average — but she’s among the bigger names in the race, she has yet to hold any sort of formal campaign kickoff, and activists in the early-voting states are taking her candidacy seriously. “[I] recognized that a lot of the solutions that we had been offering over the last five or ten years weren’t enough,” she says, “weren’t bold enough, weren’t significant enough to actually address their lives.”

I was just rereading a Times story about you, from July, in which you said you’re a “populist.” That’s now a popular way for candidates to describe themselves, but it’s also a complicated term. I’m curious: What do you think populism actually means in 2019, 2020?
Well, what it means to me is I start by listening to people first, and meet them where they are, and find a common-sense solution to meet their actual needs and problems. And what populism means to me is, it’s based on the people, about what the people need, and what their struggles are, their concerns are, and what you need to be able to stand up to, to accomplish some kind of change for them. I think we have to take on the powerful interests that decide everything in Washington right now. I think President Trump is a problem, but the problem is even bigger than him. You’ve got the NRA, which is entirely funded by the gun manufacturers who care more about selling weapons to someone on the terror watch list, or someone who’s gravely mentally ill with a violent background, or someone who has a criminal problem more than caring about the well-being of our kids, our students, our communities. And that greed is something that dominates Washington. So I think so much of what populism is about is recognizing what you’re actually up against is so much larger than you can imagine. And you need the entire populace — the people — to be the ones to fight back, and to displace that power structure, and restore it to the people.

Historically, both in this country and elsewhere, populism usually involves talking about some specific bad guy, or bad actor, though, right? In your conception of this way of viewing the world, is there a specific one, or …
No, it’s the system. It’s systemic. So, you have institutional racism as one. You’ve got greed and corruption, two. And you’ve got powerful interests that have so much outsized power in how legislation gets written because they have so many lobbyists. They have so much money to pour into their causes. For the Koch brothers, for example, to spend $300 million every campaign on making sure their tax rates go down, that is such an outsized influence that you need the populace to fight back boldly. Because one place where everyone’s equal is the voting booth. The Koch brothers get two votes and the rest of the country gets their votes. So if we overpower their voices, just by sheer will and by grassroots activism, that, to me, is what populism is.

So is this resurgence of populism, then — or at least talking about populism as a positive thing, within today’s American left — an interesting phenomenon to you? Traditionally it’s not always thought of as a good thing, of course.
I think labels are problematic. When you’re looking at these ideas, you’re looking for the best idea. It doesn’t matter if it’s a Republican idea or a Democratic idea, liberal or conservative. It just matters that it’s a good idea. Populism might mean different things to different people, but all it means to me is listening to the people first, then you’re lifting up their voices, and then you’re fighting back against the impediments that are in the way of the kind of reform that you need. It’s almost always a bread-and-butter issue, but if you believe, for example, that health care’s a right, not a privilege, then you have to be willing to take on the insurance companies that are driven entirely by profits. So if you want health care as a right, you have to take on the insurance companies. If you want cheaper drug prices, you have to take on the drug companies. It’s just, it’s where we are.

And the reason that so many people were so dissatisfied in the last election and chose vote for Trump as the Great Disruptor was because he promised to blow up the system. Now, President Trump didn’t mean a word he said, and he is not going to take on the corruption and greed in Washington. In fact, he’s lined his Cabinet with people who will double down on the corruption and greed in Washington, and who will continue to fuel that fire.

You’ve said that you believe money is the root of all the ills of politics.
It is, because money is the corrupting influence. Money is the part of our political system that gives the outsized influence to a Koch brother more than an average voter. So the first step, if you want to take on the greed and money in Washington, is you gotta get rid of money in politics.

