The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Kirsten Gillibrand wants to harness the power of women. Her ‘spark plug’ grandmother showed her how.

Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.), whose presidential campaign will seek to harness the energy of the #MeToo Movement, credits her grandmother with inspiring her early political ambitions. (Kirsten Gillibrand/Facebook)

When a tussle broke out in September 1982 at a Democratic ward office in Albany, N.Y., the special assistant to the mayor was accused of punching another woman.

Summoned to Albany Police Court, the aide told her lawyer, “I didn’t hit her."

It was the responsibility of the 67-year-old special assistant to make sure the mayor, Erastus Corning II, steered his constituents to his preferred candidate in the Democratic primary for governor, which ultimately crowned Mario M. Cuomo. But violence was unnecessary, she maintained. “We got other ways to get even around here,” she said, according to the New York Daily News, which recounted the incident a month later.

Then, as an aside, she offered softly: "You can tell I didn’t hit her. If I hit her, she wouldn’t be here.”

The mayor’s special assistant was a woman named Dorothea Noonan, known as Polly, whose fierce devotion to her boss, and to her party, helped elect scads of Democrats across her city and her state. She was a linchpin in the Democratic machine that ruled Albany for much of the previous century.

Noonan died in 2003, just before her 88th birthday. But a powerful New York Democrat remains indebted to her: her granddaughter, Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, who announced on Tuesday that she would make a bid for the White House.

The story of the little-known power broker, a secretary who used to zip around the New York State Capitol on roller skates, brings into sharp focus Gillibrand’s distinctive, and sometimes polarizing, approach to political combat, as well as her early electoral ambitions and acumen. It is also a parable of female organizing and influence, with lessons for a campaign tethered to the #MeToo movement.

“I have no power,” Noonan said of her status, according to a 1985 book about Albany, in clear contrast to the authority she exercised as a confidante to the longtime mayor and as the president of the Albany County Democratic Women’s Club. “I’m just a full-time grandmother."

In laying out her presidential ambitions, Gillibrand, 52, also invoked her maternal role. But her assessment of her more public capacities was starkly different.

“I’m going to run for president of the United States because, as a young mom, I’m going to fight for other people’s kids as hard as I would fight for my own,” the mother of two young sons told late-night host Stephen Colbert in her Tuesday announcement.

Even as she refused to acknowledge her power, Noonan taught her granddaughter how to exercise it, according to Gillibrand.

The New York senator has cultivated a reputation for pugnacity — among the traits she inherited from her maternal grandmother. Her broadsides are laced with curse words. But her language is tame, compared with how her grandmother spoke.

“Polly never backed down from an argument she knew she could win, and that was pretty much all of them,” Gillibrand wrote in her 2014 book, “Off the Sidelines: Raise Your Voice, Change the World.” Her grandmother, she wrote, was a “spark plug." She stood just over 5 feet tall and “told dirty jokes to forewarn men who underestimated her because of her size. She could rattle off strings of expletives as long as a string of Christmas lights — five, eight, even ten in a row, never the same curse twice.”

Gillibrand said she had a similar penchant for "colorful language, though I keep it to one or two expletives at a time.”

She has frequently trained her fire on President Trump, calling on him to resign because of the allegations of sexual misconduct against him, which he denies. Just over a year ago, the president maligned Gillibrand on Twitter using language that struck observers across the political spectrum as sexualized and demeaning, to which she responded with a message that doubled as a rallying cry of the female-led resistance to his administration. The question is whether Gillibrand, who boasts the most anti-Trump voting record of any senator, according to FiveThirtyEight, can turn antipathy to the president into a winning national campaign.

“I learned from my grandmother that my voice matters, and my advocacy and grass roots activism can really make a difference,” Gillibrand said before she entered the Senate in 2009, tapped by then-Gov. David Paterson to fill the vacancy left by Hillary Clinton when the Democratic presidential aspirant was nominated as secretary of state.

Gillibrand called Noonan her “greatest political hero,” crediting her with beginning a “political movement” that inspired women of her generation and the generation that followed to get involved in politics.

“Democratic women to meet,” announced a headline in the Post-Star, a newspaper serving Glens Falls, N.Y., anticipating a meeting in June 1983 of the county’s Democratic Women’s Club. The speaker would be Polly Noonan. “She has helped the organization of Democratic Women’s Clubs throughout the state,” the story noted.

In her book, the lawmaker described how her grandmother’s role shaped her upbringing in Albany, where her parents worked as attorneys. Growing up “steeped in political stories,” Gillibrand aspired from an early age to be a senator — “not that I knew what a senator did, exactly, but I knew it sounded accomplished and important.” Each March, the senator marks Women’s History Month by paying tribute to her grandmother. Last year, she wrote on Facebook that her grandmother was “an outspoken advocate in a time when women just weren’t part of the conversation.”

Noonan, born in Albany in 1915, skipped college and married at age 20, taking a job as a secretary at the state capitol two years later. She darted down Albany’s august hallways on roller skates after complaining that all the walking was “killing,” according to a 1962 report in the Democrat and Chronicle. In a photograph documenting the unusual workplace activity, Noonan stands in white skates and a knee-length dress, reams of paper in both arms.

Eventually, she leaped from the state legislature to the mayor’s office, where her influence grew under Corning, who towered over city politics for four decades, beginning in the 1940s and ending with his death in 1983. Her role made her an indispensable part of the Albany machine, led for more than 50 years by political boss Daniel P. O’Connell.

“You needed a pothole filled or your uncle needed a job raking leaves because it would just kill his spirit to be out of work?" Gillibrand wrote. "You called somebody who knew somebody — and, before long, the person you called was my grandmother.” Meanwhile, Noonan organized Albany’s women to stuff envelopes, make phone calls and go door-to-door — the unglamorous work of political campaigning.

For all her shrewd judgment, Gillibrand’s grandmother refused to recognize the role of the machine. “It’s not a machine! It’s a well-oiled organization,” the New York senator quotes her grandmother as saying. “A machine has no heart.”

Gillibrand has shown less group fealty, a fact that endears her to some while enraging others.

She stepped out in front of her Democratic colleagues by saying in 2017 that former president Bill Clinton should have resigned the presidency because of his sexual impropriety — a statement that led a longtime Clinton aide to label her a “hypocrite." And she was the first in a string of Democrats to tell their own colleague, former senator Al Franken of Minnesota, to step down over allegations that he had acted improperly toward women. He heeded their calls at the end of 2017, to the dismay of some party bigwigs, who blamed Gillibrand.

The senator’s grandmother didn’t dare buck the party brass in that way. And her devotion served her well, even when it led to accusations of tussling at party headquarters.

“We’ll have a party on Tuesday night,” Noonan told the Daily News in the fall of 1982, anticipating Cuomo’s victory in the governor’s race. The special assistant trusted the judgment of the mayor, who had bet everything on the charismatic liberal many saw as presidential material. “Erastus never picked a loser in his life.”

“He’s the boss,” Gillibrand’s grandmother concluded.