There’s a small chance that if Saturday Night Live hadn’t been so mean to former New York Gov. David Paterson, Democrat Kirsten Gillibrand wouldn’t be in the U.S. Senate.
In late 2008, Hillary Clinton was vacating her Senate seat for the State Department, and the New York governor was trying to decide who should fill it.
“It was the stereotypical Mr. Magoo, blind character who does everything wrong and in a sense is actually stupid in addition to being blind,” Paterson, who is legally blind, recalls of the SNL skit.
Paterson says his staff advised him to laugh along with the jokes.
But when then-upstate New York Rep. Gillibrand came and met with him about the Senate job, she urged him to fight back, saying it was wrong for the show to target a disability.
“Sometimes you’re in the right place at the right time,” says Paterson. “That consoling and yet strong support she gave me that moment stuck in my mind for a month-and-a-half, until I appointed her U.S. senator.”
There were, to be sure, many other reasons Paterson picked Gillibrand: After his initial favorite, Caroline Kennedy, had withdrawn from the running, Paterson was looking for a woman and an upstate New Yorker. Gillibrand had only been in Congress since 2007, but she fit the bill.
Now, nine years later, Gillibrand has held the New York Senate seat longer than Clinton did.
She also has a clear, signature issue. Long before sexual assault and harassment was dominating the 2017 headlines, Gillibrand was raising concerns about assaults in the U.S. military, and pushing for changes to how accusations are processed and reported.
She’s long pushed for policies like federal paid family leave, and used her political organization to try to get more women to run for office. “Sometimes people say, ‘Well, why do you just focus on women’s issues?’ ” Gillibrand told NPR in 2013. “Well, why do you focus on issues that pertain to 52 percent of the population? It’s pretty important. And women are such the untapped potential in this economy.”
Needless to say, when the “Me Too” moment came to Congress, Gillibrand was ready.
She sponsored a bill changing how Congress processes and responds to harassment complaints. “The way [reporting] is set up in Congress is so horrible,” she says. “I mean, it is literally designed to protect perpetrators and to make sure people really don’t come forward.”
The measure would eliminate a much-mocked three-month “cooling-off” period and bar lawmakers from using public money for staff settlements, among other changes. It’s drawn support from a wide range of lawmakers, including Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas.
Gillibrand was also the first Democrat to call on Sen. Al Franken, D-Minn., to resign, despite a close relationship that included regular squash games between the two Democrats.
“That was difficult,” she says. “It was very difficult because this is somebody I really do care about and think has done great work in the Senate. But the truth is, if we are defending this behavior but not that behavior, and talking about this, the gradations between sexual assault versus harassment versus groping, and then where on the body you’re groping — I just don’t think that’s the right conversation to be having.”
A cascade of Democrats quickly followed suit, and the next day Franken announced he would step down.
But since then, there’s been some backlash. West Virginia Democrat Joe Manchin urged Franken to withdraw his resignation, calling the demands from Gillibrand and other Democrats “hypocritical.”
“It’s just unbelievable to me how you can destroy a human being’s life, and his family, and everything that they stand for, without giving him a chance,” he told CNN.
Gillibrand says while Franken had a right to an ethics committee investigation, she had a right to voice her opinion.
This has all put Gillibrand in the news day after day — though her profile had been rising all year, since a speech at the Women’s March the day after President Trump was inaugurated.
It all seems a far cry from January 2009, when Paterson and Gillibrand stood on a crowded Albany stage to announce her surprise appointment. “I realize that for many New Yorkers,” she said, “this is the first time you heard my name, and you don’t know much about me.”
One thing many New York Democrats quickly heard about: the relatively conservative views she held at that time on hot-button progressive issues like gun control. It was one of the first topics she fielded a question on that day.
“You know in upstate New York, you typically shoot the Thanksgiving turkey,” she said, with Paterson standing next to her. “So that’s what we do. And so I’ve always wanted to protect hunters’ rights. Because it’s an important part of our culture. It’s an important part of our heritage. It’s an important part of upstate New York. So I’m going to be an advocate for hunters’ rights. But there is so much area where there’s common ground, where I can work together with anti-gun — with really solving the problem of gun violence.”
Paterson says he picked Gillibrand knowing that she’d be an excellent senator 10 years down the road. But, he says, “I knew she would not be the best senator at the moment I appointed her. She struggled a little bit, kind of, explaining her positions.”
Gillibrand credits an early turnaround to something that keeps coming up during her interview with NPR: listening — whether that’s listening to other lawmakers, or to constituents. “It was hard when you go from representing a small upstate New York district to representing the whole state,” she says. “There’s areas in my own history where I didn’t know why [an issue] was important. And when I did, I changed my opinion. And that certainly could be said for my views on trying to end gun violence, and certainly my views on immigration reform.”
Gillibrand has been steadily increasing her stature in the Democratic Party and in the Senate over the last few years.
And when you combine that with an environment where unprecedented numbers of Democratic women are running for offices up and down the ballot — and where many progressives relish the idea of a woman defeating President Trump in 2020 — you get a scenario that Gillibrand’s predecessor once faced.
When Hillary Clinton ran for a second term in 2006, she faced question after question about a possible White House run. “I’m going to stay focused on this election, because I don’t want to take anything for granted,” was how she answered during a fall debate that year, though her answer always boiled down to a similar version of that non-denial.
Gillibrand is responding to those same questions in a similar manner. “I really aspire to getting re-elected next year,” she told NPR at the end of an interview, “so I’m very focused on that.”