Okay, so what does that look like to you, then, practically speaking?
For me, the first step is just not taking corporate PAC money, not taking federal lobbyist money, and not having an individual super-PAC. Because all that does is just empower the centers of power that exist today. It continues to double down on the existing system. That’s step one. But you really have to fight for publicly funded elections. And there’s a lot of good ideas right now about how to do that. Democracy bonds is one idea — letting every voter give to who they want. But I think even a cleaner system is people just pay a small amount of money to pay for all federal elections. And I don’t know what the number is, but the last time I read a study, which was probably ten years ago, it was $7 a person. Which sounded eminently reasonable to me. If you could run all federal elections on $7 a person, it would change everything.

Your involvement in politics began with organizing fundraisers when you were practicing law, so does any part of you worry you’re talking about limiting an access point for the next Kirsten Gillibrand?
No. Because when I was a young activist in New York City I organized women, and I organized lawyers, other young lawyers like me. And those were two groups of people that I didn’t believe were involved in politics enough. And so when I founded the Women’s Leadership Forum network, it was to get women under 40 involved in presidential politics. And we would plan debate parties, we would plan speakers’ trainings, we would plan how to mobilize your family and friends to support a candidate. All those events were fundraisers, but they were low-dollar fundraisers, relative to the rest of politics, because I wanted young people to care about politics and have a voice and have a say. So it’s the same thing: If you get money out of politics, you’re still going to do the same kind of organizing, you’re going to get large groups of people to care about what you’re doing and why you’re doing it. Which is why this last campaign for Senate I worked really hard on making sure our last campaign was really a grassroots campaign.

That race wasn’t really competitive, of course.
No [it wasn’t], but we still raised $20 million, which is quite a lot of money for a race in New York that doesn’t have a tough opponent. When we did that, we tried to do it through the grassroots, and begin to shift the way we look at politics. I think that’s the future.

When you went on Maddow after announcing you were going to run, her intro to the interview was all about how you were once fairly conservative on a whole range of issues — prominently on guns and immigration — and how you’ve shifted left on all of them. That theme has been pretty front and center in a lot of the early coverage. Did you expect that?
Well, it’s certainly the talking points from the Republican Party. It’s what they’re putting out there. But, you know, my background, and where I’m from, is very much part of my story. The fact that my first campaign was in a two-to-one Republican district, and I was able to win that against an entrenched Republican incumbent who’d been in Congress for eight years is part of who I am. The fact that he was a bully and demeaned me and tried to dismiss me with comments like, “You’re just a pretty face” shows not only my resilience, but how I treat a bully — I talk past them. When he says, “You’re just a pretty face,” you say, “Well, thank you, but let’s now talk about how we get out of Iraq and my own out-of-Iraq policy, and why I believe this is the most important thing we do right now.” And my second campaign was no different. My opponent was a philanthropist, had a lot of personal money and wealth, and he decided to spend $7 million, almost exclusively on negative campaign ads. I was a mom with young kids at the time, I had just had Henry. So I’m walking around the district with a toddler — Theo was 4, Henry was just a baby — and we learned something in politics: that you cannot win a campaign [against a mother] with a toddler and an infant on negative campaign ads, because nobody believes you.

As far as the policy shifts go, I know you’ve said over and over that the district is very different from New York as a whole …
Correct, and so when I became senator ten years ago, I realized that only protecting the Second Amendment and, you know, hunters’ rights, wasn’t enough, and that I needed to really absorb the pain and suffering and challenges of other communities that had deep gun violence and gang violence, and meeting even just one family who had lost a daughter when a stray bullet hit her in the head, and meeting her whole class, made me recognize immediately that I had to be a champion for her. And that meant writing my first piece of legislation on ending gun violence, which was an anti-trafficking law, because Commissioner [Ray] Kelly — at the time, our New York City police commissioner — along with a lot of parents who had lost their children said: This is the thing. These guns are coming in from out of state. They’re almost all illegal, and they’re almost going right into the hands of gang members. So when I meet a mom, more recently, who lost her 4-year-old on a park bench in Brooklyn, that’s something you don’t recover from. You have to speak a truth and say, “This must be addressed.”

