My Lunch With Senator Gillibrand

Posted on 23 Aug 2010 at 2:44am

Since her appointment by New York Governor David Paterson to fill Hillary Clinton's vacated seat, Senator Kirsten Gillibrand has utilized her new prominence to be a strong, and much needed voice for LGBT equality in the Senate.

Senator Kirsten Gillibrand is also no stranger to the Blend. In addition to extensive coverage, the Senator has posted here as well. And our own blogmistress was gracious enough to host a fundraiser for Gillibrand during her last trip to the Big Apple. 

As such, I thought folks would be interested in experience meeting the Senator last week. It was part of a outreach her campaign is doing in the state. My impressions after the fold.

So here's how this lowly blogger came to be lunching with a US Senator. 

I received this invitation in my inbox:

Senator Gillibrand to Host Roundtable Discussion with Local Brooklyn Reporters
Brooklyn, NY – U.S. Senator Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) will host an informal discussion with local Brooklyn reporters on THURSDAY, August 12th at 2:45 pm to discuss national issues affecting New Yorkers and her legislative agenda in the United States Senate. As Gillibrand criss-crosses the state during the August recess, she will be attending events throughout the week in New York City.

At first, I didn't really think it applied to me, I don't consider myself a journalist, lacking a paycheck and often the will to be objective. (I strive to be fair, absolutely, but don't really believe in “objective.”)

But I decided to follow up with the Senator's netroots outreach person and asked, “Can I go?” He assured me absolutely. So I went, it was just a few blocks from my home. In fact, I guess I wasn't paying close attention, because I was surprised the address was to an unassuming little haunt I, and most of the neighborhood, consider a favorite: Teresa's diner in Brooklyn Heights.

It was then I realized, “Oh my God, I'm going to be sitting a small table with a US Senator!” The gravity of it hit me like a ton of bricks. At this point, I wished I was better dressed. I didn't even like the jeans I was wearing (but was grateful I'd shaved).

Approximately ten or so local journalists came. These were not big outlets. The Brooklyn Paper, the Brooklyn Heights Courier, The Brooklyn Heights Blog. One publication is familiar to me because I flip through it while I await my Chinese carryout, where it is distributed free.

But they are important. As a long time Brooklynite, I do come to depend on these small outlets to provide me news of the Borough that either doesn't make the cut, or gets hopelessly buried in The New York Times. It's to her campaign's great credit they recognize that numbers do not equal importance, and they found 90 minutes of the Senator's time to address niche constituencies.

So, when the Senator arrived, the remaining seat happened to be next to me. (!!!) And upon introducing myself, the Senator's face flashed a moment of recognition and she said, “Oh yes, I've read your stuff.” True or not, I could have died a happy man, right then and there.

First we ordered lunch. The Senator had the cottage cheese and fruit platter, and affirmed my recommendation that the fresh bread at Teresa's was well worth breaking the carb prohibitions she observes.

She began with a personal biography. She discussed how her grandmother's activism in Albany politics influenced her. Dorothea “Polly” Noonan was a womens' rights activist, a Democratic leader and close associate of Albany mayor Erastus Corning. At a young age, Gillibrand learned the value of grassroots organizing, and also that the rough world of politics (and she used the word “bloodsport”) need not be a forbidding place for women.

She discussed her entry into politics, taking out four-term Republican incumbent John E. Sweeney in New York's conservative 20th congressional district by a margin of 53%-47%. She went on to defend the seat in 2008, winning by one of the largest vote margins in the congressional cycle: 62%-38%.

She discussed her work on her various committees, Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry, Environment and Public Works, Foreign Relations, Environmental Protection, Special Committee on Aging.

She began by saying “the main issue is economy and jobs.” Her plan involves passing a bill to help small businesses. The initiative would funnel billion dollars into community banks. Repayment interests would be contingent on their re-lending it: 7% if they hold on to it, 1% if it is disbursed back into the community. It is being considered as an amendment to HR. 5297.

Senator Gillibrand speaks to a constituent in Queens, from Facebook.

She discussed her sponsorship of The Senior Investor Protection Act, (S. 1659) and her work educating senior New Yorkers how to avoid scams that target them. She called failure to include the Community Choice Act in health care reform a “missed opportunity,” in response to a reporter's question.

