Conversations on the Oval: Kirsten Gillibrand
The 2020 Presidential Election is approaching, and the Democratic party is searching for their star candidate to defeat Donald Trump. The primaries began with over 20 presidential candidates, and after three debates, the stakes are getting higher. Voters remain divided on who they will vote for.
One Presidential hopeful was United States Senator, Kirsten Gillibrand, who dropped out of the race late last month. On stage, she advocated for women’s reproductive rights, and used her identity to speak to White America about white privilege and the importance of equality. Hear more from Senator Gillibrand in her first post-Presidential Run interview, on how she plans to use the experience from her campaigns and to support her party in taking back the White House.
Aired September 22nd, 2019
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Elinor Tatum: Hello, I'm Elinor Tatum, publisher and Editor-in-Chief of the New York Amsterdam News. Welcome to Conversations on the Oval, a series of interviews we're hosting with presidential candidates and notable politicians. Today, Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, our own Senator from New York is joining us.
Elinor Tatum: It is so good to have you with us Senator Gillibrand. This is your first interview since dropping out of the presidential primary. What did you learn from this experience?
Kirsten G.: I learned so much. I really enjoyed the opportunity to travel around the country, talk to voters, particularly in early states who really take our democracy so seriously. They really understand they have a role to play, so they show up. So meeting with caucus goers in Iowa, meeting with voters in New Hampshire was inspiring. Lots of advocacy groups are very invested in having that opportunity to talk to candidates.
Kirsten G.: And I actually learned a lot from the disability community. I now have a much broader agenda on how I want to meet the needs that people in the disability community. I met two young men in particular, a young man named Michael in New Hampshire and a young man named Kyle in Iowa, and they both have intellectual disabilities, but they both are enormously effective in their communities in terms of advocacy, but also making a difference. Kyle has a job at the local pizza shop and he has a work supporter who comes with him to work so he can do this job. And he's a young man who's thriving.
Kirsten G.: And so I really felt like I learned a lot about issues that now I want to work hard in New York on. And so we're going to start some disability round tables across New York state this week.
Elinor Tatum: So over your political career, you've never lost an election. How did you come to the decision to pull out of this race when you did?
Kirsten G.: Well, it became clear that if I didn't have the opportunity to be on the national debate stage, it would be very difficult to be able to increase my nationwide name recognition, to tell people who I am and why I'm running. And so without that opportunity where other candidates had it, I didn't think there was a legitimate path.
Kirsten G.: And so I decided it's best to know when it's not your time, when you can serve in other ways. And I'm so proud and grateful and privileged to be able to serve as a US Senator for New York and I have a lot of work to do for New Yorkers. So I am doing that and I'm thrilled to do it and grateful that I even had the opportunity to run.
Elinor Tatum: Some strategists say that there are many Americans that are just not even engaging because there's still so many candidates in the race. Do you give Americans more credit than that and do you think they need to narrow down the field before they actually can even get a real grasp of what they're looking at for candidates going forward?
Kirsten G.: I'm not sure. I just know I didn't have yet full name recognition nationwide. And so it's important that you earn that over time and I just didn't have the level of of people knowing who I am, why I was running, what issues I've accomplished in the US Senate, things like knowing that I passed 18 bills in the last Congress alone on issues of rural broadband or rural manufacturing or helping small businesses grow. They just didn't know much about me.
Elinor Tatum: Well, I mean I'm talking about in general, with the ones that are left and going forward.
Kirsten G.: Right, so that's all their choices. They'll decide what they want to do. I think this is a moment when President Trump is really harming our democracy. He's really had an all out assault on our women's rights, LGBT rights, freedom of religion with his Muslim ban, undermining our electoral system, not investing in paper receipts to make sure that we protect the next election, undermining the judiciary by calling out and name calling to judges, undermining the independence of the Department of Justice. These are all things that are really harming and degrading our democracy in a certain way.
Kirsten G.: And I think because of that, a lot of Democrats really felt compelled to put themselves out there. I certainly did. I felt like I wanted to take on President Trump because of what he's done to this country and I felt like my background and what I brought to the race was unique. Someone who won in a two to one Republican district twice, somebody who had the highest vote threshold in New York state in the history of the state, someone who brings people together legislatively and get big things done and small things done at the same time. I thought that mattered.
Kirsten G.: And I think the reason why you had 25 candidates running is because all of us are so worried about the future that we wanted to put our whole selves into solving the problem and I think that's great and I think it's great that we had six women running. First time ever to have that much diversity on the presidential debate stage. I thought it was really inspiring and I'm glad my colleagues are running.