Of course. Where I’m going with this, though, is I know you’ve talked a lot about how your past lets you establish common ground with some conservatives on these issues …
Absolutely, and the proof’s in the pudding. Two proof points: One, how much legislation I get done with Republicans. I mean, even in this last Congress, with a Republican House, Senate, and president, I passed 18 bills. Common-sense stuff that help places like upstate New York get more money for rural broadband. Helping baby-boomers who have small businesses sell their businesses to their employees, because a lot of baby-boomers’ children don’t want their businesses. So that helps with more employee ownership. More money for American manufacturing. So I can pass bills because I can find common ground with everybody in the Senate. Even on the sexual-harassment bill, it was me and Ted Cruz! That final bill, that was based on our legislation, ultimately passed unanimously.

But on something like guns, is there actual legislation that’s real common ground, or should this issue be an absolute?
Absolutely. I think there was a poll where national NRA members, 70 percent supported universal background checks, getting rid of assault rifles, large magazines, and bump stocks, and having an anti-trafficking law. So there is common ground. It’s just the NRA itself doesn’t have common ground because they care more about gun sales than human life, and that’s just a fact. So it’s not about capitalism, it’s about greed. That’s the difference, and you have to know the difference. A company can do good, create jobs, create economic growth. But when they cross that line between capitalism and greed, they’ve distorted capitalism to such an extent that you no longer care about people and the country. And that’s the example, the NRA. They do not care. They want more gun sales, regardless of if it’s a teenager buying an assault rifle in a Walmart, they don’t even want to change the age.

If we’re talking about capitalism versus greed, we might as well talk about socialism. I haven’t been very impressed by the idea that Trump and Republicans suddenly calling everything Democrats do “socialist” is going to all of a sudden poison a bunch of popular ideas. But what do you make of the argument that because Republicans will call everything Democrats do “socialist” anyway, it gives Democrats a kind of political permission, or space — or, maybe more to the point, a “might as well”-style justification — to go bigger or bolder than they would otherwise?
[Laughs.] So I’m not for any of these issues based on where the Republicans are, let’s just be clear. What they say about something I’m for is irrelevant to me. But I think the country is very well aware of the difference between capitalism and greed. They see it every day, that’s why they know the system’s rigged, that’s why they know it’s rigged against them, and that’s why they want something more out of Washington. But in this era of Trump, things are changing. The fact [is] that so many women felt determined to be heard in the last election, not only running for office in record numbers, but also voting in record numbers and organizing in record numbers. So I think people are starting to understand quite viscerally that their voice really does matter, and only a large wave of activism will be powerful enough to displace the corruption and power centers in Washington that literally decide everything. They’re beginning to understand that.

Well, speaking of that activism, you’ve come out strongly in favor of the Green New Deal. What do you make of the concept of using it as a vehicle for making bigger progressive changes in areas like education and health care? Put another way, I guess: Do you like using legislation like this for other big-picture progressive policy priorities that aren’t explicitly about climate?
I love the framework of the Green New Deal, and the reason is this: I believe that global climate change is the greatest threat to humanity that exists in our generation, and it needs a bold and powerful set of solutions to actually attack it, and to solve it. The Green New Deal are not that many new ideas, they’re actually ideas we’ve been working on for a long time. You’re putting them into a frame as a national call to action. I think the Green New Deal and other ideas — which I’ll explain — should be the moon shot for our generation. When John F. Kennedy said, “We’re going to put a man on the moon in the next ten years not because it’s easy but because it’s hard,” it was a call to action for every engineer, scientist, young kid to say, “I want to dream big, and we are going to accomplish this as a measure of who we are as a nation, our strength and ingenuity, our innovation.” I think we need to do the same thing.

