The side room at The Airliner was uncomfortably warm and well over capacity on Monday night, but no one in the crowd showed any interest in leaving, although some did grumble about the lack of seating. Everyone was there to see Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand of New York, one of the then-11 candidates for the Democratic nomination for president in 2020. (On Tuesday morning, Sen. Bernie Sanders declared he’s also running.)
Gillibrand (pronounced “jill-i-brand”) introduced herself to the Iowa City audience, which overflowed into the main room of The Airliner, by talking about the two women who inspired her while she was growing up, her grandmother and her mother.
Her grandmother “worked as a secretary in the New York State Legislature,” Gillibrand said. “All the legislators were men, and women were relegated to places on the support staff.”
Gillibrand’s grandmother understood that if women were going to have a voice in politics and fight for the issues they cared about, they needed to organize. So she began teaching other women how to organize around issues and candidates.
Gillibrand’s mother was one of only three women in her law school class. “She was a trailblazer,” the senator said.
Her mother’s hobbies included both baking and karate, and she eventually earned a second-degree black belt.
“She always cooked the Thanksgiving turkey, but she also shot the Thanksgiving turkey,” Gillibrand said. “So, she was a woman who was a little different.”
That Gillibrand, who has been in the U.S. Senate since 2009, needs to introduce herself to voters outside of New York is a point tacitly conceded in a video on her campaign website. It starts with someone misspelling “Kirsten” while Googling Gillibrand, and concludes with a clip from an appearance by the senator on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart.
“Instrumental in passing ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,’ instrumental in passing the 9-11 first responders bill, instrumental in passing the food safety bill, instrumental in the ban on drop-side cribs,” Stewart said. “You have done all this very much under the radar, out of the spotlight.”
Gillibrand’s most widely-known moment in the national spotlight came in 2017, when she was one of the leading members of Congress calling on Sen. Al Franken to resign, after he was accused of groping and other inappropriate contact with women. Gillibrand addressed what happened, and why she decided to act, during her prepared remarks.
I know Democrats are very sad about Al Franken. I’m sad about Al Franken. But the truth of this issue is very clear: he had eight credible allegations against him that were corroborated in real-time by the press that were investigating it. Two of the allegations were since he was a senator — the last one, the allegation came from a congressional staffer.
Enough was enough. I had a choice. I could continue to remain silent and carry that water, continue to remain silent and defend that action, continue to remain silent and not stand behind the women who had come forward to say ‘It is not okay to grope me or forcibly kiss me without my consent.’
The importance of acting in accordance with your beliefs was a theme Gillibrand returned to throughout the evening.
“You should never, never believe that you have to somehow triangulate or lose sight of who you are and what you believe in, even in red places,” she said, before turning her attention to President Trump.
“This race for [the] presidency is about our values,” Gillibrand said. “President Trump has created so much hate, so much division, so much cruelty. Demonizing immigrants, refugees, Muslims. Spewing hatred and racism and anti-Semitism every chance he gets.”
She recounted her experiences visiting holding facilities where children are detained, after being separated from their asylum-seeking parents by the Trump administration at the southern U.S. border.
“It’s a prison,” Gillibrand said. In fact, one of the facilities she visited is run by a for-profit prison company.
President Trump is “changing who we are,” Gillibrand said. “He’s actually tearing at the fabric — the very soul — of who we are as Americans. And that’s why I’m running for president.”
“Because we must heal this nation, we must bring this country back together again. We must do what is right, especially when it’s hard. And I will stand up for what’s right.”
Gillibrand explained what some of her priorities would be as president in response to questions from the audience.
She favors Medicare for All as a way of delivering universal health care in America, and talked about the need to limit the influence of money in politics — “The most important thing we can do is recognize that so much of what happens in Washington is corrupt and is about greed.” — but didn’t explain how she would accomplish that.
On other issues, the senator was more specific.
“I’ve written a national paid leave bill,” Gillibrand said. It would be an earned benefit system workers and employers would pay into, the same way they do for Social Security.
“When we’ve number-crunched it’s the cost of a cup of coffee a week,” she said. “On average, about two dollars a week for you and your employer.”
For maternity or paternity leave, or for any family emergency, a worker would be able to take up to three months off work and still receive 66 percent of their income. Gillibrand pointed out that California has had a paid family leave law for over a decade, and surveys show it is popular with both employers and employees. (California’s Paid Family Leave program, created in 2002, allows for six weeks of paid leave during a year, and guarantees lower-wage workers 70 percent of their income and middle- and higher-wage workers 60 percent.)
Gillibrand told the audience she supports the Green New Deal, and called climate change “the greatest threat to humanity that exists today.”
“We need a ‘moonshot moment,’” Gillibrand said. “We need a president to say — and I will do this — that we need to have a green economy in the next 10 years, not because it’s easy, but because it’s hard. Because it will be a measure of our innovation, our entrepreneurialism, our excellence, just as John F. Kennedy did when he said [in 1961] he wanted to put a man on the moon in 10 years. It’s the same kind of call to action.”
After 30 minutes in the side room, Gillibrand moved to the main room of The Airliner to speak to the overflow crowd waiting there. People crowded together densely as the senator sat on the back of one of the booths to take questions, which led to the most Iowa moment of the night.
A young woman slowly made her way through the crowd as Gillibrand was saying, “I don’t think we should back away from the bold ideas the base and the grass roots care about.”
“I’m sorry,” Hanna Kinney, a University of Iowa senior, said as she squeezed past the senator. “I’m just trying to get some ranch,” prompting laughs from the crowd.
Kinney needed the ranch dressing for her pizza.