Kirsten Gillibrand, United States Senator, New York
Kirsten Gillibrand, United States Senator for New York, discusses how she got into politics and public service.
Senator (D-New York)
Kirsten Gillibrand, United States Senator for New York, discusses how she entered politics and public service.
KIRSTEN GILLIBRAND: When you have hearings in Congress about contraception and when the first panel doesn't have a woman on it, women's voices really aren't being heard.
KIRSTEN GILLIBRAND: When I was practicing law, Secretary Clinton gave her famous speech in Beijing. And I remember her standing on that stage and looking out to the world and saying, women's rights are human rights, and human rights are women's rights. And I thought about myself, and I thought, I'm not accomplishing anything here. I'm not making a difference. I'm not helping people, and it really inspired me to try to focus my career more on public service.
And so I was at a speech that Andrew Cuomo was giving for a woman's group I had joined called the Women's Leadership Forum. At the time, I just tried to enter into public service three different ways and failed. And so I went up to him afterwards, and I said, well Mr. Secretary, I loved your speech. I agreed with everything you said, but what I'm finding is public service and politics really is an insider's game. I don't know how to get from here to there.
And so he questioned me, and said, well, what do you do? And I said, I'm a senior associate at a big New York firm, and he said, well, would you consider moving to Washington? And so I called up Secretary Cuomo the next day, took the offer, went down to Washington. And I decided, if I wanted to do public service, I'd probably have to run for office.
And so I came back to New York and started having a long conversation with my then fiance, and I said to Jonathan, you know, I'd really like to run for office. How would you think about raising our family perhaps in upstate New York and maybe running for office from where I grew up? And Jonathan's been a wonderful blessing for me, and he said, yes.
In 2006, a number of senior political figures said to me, Kirsten, this should not be your first race. This is not a good race. Your opponent is known to be a bit of a bully. You really should think twice, and we heard later that his strategy in the campaign was to take my legs out early.
Oftentimes, male opponents won't attack a woman directly. Sometimes, they'll attack all the men around her. So whether it's your husband or father or father-in-law or brother, they will direct attacks there, as if the woman does it merit an attack herself. It really spurred people's interest.
They said, why is he attacking this unknown, young mother who wants to run for Congress? What does she stand for? What does she care about? Let's hear more. And so it actually backfired, because I became relevant. Whereas, if he ignored me, I might not have been relevant.
So we ran the race, and we won. It was such a long shot that even the New York Times called me a dragon slayer, because we'd been able to win in very Republican districts. I really spent the next two years focused on trying to be the best representative I could be. When Secretary Clinton was elevated from Senator to Secretary of State, there were a lot of news articles about who might be considered, and I was often listed at the bottom of these articles.
And when I interviewed with the governor, I focused on two things that I thought mattered. I represented upstate New York. I knew a lot about what does it take to make a rural economy grow, But I'd also lived in New York City for a dozen years, and I knew a lot about financial regulatory reform, because I had been a securities lawyer.
I think it was really important that he appointed a woman. I think he liked the balance of having somebody who was from a different part of the state, which had been so rare in our representation of the state. And so I worked very hard, getting to every corner of the state, traveled in all the 62 counties, spent time there, listened to people, created a very strong legislative agenda. Helping to repeal Don't Ask, Don't Tell and helping to get the health care that our 9/11 heroes deserved. And I was able to win my first election with 63%.
As part of my goal to get more women in Congress and more women's voices being heard, I've created a campaign called Off the Sidelines, and I'm asking women who are on the sidelines to come off. If we're going to change the rules of the road, we have to be stronger advocates. I want women's voices to be heard, because if they're voting, if they're holding their elected leaders accountable, if they're being heard in these national debates, we can change the landscape. We can change the rules of the road.