So there’s three things in the Green New Deal. The first is a jobs economy based on renewable energy. I know that works because in upstate New York we have one of our SUNY schools that is focused on green jobs. They teach the kids how to do solar panels, wind turbines, houses and buildings with L.E.E.D. certified materials, installing energy-efficient windows, energy-efficient appliances, all of it. They told me when I toured the school 98 percent of their graduates had three or more job offers before graduation. That is astounding. And so I know if we start inviting in green technologies, we will be able to train young people, create economic growth, and actually begin to create innovation. Now, one thing: Over the last ten years we have not invested in green energy. We’ve dithered when it comes to tax credits. I remember a colleague of mine, Mark Udall, going to the Senate floor to talk about how many wind jobs we had lost, state by state, because we didn’t guarantee the tax credit, and that manufacturing went to China. And anyone in manufacturing knows that if you are manufacturing something, you are better poised for next-generation innovation. And unfortunately we have lost a lot of leadership in these industries because of a lack of vision and a lack of commitment. So make the commitment, have the vision, and actually innovate here in America, and build things.

And if you’re going to, long term, displace oil or you’re going to displace coal, well, make sure — I was just in Texas. Texas decided ten years ago to invest in wind farms. I think they are the number-one producer in the country for wind. That’s how you do it. So why don’t you take the coal-producing states and make them the manufacturers of solar panels? Or the manufacturers of, you know, all these new building materials that are energy efficient? Like, replace the jobs with thoughtful investment of where you’re going to put manufacturing growth in the next decade.

Okay, but then what is it about this moment that makes it finally the right time for this public discussion and push? What’s taken so long?
Well, when I was running in 2005 and 2006, this was in my stump speech. Green energy and the green economy was part of my moon-shot argument, and when the [Democratic] House came into power they tried to pass a sweeping green energy bill. The Senate didn’t have the same vision. That’s why it’s now, I think, a presidential issue. You need a president who is going to say, “This is going to be the cornerstone of my administration. This is going to be the thing that defines who we are.” Just as John Kennedy’s defining moment was this moon shot, I want my defining moment to be how we restore this country to a green economy, and how we attack global climate change as the humanitarian crisis that it is.

The thing I would add to the Green New Deal is I would put a price on carbon. I think you truly have to say we are going to give an advantage, a tax advantage, to anybody who’s going to innovate. Any entrepreneur, any scientist, any engineer who figures out how to do this better will have enormous tax advantages. And if you just continue to do the same old, same old over and over again and focus only on polluting industries, you’re going to pay more, because you have to offset the fact that these energies are creating severe weather, are creating severe health issues — the asthma rates that we have, the pollution of groundwater in different states because of various practices or energies in the ground. So I would create that, as well, to use market forces. The best thing about putting a price on carbon is you allow the market to work as it’s intended to work. People will innovate because they want to save money, and they want to have an economic advantage.

How capitalist.
Let’s use market forces to create investment and, you know, there’s nothing socialist about it. You’re saying we need to do this to protect humanity. Let’s just use the economic argument for a minute. Not only are you going to create a ton of jobs because you are actually investing in these industries where, unfortunately, we’ve lost market opportunity to China because we refuse to invest in it. So other countries are taking up the slack. That’s the economic argument. But also, how much did we spend to restore what was lost in Superstorm Sandy? Tens of billions of dollars. We started at $70 billion and it’s still not fully restored. Communities are still not fully rebuilt. How much is California going to spend to restore what’s been lost in wildfires where people died? We lost lives in New York. I met a mom who lost her children because during Superstorm Sandy when her husband — as a first responder — left the house to go save people, he said, “You should go to your mother’s.” And she left with her minivan, started driving to her mother’s, and the ten-foot surge came over the barriers in Staten Island and flooded the minivan. And when she tried to get out with her children she lost her children because the wave was so strong it took them out of her arms. That is what global climate change is about. That is actually what’s been lost. If you don’t care about those children and that family, and if you don’t care about the people who died in California, then you’re not doing your job as the president or the leader of this country.

