Episode 11: Kirsten Gillibrand's Path to Power
Which? Listener supported w in Wiessee studios. I began the season by a certain that this election cannot be separated from the me too movement that more than anything it was a reckoning with male power with how we accepted that power. As a given a record number of women are now headed to congress with remarkable diversity. And as we inevitably look forward to the next election to twenty twenty several of those women are top of mind. Fighting for you in the US Senate. Are always about who you fight for. And I promise you I will fight for your family's as hard as I might for my own. That certainly includes the junior Senator from New York cure Ston Jila brand who won by a whopping thirty point margin. She's on pretty much every list of top contenders for the democratic nomination in twenty twenty and over the past couple of years. She's particularly drawn attention for her unapologetic challenge to men who abuse their power, including Democrats. She said Bill Clinton should have resigned after his affair with Monica Lewinsky, and she took a lot of flak for saying Al Franken had to go to Al Franken is a friend of mine, he did great work and the judiciary committee. So it was really hard and really heartbreaking in a conversation on the view. She was challenged about being too aggressive on the matter and she did not back down. He's entitled to hearing. He is. But he's not entitled to my silence. Joy. And when she runs for president this posture this demand for accountability will be a huge part of the twenty twenty elections. But who? Who is Kirsten gillibrand? How'd you go pretty quickly from relative obscurity to being one of the democratic party's marquee names? I'm kai. Right. This is the United States of anxiety. And in this episode. We look ahead to twenty twenty. And we ask what Senator gillibrand rise tells us about the relationship between gender and power in American politics. I'm here with WNYC's politics. Reporter Bridget Bergen who has been talking to the Senator Bridget. He so Bridget. What will become of is here in a minute. Is that you took a few weeks off to have a baby which was one of the first things that you incur Jill talked about. Oh, yeah. It's the first thing she asked me about the last time, we talked I send you Jill ran. How are you? Congratulations on your little girl. What's her name? It is Patricia Jane Bergen heart, and we call her PJ teaser. Amazing. So Bridget it's been a big year for both of you. And what I'm curious about. And when I'm really trying to get my head around is, you know, this woman who is a mom of two herself. How she thinks about power well in my conversations with our I get the sense that in the almost ten years she's been sitting in the Senate chamber in Hamilton speak. She sees herself as a mother and a woman who's in the room where it happens and she wants to drive conversations that are important to her into women and families all over the country. So she's been elected to the Senate for a second time now, and before that she served in congress from a rural upstate district, but remind us of how she carved out this path to power. I mean, she moved in a relatively short time from obscurity as I said earlier to this national spotlight. Yeah. But I I gotta talk about a man a guy with an interesting relationship to power himself. David paterson. Yes. The former New York governor he was our first black governor he came to office after Eliot Spitzer resign. Disgrace over his prostitution skin. He was called the accidental governor. But you know, in Patterson's brief tenure he may well have changed the history of American politics money, take it back to December two thousand eight when he wasn't well known beyond New York. That's when a lot of the country meets him for the first time as the punchline of a bit on Saturday Night Live here to publicly address the issue is New York governor, David Paterson. Patterson impersonator rules up to Seth Meyers on the weekend update news desk. Thank you. So it starts with jokes about Patterson's, marital infidelity and teenage drug use crimes or merely crimes of the heart. And drug crimes, then they really go. They're poking fun at something. The governor has no control. It's it's bad out there Seth you. Don't believe me take a look at this graph that I got here. Now Patterson is legally blind. Shows that unemployment in two thousand eight. Governor. It's upside down bet it is. The whole world is upside down and at someone someone's gotta fix it. I mean, I can take a joke, and I make jokes about myself. That's the real David Paterson when I called him earlier this year a decade later that bit still really annoys him, but sort of Mr. Magoo character playing David Paterson. Yeah. It was pretty harsh. It was became telling you all of this. Because of what happened the next day. Remember, it's December two thousand eight Barack Obama has just been elected president after a bitter primary fight with Hillary Clinton who's been Senator from New York. Famously Obama tries to heal the democratic party's wounds by tapping Clinton for secretary of state and that leaves a bacon Senate seat in New York. It falls to David Paterson the accidental governor to fill it. Right. And he's got oversee this really important transfer of power, which is just a rare opportunity yet. So the next day Patterson meets with none other than Kirsten gillibrand about