Elinor Tatum: Is there anything you would've done differently?
Kirsten G.: No, I really felt like I left it all in the field. I felt like I put my best foot out there and I just didn't really have the time to let people get to know who I am and why I was running and why I thought I was the best candidate to take on Trump. So now my job will be to be the best Senator I can be for New York. Certainly, help to flip the Senate in 2020, so we can have Senator Schumer as our majority leader, make sure we hold these house seats and fight like heck for whoever our nominee is to make sure they win.
Elinor Tatum: So what do you think the differences between the men and women that are candidates out there today?
Kirsten G.: Well, I think we're all very different. We all have very different backgrounds, different levels of experience, different priorities. But what I was most proud of in my campaign was that I led the national conversation on women's reproductive freedom. The only candidate that went to the front lines in Georgia and Missouri. National pay leave. I rolled out a full family bill of rights to talk about all the ways we can help families thrive. I think I led the field on the most comprehensive LGBTQ equality agenda, as well as the most robust agenda on cannabis. It also felt like I was the only candidate who really routinely was talking about how we fix government, fix Washington, deal with the corruption and greed by getting money out of politics, having publicly funded elections, clean elections, having much more ethics reform as well as support voting rights.
Kirsten G.: So that's now for the other candidates to show their passions, their goals, and I'm going to be cheering them on alongside everybody else in New York to hope that the best candidate emerges and one that we can all get behind.
Elinor Tatum: One of the other things that you did in this campaign that no one else really touched on the way you did was white privilege. You tell a story about one of your visits. Would you share that with us?
Kirsten G.: Sure. So I was in Youngstown, Ohio. One of the things that I really enjoyed was doing a Trump Broken Promises bus tour in Michigan, Ohio and Pennsylvania to show voters how I was going to beat Trump, taking the fight directly to his backyard and to talk about all his lies to the American people.
Kirsten G.: And at this particular event, it was in Youngstown, Ohio, where a number of of jobs had recently been lost, I think over 1000 layoffs by a GM plant. And it was a interesting round table where lots of the local advocates came together to talk about issues affecting them. And this one woman who is from a community that's been hollowed out, because of job losses, because of the GM layoffs and she was angry. And she said... She was a white woman and she was holding her little son, Alexander, who is less than a year old, a beautiful baby boy. And she said, "You know, you're so critical of President Trump and Republicans saying that their language is divisive, but I think Democrats are equally divisive. And I specifically don't understand why Democrats keep talking about white privilege because I certainly don't have any."
Kirsten G.: And so when she asked that question, I needed to explain to her that she does and what it actually means because she didn't understand. And so I explained to her that while her suffering is no less important than anyone else's suffering and that as president, I would make sure that I was investing in her community to make sure that there was more job creation, as well as job training, so that people's economy and community could thrive, but that white privilege is a very different conversation. And how institutional racism affects Americans for generations is also a very different issue. And she said, "Well explain it that then because I don't understand that."
Kirsten G.: And so I said, "Well for example, when your son grows up and he's 15 years old smoking pot with his girlfriend, he likely won't be arrested because our criminal justice system disproportionately arrest black men and brown men more than white men for the same usage of marijuana." I said, "And even if he was that police officer might give him a second chance and not arrest him or incarcerate him. A black man would likely be incarcerated. If he didn't have money to pay his bail, he would have to spend a night in jail. And that might mean he'll miss his job the next morning, which means he will lose his job. Or if he has a child at home and is a single parent who's going to look after their child? There's no empathy or concern for that child."
Kirsten G.: I said, "Second when your son, when his car breaks down and he knocks on a door and asks for help and the door opens and the help is given, it's his whiteness that protects him from being shot. And that when he's walking down the street and he's wearing a hoodie and he's got M&M's or Skittles in his pocket, it's his whiteness that protects him from being shot."
Kirsten G.: And so I just needed to explain that to her because yes, she doesn't feel privileged on any level because she's suffering and her family's suffering and her community's suffering, but she needs to know that the whiteness of her son and herself is going to give her an advantage in all of the circumstances I just described to her. And I don't know that she understood it, but that was a room where there were black advocates, as well as white labor leaders, and when people ask them after did you understand that answer and did that make sense, they said the answer was exactly right for them.
