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New York's Kirsten Gillibrand: 'I Truly Believe I Can Bring This Country Together'

New York Democratic Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (@SenGillibrand) made a splash announcing her exploratory committee for the 2020 presidential election with Stephen Colbert in January.

Gillibrand is a liberal Democrat from a blue state, but she was once considered a Blue Dog or a more conservative Democrat, from a redder part of Upstate New York.

She was previously against amnesty or benefits for people living in the U.S. illegally. She supported a crackdown on sanctuary cities, had a 100 percent voting record with the National Rifle Association and the lowest rating possible from a LGBTQ support group. And as a young lawyer in the 1990s, Gillibrand worked to help the tobacco industry at a time when it was denying its knowledge of the negative health impacts of cigarettes.

But now, Gillibrand is considered one of the more progressive Democrats in the party. What happened? She tells Here & Now's Robin Young that her "values have never changed," but she did change her views on a few key issues, such as guns.

"I came from a rural district. My mother didn’t just cook the Thanksgiving turkey. She shot the Thanksgiving turkey," Gillibrand says. "The mistake that I made and what I regret is that I didn’t look outside my district, that I didn’t actually concern myself with concerns in other parts of my state or other parts in the country."

When she was running for Senate, Gillibrand says, she realized communities across the state were "suffering deeply" from gun violence. So she resolved to pass an anti-gun trafficking law in New York to cut down on the number of illegal guns used in crimes that come from out of state.

"The truth is, if you never change your mind, if you never can admit you’re wrong, then you can’t grow, and you’re never going to be a wise leader," Gillibrand says. "You’re never going to be the kind of leader that brings this country together. And one of the reasons why I’m running for president is because I truly believe I can bring this country together."

Interview Highlights

On why her more conservative past is an asset

“I think it, ultimately, it’s a strength because I did represent a 2 to 1 Republican district. And so I have this this ability to not only listen and understand people’s challenges and why they feel so left behind and why they voted for President Trump, but I can not only bring them back through common sense reforms that will answer their needs and meet their needs in their communities. And so that’s why I think I’m the best candidate to defeat Trump and to win back those states we lost. I think my experience will allow me to speak effectively and to earn the support of people in Michigan and Ohio and Pennsylvania and Wisconsin.”

On her chances in the crowded Democratic field

“Well, the breakthrough candidates in the midterm elections were all women. You look at what Kyrsten Sinema did in the red state of Arizona running as a bisexual woman on issues of poverty. You have Lucy McBath running in the suburbs of Atlanta in the seat that Jon Ossof did not win, but she ran on ending gun violence because she lost her son. So these are women who are running on liberal, progressive issues in red places from their heart.

“And so I think what the electorate is looking for is someone who’s running on conviction, on what they care deeply about, on their passion, with authenticity, and I think as a mom of young kids, not only do I have shared values with people all across America, but can find the common ground that is desperate. Right now, this country has been torn apart by President Trump, and in fact, what we need more than anything is someone to bring us back together and to remind this country that our best moments in our history, our greatest moments, are when we cared about others, when we treated others the way we want to be treated, lived by the Golden Rule, and cared about the least among us.”

On concerns that progressive Democrats are painted as socialists

“I don’t [worry about that] because what I do in Congress and what I’ve done in the Senate over the last 10 years is actually pass legislation on a bipartisan basis. And so for example, you mentioned a bunch of bills, sexual assault in the military, the last time we got a vote on it, we got more than half of the Senate to agree on my resolution, and our bill is widely bipartisan. I have Ted Cruz and Rand Paul on our bill. So I do bring people together on things that might be seen as progressive.

“And I do believe ideas like the Green New Deal will be bipartisan because the components of that bill already are, and there’s only three basic things to the bill. The first is infrastructure, which is already widely bipartisan. People want new money for a new electric grid or for mass transit or for rural broadband. They really need it. People want job training for the green jobs. And third clean air and clean water. It’s about making sure we clean up the brownfields making sure kids aren’t being polluted in their drinking water. That’s what the Green New Deal is about, and the goal is net zero carbon emissions and that’s, you’re trying to get there in 10 years.

“When John F. Kennedy said, ‘I’m going to put a man on the moon in 10 years,’ he didn’t know he’d get there. We don’t know if we can get there, but why not try? That’s the whole point. It’s about vision. And I think each of these component parts of the bill will easily be bipartisan.

On her support of Sen. Bernie Sanders’ Medicare-for-all bill

“So the part of the bill that I really liked that I got to write was the transition phase where I want people to buy in at a percentage of income. An example of that would be you’d ask people to buy in at 4 percent of income. I think long-term Medicare-for-all should be an earned benefit just like Social Security where people buy in at 4 percent. Today, we buy into Social Security at 6 percent. Both would be matched by your employers. And that’s how you’d create a sustainable right. Health care is a right, not a privilege, it’s an earned benefit. I think that’s the best way to do it. It’s how we actually formulated our paid leave plan too so that it’s an earned benefit. So it doesn’t matter if you’re working part time or full time for a big company or a small company. It’s something you buy into overtime, and it will becomes yours and it’s portable.

On the best path for Democrats to beat Trump in 2020

“For me personally, I’m just not a name-caller, that’s not who I am. I’ve campaigned against bullies before in my political career. My first opponent called me just a pretty face. Of course, I said, ‘Thank you.’ And then pivoted to talk about how we get out of Iraq. And the second campaign I ran in, my opponent spent nearly $7 million almost all on negative ads.

“And again, I just kept talking about the issues and what I was for and created a vision for my district in the same way I’m going to to create a vision for this country that is more powerful and more inspiring than what President Trump pretends to be for because all the things he ran on like universal health care, he’s not even come close to achieving. He ran on no bad trade deals. He started a trade war that is crippling our farmers and crippling our manufacturers. He ran on the system’s rigged and all he’s done is line his cabinet with the elite of the elite.

“So I’m going to run on a vision for America that’s going to be an honest vision about our extraordinary potential and making sure everybody can be fully employed and be able to reach their full God-given potential in our economy. You need to make sure the American Dream is truly for everybody. And so I think this campaign’s gonna be about health care, education and jobs. Very simple stuff that people want you to have answers to.”

Jill Ryan produced and edited this interview for broadcast with Todd Mundt. Samantha Raphelson adapted it for the web.

This article was originally published on WBUR.org.
Copyright 2019 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.