it in the middle of the interview. One of my staff members just comes in to alert me that they wanna put out this press release, which was sort of laughing along with Saturday Night Live, which I thought was insulting. He's not cool with this idea. And basically tells me he scolded the staffer out of the office, would you sort of tried to go back to the conversation? And maybe about two or three minutes later. I just remember saying I'm really sorry about that. That was really terrible mean. And I think we should do something about it. Now, Senator Joel ban said to me, he knows something governor this is none of my business. I was sitting here. But I want to tell you you should stand up for the disabled. You should just go on the show and laugh along with them. I wanted to say something because I didn't know if anybody else bothered, and you know, it's it's not great to be mimic and disregarded and devalued on some level. And I think for women we face that a lot all the time. I think communities of color face it, all the time. And I think for our governor to have to have endure that was. Wrong. And I want him to know that I felt that interesting. And so she understood that he felt it was wrong to exactly in. What's become something of a hallmark of her leadership style? She read the moment. Right. Others may have missed this queue assumed you no more tough guy approach that her empathy made a real impression on Patterson. I can't say that was the reason I chose her. But you know, we're all human beings that we are touched by things that people do around us now that didn't immediately make jewelry brand of shoo-in Patterson said at this whole evaluation process, and he was getting a lot of pressure to pick a big name. He says some people even encouraged him to appoint himself. He told me under his own system. Jill LeBron wasn't actually his number one grading out to candidate canidu-. I felt was the best candidate at that time was Andrew Cuomo. Who is of course, now the New York governor and yet. Another name that we're talking about for twenty twenty right? The Patterson says he was also concerned about choosing a woman at that period of time. There were a lot of women who felt that in the democratic primary of two thousand eight that the old boys network, defeated racism that another words the bias against Senator. Barack Obama was not as great as the bias against Hillary Clinton had many women around New York acted as women felt that way. And I could kind of understand why they did which takes us to a stage in Albany in January two thousand nine where Patterson names who he described to me as equally qualified second choice. She is perceptive. She's courageous. She is outspoken. I am appointing her to the United States Senate representing New York today. Please welcome our next Senator and current congresswoman Kirsten gillibrand. It will be my honour and most humble duty to serve each. And every one of you. Just to give you a sense of how high stakes decision was President Obama quote to congratulate her the middle of alive Prescott. Yeah. While she's on camera in Jila brand visibly flustered. Just kept speaking. Sorry. That was what I was. I hope someone else talked to him in the interim. They said he's going to call back. Please call back. The newly minted Senator does get a call back from the president moments later in Paterson makes clear that he does have sense of humor his long as he's the one making the joke. Fast forward ten years. We know that after the election. The democratic old boys network did not, of course, defeat racism, but still Patterson was essentially taking a stand against that old boys club in favor of empowering a woman, which was a precedent decision. Given the gillibrand is now making the top list for presidential candidates. And there's something even more poetic in that. Because probably her greatest political teacher was a woman a woman who had an early influence on Jilib Abreu. Up next. We have that story. Hi, I'm John green author of several books, including the stars also created some educational video projects with my brother, Hank. That would be me together. We are the hosts of deer hanging John podcast podcastone WNYC studios in which two brothers provide Dube's advice, and she your questions on everything from airplane etiquette to are gonna chemistry. And of course, share the latest news from Mars, which is a cold dead rock in space and AFC. Wimbledon magnificent, third tier English soccer club. Subscribe to your hanging John wherever you get your podcasts as they say in our hometown to be awesome. So Bridget we were talking about gillibrand mentor. Tell us more. Oh, yeah. She talks about it often here. She is back nine at her Senate appointment, I grew up right here in Albany, and my role model in politics was a grandmother. And I don't know how many of you knew Polly Newnan, but. All that kind. That's because in that world of democratic politics. Holly Newnan was a big deal for decades. She was a woman who never went to college. And she was a secretary. She started as a secretary working for the state legislature in the nineteen thirties, but she amassed real power with the Albany county democratic machine impart, it was her connections. She was a close confidante of Albany's mayor of four decades, but she was a force of nature in her own right gatekeeper to patronage jobs coveted endorsement, she would get the whole