Kirsten G.: And so one of the reasons why I wanted to run for president is I think I can talk about these issues in places that they're not talked about. So when you're talking to white women who live in the suburbs and who don't understand white privilege and are frankly angry about it, I can explain to them why they should care about a little boy getting shot on a park bench at Brooklyn because he's in a neighborhood with deep gun violence and that she should be concerned for that child's life as much as her own child's life. And that if you're going to attack these problems of institutional racism, it's going to deal with the economy, it's going to deal with healthcare, it's going to deal with education, and it's going to deal with criminal justice. And she has to have empathy for those families because they're just like her, but they are discriminated against across every area of our community and every area of our economy and that she should care.
Kirsten G.: And I can bring that message because I see it. I see it every day and maybe they'll listen. So I was privileged to be able to give that answer and to try to create common ground among Americans that we should all care about one another. We should actually treat others the way we want to be treated.
Elinor Tatum: So what are your priorities going to be in the Senate this coming year?
Kirsten G.: So, a lot of issues right now are really bubbling up in New York state. The number one issue, and people I don't think will be surprised about this, it's still healthcare. People are so concerned that they won't have access, that their insurance companies keep raising rates, that they are being denied access because it's too expensive. The drug companies keep price gouging. I've very strong legislation to end price gouging and to take on the drug companies.
Kirsten G.: So we really still need healthcare as a right and not a privilege. Medicare for all is the best solution. I think people should be able to buy in at a price they could afford and have a transition period to ultimately get to it as an earned benefit, just like social security.
Kirsten G.: The economy still number one issue. People feel deeply underemployed across the state. They feel like all the promises that Trump made actually haven't come to fruition. He said no bad trade deals. He said the system is rigged, but he's done absolutely nothing to unrig the system and to help them get a higher paying job, get access to the training they would need to be in a faster growing industry. So really amplifying opportunity. I want to guarantee jobs for anybody who wants it through job training. I want to actually introduce legislation that uses our community colleges, our state schools, our apprenticeship programs, and our not-for-profits to actually fund the training.
Kirsten G.: An example, in upstate New York, when Bombardier needed advanced welders, they couldn't find any within 500 miles, but they went to the local community college and said offer this coursework. We'll hire all your graduates. It's a $70,000 a year job. And they've already trained in place to a hundred workers through that program. I want to do that all across our state. So we're really amplifying access to higher paying jobs so more families can earn their way into the middle-class.
Kirsten G.: Great, not-for-profit in the Bronx called Per Scholas. They offer STEM training for computer engineering, building, fixing computers, cybersecurity coding. They've already trained and placed 800 young workers from the Bronx into these STEM fields because those are the fastest growing industries. So they now have a pathway to a middle class family, a lifestyle as well as a higher paying job. And that's important for all New Yorkers.
Kirsten G.: So healthcare, education, jobs. I also want to work on a bill to guarantee national public service, where you tell every young person in our state our country that if you're willing to do a year of public service, you can get two years of community college or state school free. And if you do four years, two years of community, sorry, two years of public service, you get four years of community college or state school free. And that's a way to get to debt free college, as well as more kids going into fields where they can help people and really transform the entire next generation of kids who understand what it's like to actually put other people before yourself.
Elinor Tatum: Now what about the environment?
Kirsten G.: So I think global climate change is the greatest threat to humanity that we have today. And I believe we can pass a Green New Deal and put a price on carbon. Most of the ideas underlying the Green New Deal are already bipartisan ones I've been working on for a decade, clean air, clean water, green jobs, and more money for infrastructure. In New York, we need high speed rail still. We need a new electric grid. We need more money for water infrastructure, to clean up Brownfields, to make sure everyone has access to clean water. We have PFOA and PFAS and PCBs all across our waterways in New York. We need to get that cleaned up. And you could do that through the Green New Deal.
Elinor Tatum: Now when you're talking about some of the other initiatives, the community college and service, how can we combine that with environmental initiatives?
Kirsten G.: Perfect question. So when I talk about a public service, I'm talking about five industries. I'm talking about healthcare because we need no more home health aides, we need more nurses. I'm talking about education because we need the next generation of teachers and special ed teachers, specifically. And I will fully fund special ed because it's one of the worst things the federal government does not fund it.
Kirsten G.: Third green jobs and so really gear these public service opportunities and job training into science, technology, engineering and math, so they can be part of these robust agenda when we pass the Green New Deal to really invest in how we create clean air, clean water, more infrastructure, and more green jobs. And those are the jobs of the future. And that requires investments in science, technology, engineering, math for kids in grade school, as well as high school, so that young kids, kids of color, young girls, all get access to these faster growing industries. And that's exactly what Per Scholas does in the Bronx. It's one of the most effective not-for-profits. I want to fund that. I want to make that open to anyone who wants a higher paying job or anyone who wants to do a public service career.