It’s been 14 months since Al Franken resigned from the Senate. Are you surprised that people continue asking you about it, talking about it, now that you’re running for president?
Well, I understand many Democrats miss him and may be sad. But the truth about Senator Franken is he had eight credible allegations against him. Many were corroborated in real time. At the time they happened — two them were since he was a senator, and the last allegation that came to light was about a congressional staffer. And for me, I have been leading on issues of ending sexual violence and sexual harassment in the workplace for a long time. Leading on sexual violence in the military, leading on sexual assault on college campuses, leading on ending harassment in Congress. And so, for me, I didn’t believe I could stay silent, I didn’t believe I could defend him with my silence. I’m also a mom of boys, and the conversations I was having at home — Theo is 15, when he said, “Mom why are you so tough on Al Franken?,” I had to be very clear with him. I said, “Theo, you can’t grope a woman anywhere on her body without her consent. You can’t forcibly kiss a woman, ever, without her consent. It’s not okay for Senator Franken, and it’s not okay for you.” So clarity was necessary for me. And, you know, Senator Franken was entitled to whatever process he wanted. If he wanted to stick it out and do a six-month Ethics Committee investigation that was his right. If he wanted to sue every woman who came out against him, that’s his right. Those were his decisions, not mine. The decision I made was whether to stay silent and defend him, and I didn’t think it was defensible.

You were clear about all of that at the time, but …

… But it’s been over a year, and, again, people still talk about it in the context of your candidacy, whether in national commentary or on the trail. Does that part surprise you?
You know, if a few very wealthy donors across the country are angry that I stood up for women who were demeaned and devalued by a sitting U.S. senator, that’s on them. I mean, I don’t know what to say. It shows I will do what’s right, especially when it’s hard. And it’s part of who I am. I will stand up to my party, to powerful interests. You know, when I was a congressional member I voted against the bank bailout, as a congressional member from New York. Twice. Because it wasn’t a good deal, it left taxpayers holding the bag.

How do you think your party has handled the situation in Virginia, specifically with Justin Fairfax, the lieutenant governor accused of sexual assault?
[Long pause.] I came out and said that he should resign because he had two credible allegations, and the second one was substantiated and corroborated. But, you know, again, for America, we’re in this moment that’s not about any one industry or any one person. And it really goes to the point of: Do we value women? And I think it’s important that when allegations come forward that they are taken seriously, that they’re believed so they can be investigated, that investigations need to take place, and that we need to get facts. And so I try to lead on these issues as often as I can, so that people understand that we, as the American people, need to value women. We need to value each other. We need to deal with the fact that this is one of the worst prosecuted crimes in any context, and we need to deal with the fact that there’s a lot of institutional bias.

If you look at the NFL, there is so much bias in favor of players that abuse wives, that have sexual-assault allegations. And look, even, at the Catholic Church. Again, bias protecting those who are powerful, important. Look at the military. Institutional bias protecting the accused — because they tend to be more senior, they tend to be seen as more valuable, according to the chain of command. That’s why I want to take it out of the chain of command, so that bias doesn’t influence everything, so that a trained military prosecutor can actually make a decision. On a college campus, they’d rather shove it under the rug because they don’t want the bad press. Not valuing the survivor enough to do an investigation. We’re just asking for investigations. We’re just asking for a fairness, that we take the allegations seriously enough to investigate. And that’s what’s not happening. There’s not enough investigations. And even in the military — I’ve been fighting on this one for so long — last year there were 15,000 instances of sexual assault, rape, unwanted sexual contact. And almost the same number of people reporting the year before and year before and year before, but the rates of prosecutions are going down. The rates of convictions are going down. So we’re not going in the right direction.

And so what we’re seeing in all these institutions is that there’s still a great deal of bias. Even in your workplace, when you sign that employment contract you’re also signing a nondisclosure agreement, so that if your boss does harass you, or assault you, and you reach a settlement, you can’t tell your co-workers to be careful of that person, he’s been harassing me for a year. So, again, the way the country is still, it’s institutional bias, and institutional power. It goes to the overarching issue we started with. Corruption, greed, power. These structures that are put in place permanently by the powerful. And to unwind any of these powerful systems, you have to take on that system of power.

This article has been edited and condensed from an extended conversation.

A Long Talk With Kirsten Gillibrand