family involved come election season that will make an early impression it changed. Gillibrand just through our actions told me that it was important that politics was important in the public service was important that being involved in government was important and not every kid has that message and not every kid has that from a female. Singer Newnan was also a complete in total character. And wait. Isn't this the plays that they're an off Broadway play inspired by her? That's getting all these rave reviews. Oh, yeah. And there are many crazy stories like this one time in the late nineteen seventies Newnan is working the greeter table at dinner for the Albany Democratic Women's group. She was their president until the day. She died you'd get a stamp when you went into show you paid. It said the democrat, of course, soon Newnan, hugs this guy named Ron chemistry. Who was then the mayor of the small city of cohoes and later a state Senator, and then well, I caught up with him by phone. So I'll let him tell it. And then she said oh was talking. Yeah. I'm fine. And there was a stamp. Underwear? She was a forest. Flashed him. He's mortified and she thinks it's hilarious. It made such an impression on him. He shared the story with the Albany times union after she died in two thousand three just shy birthday, which is great. That's actually, really savvy. Yeah. I mean think about how bulled how confident she must have felt in her position in for power. Even though she never ran for officer self. She knew how the game was played. And she knew how to influence the outcome by keeping people off balance Jila brand born in nineteen sixty six is learning at the feet of a political master long before she ever knows. She wants to be in politics or self in her audio book off the sidelines. She sums it up like this. My grandmother Polly had taught me that in politics. You do it's needed. If a candidate, you support needs an envelope, stuffed you stuff an envelope. If that candidate needs a breakfast hosted you host a breakfast when you believe in a cause you aren't picky you just help. So when did she decided move into politics, then because she started off as a corporate lawyer, right? Oh, yes. She was deep in the belly of the beast representing big tobacco against the government. In fact, and she was not feeling it. So she's applying for public sector jobs fundraising for candidates, but nothing is clicking. She can't break into politics with an actual job. Yeah. I was frustrated. I was really frustrated because I was at my law firm working endless hours. I just felt like I was pushing paper for big companies who just care about money, and I didn't feel like it was changing the world, and I didn't feel it was making a difference. Sushi goes to hear speech from then housing secretary Andrew Cuomo, and he's talking about the importance of being involved being a democrat something. Gillibrand just snaps. I've been trying and I can't find my way from to be. And so I kinda stormed up to him afterwards. And well mister secretary I think it's an insider's game, and he being provocative said, well, which moved to Washington just put this interaction in sharp relief. Here's a guy who also grew up in politics, whose father was the former governor of New York and new Jilib rinse grandmother. Polly Newnan, very well. And so when Jill LeBron takes him up on his offer and goes to Washington, she doesn't just get her foot in the door at HUD. She's offered a job by the cabinet secretary. I the privilege of being a secretary Andrew Cuomo special assistant when he was HUD secretary in the Clinton administration. Wait who's that? This is Alexandra Stanton. She grew up plugged into New York City's political scene before she moved to DC. She's now the CEO of empire. Global ventures of business development firm, but back then when she worked in politics. She says Cuomo. Coulter after that speech in New York City. He said I'd like you to show new hire of hours around tomorrow. Her name is Kirsten running. But Nick was Jill LeBron's maiden name. She came and I remember meeting in the lobby of hood the next day stint in clearly recalls or first impression. Unbelievably smart incompetent, inefficient. She walked briskly. She's fairly petite. And I'm five foot ten, but she stretched out that hand, and it was firm, and I thought she's a woman's woman. What does that mean? I don't know if I knew what it meant back. Then I know what I think it means. Now, I think it's a woman who backs women and she shared this story before my first child Andre was born. She had seen me innovate and saw that my stomach was increasingly protruding and said, I just the thing and not long after stint gets a package in the mail with this high end snowsuit for the baby and a personal note stints as both our kids were that's no suit. She rented to Jilib ran recently. I said something like that. Amazing snowshoes. Oh, yeah. The plaid went from Patagonia with other red and the yellow oats amazing. Right. You still haven't. Amazing. No Jila brand has taken that ethos of backing other women and build a whole political action committee around it. She started off the sidelines pack in twenty eleven raising seven million dollars backing more than two hundred women candidates, including ninety five in the midterms tonight. I stand before you as this communities first congresswoman elect. Lorne Underwood a newly elected member of congress