Elinor Tatum: In that same vein, New York state is rather large and most of it is upstate, but the kids in New York City, in Central Buffalo, in Rochester are not as connected to the earth, so to speak, as as the kids in rural areas. How do we connect those kids to the trees, to the earth, to the forest when they are surrounded by concrete?
Kirsten G.: So I think we have opportunities. If we do guarantee education for someone who does public service, some of those public service opportunities are going to be in underserved areas and you have underserved areas in inner cities, but you also have them in rural economies and rural areas.
Kirsten G.: So you really could ask young people to look at these public service opportunities all across the state, not limited to their hometown, actually think about where they can go elsewhere in our state to help others. And especially for healthcare, we have such a lack of experts and a lack of specialists in rural areas in healthcare. And it's a real problem because getting access to rural care is a real challenge. And so if you could train young kids to want to be in healthcare, they could help people all across our state.
Kirsten G.: I also like the not-for-profits that get our kids working on farms in the summer. And there's a couple of organizations that I visited as Senator to see what they were doing and they were taking downstate kids, bringing them upstate, taking inner city kids in Buffalo and bring them to the rural areas to teach them about farming, to teach them about the outdoors and the connection between their environment and their health. And those are some of the most effective camps and summer programs that I've seen in our state. So I'd love to figure out ways to help them continue to expand.
Elinor Tatum: Yeah, I know that my daughter's school takes all the third, second and third graders to a farm for two or three days where they get to do everything on the farm from cleaning out the chicken coops to getting the eggs to taking care of all the animals.
Kirsten G.: It's amazing. There was a program in Buffalo and in Long Island and where else did I visit? At least three places in the state where they basically created urban farms to teach kids about farming in their community. But then they combined it with having a farm stand in the summer, so the kids could learn how to run a small business, how to put a price on a vegetable. And then when I was at these farms stands, I was challenging the kids to make sure they ate everything they sold.
Kirsten G.: So it was another way to get young kids, particularly kids of color, to really explore and ask their moms to make them zucchini and ask their moms to make them some beets and ask their moms to make all these vegetables that they might never have actually tasted or had. And they learn, of course, that they're delicious. I mean, obviously, if you fry anything, it's delicious and they don't know about vegetables. So really asking the kids to learn how to eat vegetables and incorporate them into their meals.
Kirsten G.: And we funded a lot of those programs through the USDA, as well as through the Farm Bill, because I'm on the AG Committee. I was the first New York Senator in 40 years to serve on that committee. And so we've been looking for ways to really integrate our communities into our agriculture heritage, but also industry. And we did through the farm stands and it was really fun.
Kirsten G.: We also tried to amplify access to vegetables through making sure people who take food assistance to be able to use their food stamps on farm stands and it's just so they get access to more vegetables so more kids have a healthy lifestyle.
Elinor Tatum: So now let's go back to the presidential campaign and what's going on now. Will you throw your support behind anyone?
Kirsten G.: I will. I will endorse someone at some point. I have to say I am so grateful to my colleagues. Every single one of them's 100 times better than President Trump. And I really have been inspired by the issues they ran on, the issues they brought to the table. And I hope at some point to be in a position to endorse someone.
Elinor Tatum: What you looking for in the candidate that you will eventually support?
Kirsten G.: Somebody who could beat Trump, number one. Somebody who could beat Trump, number two. Somebody, no. So somebody who could beat Trump is the most important obviously, and I think pretty much all of them poll ahead of Trump right now. So we have a lot of opportunity there. And someone who shares some of my values, who will fight for communities that are left behind, communities that don't necessarily have a seat at the table, who aren't listened to in Washington and someone will take on the fights that other people won't. I want somebody who's at the forefront of reproductive rights, at the forefront of gay rights, at the forefront of cannabis, at the forefront of getting money out of politics. I think those issues matter. I want someone who's going to take on global climate change as the greatest threat to humanity that it is and really want to pass the Green New Deal, as well as put a price on carbon.
Kirsten G.: So those are my issues that I felt most strongly about and talked a lot about on the campaign. I hope some candidates pick up my ideas for national public service, as well as a fully funding job training as a right. So I hope those are some of the issues that candidates continue to develop and I look forward to supporting somebody. And then of course whoever the nominee is, I'm going to work my butt off to make sure they win.