One thing Kirsten possesses that the truly effective progressive firebrands in politics have, is a firm and unapologetic belief in righteousness of her position. Her rhetorical choices aren't meek. She tells you changes need to be made, and here's which ones and why…

When discussing policy, one is struck that you're in the presence of a very hip nerd (think Rachel Maddow). There are vast resources of knowledge in her head that are very readily accessible. She casually drops facts in that assure you she was up late doing her homework. (NYC alone accounts for 50% of the dollars our country spends on public transportation. Seniors account for trillion in assets, making this population especially attractive to fraud schemes.)

But like a polished professional, she doesn't lose you in the wonk. The facts are there to illustrate the point, they are not the point. As a person, Senator Gillibrand could not come off more authentic. She's unassuming and fun, and remarkably unguarded.

Upon her appointment in January 2009 to the Senate seat, Gillibrand was a relative unknown in the nation, even the state. She first drew attention by her advocacy to repeal the military's “Don't ask, don't tell” policy. She described meeting Lt. Dan Choi, and being “overwhelmed with anger that this was our government policy.”

She also described the complacency she saw among her Senate colleagues to address the issue. She responded by coming out swinging and reached out to Senator Carl Levin (D-MI) to help bring about the wildly successful February Senate hearings on the policy. She expressed she was confident the pending Senate vote would be successful and DADT would soon be history.

Before the lunch, I truly believed her advocacy on behalf of the LGBT community is authentic and not merely a means to shore up progressive support. Her language is too unequivocal, she has said:

“To me, achieving full LGBT equality is the civil rights march of our generation.”

But in speaking with her in person, it's clear, she is truly animated and invested in these fights. At 43, she seems to have a hard time comprehending why these issues are not no-brainers to her older, more conservative colleagues. The time she spent in her youth in the City served her well. She shared a anecdote of her early law career working late, with only the company of other single women and gay men and how those friendships shaped her perspective.

The news that Judge Walker had declined to give Prop 8 proponents an indefinite stay of the resumption of same-sex marriage in California broke during this lunch, and I was lucky enough to be the one who conveyed it to her. Her face lit up like a Christmas tree. This was a win she was happy to join us in celebrating. (Fun fact: as a private practice attorney, she made partner at the firm of Boies, Schiller & Flexner. Yes, that Bois. I did not know that.)

We all got one question. A reporter asked her to address her Latino readerships' frustration with Democrats' sluggish advances toward immigration reform. Gillibrand assured her immigration reform was a priority and discussed different timelines and tactics for tackling it, including comprehensive and piece meal passage of existing bills, mentioning the DREAM Act by name.

I followed up by asking about LGBT inclusion in such efforts. Specifically, I was concerned the coalition being gathered to pressure Congress has outright expressed that LGBT inclusion was a “dealbreaker,” and was there a strategy around that?

I have to be honest, I was not encouraged by her answer. There did not appear to be a strategy, at least one they're ready to enunciate. And to be fair, there does not yet seem to be, at least publicly, a firm strategy for reform in general.

She answered by discussing the importance of winning the “Don't Ask, Don't Tell” vote, and how recent court victories help move our issues inevitably forward. She did conclude, “We may not win this fight this time.”

Which, actually brighten my mood. I would prefer to hear hard truths from my allies, than be fed false hopes. Many of us tracking the Uniting American Families Act, S. 1328 and efforts for LGBT inclusion in comprehensive immigration reform recognize the long odds we face. The Senator is clearly a strong LGBT advocate, but she is but one woman of 535. If anyone can forgive being outvoted, it's the gay community. I appreciate being spoken to as an adult who can read the same writing on the wall. I know she's part of the solution, not the problem, she doesn't have to tell me what I want to hear to stay in my good graces.

If there was a unifying theme to the issues she brought to the table, it is her advocacy on behalf of the disadvantaged and vulnerable and her firm belief that good government can work to make people's live better. Seniors, small businesses, veterans, LGB servicemembers, 9/11 first responders. I personally could not be more proud to call her my own.

I'm glad to see her surge in polling, the latest Siena College poll which places her at 25 points ahead of her closest competitor indicates New Yorkers, as they get to know her, agree. If New Yorkers can find any solace in the tumultuous one-two debacle of Spitzer/Paterson Gubernatorial term, it is that it delivered to us this gem of a Senator.

Senate campaign site is here, you can find her on Facebook here, and follow her on Twitter here. If you're moved to donate, I'd suggest using the wglb@dailykos ActBlue page, please.

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