from outside of Chicago is one of them on a call with a network of black women leaders back in March. She described how hard it was to get her campaign off the ground. Could be very candid with you. When I first launched this raid, even members of congress toss Illinois, the black caucus other women legislators were intrigued, certainly curious, but we're not all in Underwood says Jill LeBron gave her her first major endorsement threw her off the sidelines pack giving ten thousand dollar donation in a real shot of legitimacy to the campaign. It made all the different that she was willing to step out early and stand with us Underwood is a first time democratic candidate who managed to flip ac- held by four term Republican incumbent. Interestingly enough that also happens to be exactly what Jill LeBron did when she was elected to congress. I'm here for two reasons. One is. Do you want more than I can say the hill cures to become the next Representative? If killer Brin was Underwood's big booster the Clintons. Keep Jilib rent. A major push in purpose congressional race in two thousand six. I was sit here. This is Hillary's. Cures. And she won that election by a huge margin jumped into the Senate from there. So she's been super strategic and lucky, but, you know, also this reminds us the taken some big risks because especially around the metoo movement. She criticized Bill Clinton for his behavior, yet Jila brand is one of the political leaders most closely associated with the movement G Q, even labeled her the Senator from the state of me to God. But don't forget she was talking about harassment in the military in college campuses five years ago. She's been taking on these issues for a long time. It's part of the reason why she thinks more women need to be in office. She thinks these male dominated power spears headed Nord harassment or worse, cultivated it, but she's taking heat for her stance on me too. Because the men she's called out are very powerful. And they're Democrats. I asked her about it KAI. You have been an outspoken voice since the beginning of the metoo movement. And you've even taken some flak for it for Senator Al Franken's resignation for saying that in retrospect, President Clinton should've resigned. After what happened with Monica Lewinsky. Is there anything you would have done differently in your activism with the movement? No, I think this is something that is happening around us. That's real that you either listen and participate or you choose not to and she's not backing down. She sees this as an essential key to understanding who has power, and who doesn't there are traditional power structures that really do not wanna release that grip on power. And they don't wanna see the metoo movement have the lasting impact that it will have. They don't want to see Justice being done. They don't want oversight and accountability. They don't want change. They don't want to change the status quo. They like it the way it is. And they like it the way it is. And if we're honest a lot of us are dangerously comfortable with the status quo. When Jill brand said, Al Franken and Bill Clinton had to go, liberals and Democrats, probably her most harsh critics the winner, take all nature of partisan warfare became more important than the larger principal gender equity, and she was easily the most high profile person in the party to say, no, it is not there are more fundamental questions here about who gets to have power and how they get to use it for lucky. That's also the takeaway of the twenty eighteen election's, millions of people particularly women decided they do actually want change and not just at the margins in Washington will literally look different as a result at least a hundred and twenty five women are coming to congress record number at least forty three of them are women of color with first of all sorts, the first Muslim and the first native women the youngest ever, we're. Constantly reminded that Trump's presidency is exceptional. Well, this too is unprecedented. But the question is what will become the new normal? We're going to keep pursuing that question. Take a break because you know, it's been on. We've covered a lot of ground in the three seasons of this podcast. So over the coming weeks, we're gonna stop and we're going to figure out where we wanna go next, and how we can best help you make sense of these intense crazy times, we'll figure it out. And we may even ask for your help more on that soon. But for now, thanks for listening. United States things -iety is production of WNYC's studios in the newsroom WNYC. This episode was reported by brigid it was edited by Karen Filmon. Who is also our executive producer? Casey means our technical director. Our theme music was written by heinous Brown and performed by the outer girl brass band. Michelle Harris has been our checker throughout this season. Allison light is our intern. Any Lancet is our archivist. Our team also includes Amanda renchik, Christopher Johnson. Jessica Miller, Cari, Picton Melinda. Serey were Donna forty Stein Christopher worth. And Vera, Lynn Williams. Jim Schecter is vice president of news for WNYC. And I'm Kyra said. Jason. United States things -iety is supported in part by the economic hardship reporting project additional support for WNYC's election coverage is provided by Emerson collective the York community trust and New York public radio trustee. Dr Mary white.