Elinor Tatum: Would you consider a vice presidential nomination?
Kirsten G.: I of course would consider any service, but I really feel like I need to do a good job for New York right now. So I'm focused on being the best Senator I can be. And then politically flipping the Senate, making sure we told the House and helping the nominee.
Elinor Tatum: So in the next few months, what is the most important legislation that you think is in front of the Senate?
Kirsten G.: We're really desperate to harden our electoral in infrastructure. It's something that we're really trying to have ready by 2020. We don't have a paper ballot receipt for every vote yet. And there's, I think three states, maybe four that still don't have it. So we have bipartisan legislation that I'm really hoping to push forward and actually pass.
Kirsten G.: I want to start passing the components of the Green New Deal. So I'm going to break it open and just literally come up with each piece that I already know is bipartisan. Money for STEM training, money for green jobs, money for clean air, clean water, and money for infrastructure. And I want to lead some good bipartisan bills in that portfolio.
Kirsten G.: And then I'm going to fight against President Trump's agenda. He's got a really nasty agenda when it comes to women's rights and gay rights. And I'm going to fight against it every step of the way.
Elinor Tatum: Now with Trump's agenda, we see it every day and we see his tweets every day. I mean, they're a little less than they were before, but how do you rail against an agenda that is just so full of hatred and vitriol without becoming petty?
Kirsten G.: So I think you got to call it out. You got to name it for what it is when he's racist, you got to say so, when he's homophobic, when he's antisemitic, when he's misogynistic, you got to call it out. And so I think I can use my voice to fight back when he does demean the vulnerable, when he does demean women of color, when he uses his bully pulpit to really harm people who are being marginalized. I'll fight against it and I can do that. So I will push back anytime he, again, uses this presidency to harm people, push back against his very corrupt and harmful immigration policies. I will push back when he's wrong on foreign policy. I think he's really destabilizing the country and the world right now on how he addresses foreign policy. And I'll, as someone who's been on Armed Services for the last 10 years and really as the forefront to fighting against terrorism, I will push back on national security concerns I have.
Elinor Tatum: So what do you think 2024 holds for you?
Kirsten G.: Well I think hopefully we will have a democratic administration and I will be working hard to support that administration over the next four years. And then I will hopefully consider continuing serving in the US Senate.
Elinor Tatum: So what is the thing that you are most proud of in your tenure so far?
Kirsten G.: So a couple of things. Certainly passing the 9/11 Health Bill was one of the most important things I could have ever worked on. We had men and women who were the ones who raised up the Towers to save people who lost their lives. We had men and women who stayed on the pile for weeks and months who were breathing in horrible toxins, all of which the EPA told them the air was safe and now they're dying of terrible cancers.
Kirsten G.: And so I was able to walk the halls with these very inspiring first responders, knock on every Senate door. And we've worked over the last 10 years to make both the healthcare program and the Victims Compensation Fund permanent. We just passed the bill to make the Victims Compensation permanent a couple of months ago. And it took a lot of work by these men and women who the first time they came, they were walking. The second time they came, they had crutches or canes. That third time they came, they had wheelchairs and oxygen masks. It's a labor of love for their heroism and their unbelievable dedication this country. And I was very proud to fight with them and to make sure that their voices were heard in Washington.
Kirsten G.: So it was a decade of work, but we are nearly done. We finally completed these programs so they're there for their lifetimes. We still have to make sure people register. Even doing an event tonight to make sure people understand that if they were at Ground Zero, if they lived at Ground Zero, if they worked at Ground Zero, they have to register for the healthcare program, because honestly these cancers will continue to show themselves the incubation time for cancer sometimes 20 years. We are almost at 20 years and so they need to be part of the program. And so we're just keep lifting up their voices and saying please register so that if anything happens to you and your health, the right doctor will see you to say this is related and I know the right treatment. So I'm going to call that out tonight and ask people to please be aware that if they were at Ground Zero for any amount of time to register for the healthcare program.
Elinor Tatum: Senator Gillibrand, thank you so much for being with us, and I hope that we can check in with you again soon.
Kirsten G.: It's a privilege and an honor, and thank you for your leadership and amazing advocacy.
Elinor Tatum: Thank you.
Elinor Tatum: Thank you for joining us once again for Conversations on the Oval, shot here today at MNN Studios. I'm Elinor Tatum, publisher and Editor-in-Chief of the Amsterdam News. Have a wonderful day.
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