Who Is Kirsten Gillibrand?
Born on December 9, 1966, in Albany, New York, Kirsten Gillibrand grew up in a political family, influenced by the independent spirit of her mother and grandmother. In 2006, Gillibrand won a House of Representatives seat as a Democrat in a traditionally Republican region. She was appointed to the Senate in 2009 after Hillary Clinton resigned. Gillibrand won the seat in 2010 and once again achieved victory in a 2012 reelection. She went on to release the non-fiction work Off the Sidelines and solidified her place as a staunch proponent of reform in the military's handling of sexual assaults. Gillibrand was among the first Democrats to announce her candidacy for the 2020 presidential election, before dropping out of the race in August 2019.
Early Family Life and Schooling
Kirsten Gillibrand was born Kirsten Elizabeth Rutnik on December 9, 1966, in Albany, New York, and grew up in a political household with women who were independent and free thinkers. Her maternal grandmother, Dorothea "Polly" Noonan, had a major influence on Albany politics, advising Mayor Erastus Corning II and organizing state legislature secretaries to political action. Kirsten's mother, Polly Noonan Rutnik, pursued a career in law and also became a black belt in karate. Her father, Douglas Rutnik, worked as a lawyer and lobbyist.
Gillibrand, who grew up using the nickname "Tina," attended the all-girl prep school Emma Willard before going to Dartmouth College, where she faced a still sexist atmosphere a decade after the ivy-league institution had gone coed. She majored in Asian studies and went abroad to China, where she interviewed the Dalai Lama. Gillibrand graduated magna cum laude and went on to earn a degree from the University of California, Los Angeles School of Law. She worked for a legal firm before entering the world of politics, inspired by the words of Hillary Clinton. During her time as a corporate attorney, she also served as special counsel to the Department of Housing and Urban Development.
Kirsten Rutnik took on the surname Gillibrand after marrying British venture capitalist Jonathan Gillibrand in 2001. They have two children.
The House, Then Senate
In 2006, Gillibrand campaigned for a seat on the House of Representatives, running on a Democratic ticket against Republican incumbent John E. Sweeney for an area of upstate New York that tended to vote Republican. She won the election and cemented her standing with community-based campaigning, which resulted in a 2008 reelection landslide.
Gillibrand resigned from her House seat in January 2009. She was appointed by then New York Governor David Peterson to fill the U.S. Senate seat left vacant by Clinton, who accepted the position of secretary of state as part of President Barack Obama’s newly formed cabinet. Gillibrand won reelection in a special 2010 vote, thus becoming the youngest elected member of the Senate at age 43.
Progressive and Conservative Politics
Gillibrand's record has caused her to be described as both progressive and centrist in her political leanings. She has been a major supporter of gay rights, advocating same-sex marriage and the repeal of the "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy, thereby allowing gay citizens to serve openly in the military. She has also worked for women's rights, improved healthcare benefits for 9/11 workers and served on the Senate Agricultural Committee, where she’s fought against food stamp reductions.
On the conservative end, during her time in the House Gillibrand opposed amnesty for illegal immigrants and received major endorsements from the National Rifle Association. As a senator, she later softened her stance on immigration and started to favor gun control. Gillibrand is also known to favor transparency; in her "Sunlight Report," she openly publishes whom she meets with politically—a decision that has not always been welcomed by colleagues.
Call for Reform in Cases of Sexual Assault
Up for reelection in 2012, Gillibrand faced off against Republican Wendy Long, who had also attended Dartmouth College. Gillibrand won the race, hence retaining her senate seat. She has since made headlines for seeking to create reform and change around the handling of sexual assaults within the military. Gillibrand has specifically called for commanders to no longer supervise related court-martial proceedings, as military rape cases are handled outside of the purview of the general U.S. judicial system. In March 2014, the Military Justice Improvement Act was supported by 55 senators in a bipartisan show of force, but the numbers weren't sufficient to overcome a filibuster. She has since called for another vote.
The following year, Gillibrand and a group of senators proposed the Campus Accountability & Safety Act, which aims to decrease incidents of sexual assault and provide more thorough regulations for how cases are handled at colleges and universities.
In 2014, Gillibrand released the bestselling non-fiction work Off the Sidelines: Raise Your Voice, Change the World, which recounts her political ascension and offers her perspective on governmental affairs. Gillibrand was also a staunch supporter of Hillary Clinton's bid for the U.S. presidency in 2016, prior to her loss to Donald Trump.
Voice of Morality
In late 2017, Gillibrand began speaking out about the sexual harassment charges that were enveloping major figures in entertainment and politics. In November, she said that President Bill Clinton should have resigned after admitting to his affairs with Monica Lewinsky, angering her former allies in the Clinton camp. In December, she was the first Democrat to call on Minnesota Senator Al Franken to step down, following multiple accusations of sexual misconduct.
"Enough is enough," she wrote on Facebook. "I believe it would be better for our country if he sent a clear message that any kind of mistreatment of women in our society isn’t acceptable by stepping aside to let someone else serve."
Shortly afterward, Gillibrand was among the growing chorus calling for President Trump to also resign over sexual harassment allegations. True to form, Trump punched back via Twitter, calling the senator a "lightweight and a "flunky" who would "come to my office 'begging' for campaign contributions not so long ago (and would do anything for them)."
Gillibrand later criticized Congressional leaders for dropping anti-sexual harassment measures from an omnibus spending bill, signed into law on March 23. The measures aimed to overhaul what some on both sides of the aisle saw as an outdated policy of harassment claims on Capitol Hill.
"I am appalled that House and Senate leadership removed provisions from the omnibus bill at the last minute that would have finally brought accountability and transparency to Congress's sexual harassment reporting process,” she said. “It begs the question: Who are they trying to protect?”
On March 29, Gillibrand and her 21 female Senate colleagues presented a letter to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, in which they called for legislation for a new sexual harassment complaint process on Capitol Hill.
"Survivors who have bravely come forward to share their stories have brought to light just how widespread harassment and discrimination continue to be throughout Capitol Hill," they wrote. "No longer can we allow the perpetrators of these crimes to hide behind a 23-year-old law"—the Congressional Accountability Act of 1995.
2020 Presidential Candidate
Appearing on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert on January 15, 2019, Gillibrand declared that she was launching an exploratory committee to run for the White House in 2020. "I'm going to run for president of the United States because as a young mom, I'm going to fight for other people's kids as hard as I would fight for my own," she told Colbert.
Despite her high-profile launch, Gillibrand's candidacy failed to gain significant traction in the months ahead, leaving her well behind frontrunners Joe Biden, Elizabeth Warren, Kamala Harris and Bernie Sanders at the time of the first Democratic debate in late June.
On August 28, 2019, after failing to qualify for the third Democratic debate, Gillibrand announced that she was dropping out of the presidential race.
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