The Ignoring of Kirsten Gillibrand

In 2019, it’s unforgivable for a presidential candidate to be boring. Maybe that’s our loss.
(Stephen Voss for The Washington Post)
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Honey, switch to the 10-pounders,” says Kirsten Gillibrand. This directive is made in a dreary, windowless gym on the fourth floor of a Courtyard by Marriott hotel in Waterloo, Iowa. At 7:15 a.m. the Sunday before Memorial Day, press secretary Alex Phillips and I are blearily sweating through a Gillibrand-devised circuit the senator correctly predicts will leave us sore tomorrow. She’s using 25-pound barbells for the exercise that she wants me to use 10 pounds for. She’s encouraging. Nurturing. Appropriately bossy. As she corrects my foot position during triceps kickbacks, I feel the blessed relief of surrendering to competence.

I’d asked to attend the workout of the senator from New York and aspiring president after seeing her do chest presses on Instagram, thinking it would work as a facile metaphor for the strength she’d need to break out in a 24-person Democratic field. I’d hoped the sight of 52-year-old Gillibrand’s now-famous biceps might reveal some larger, heretofore obscured appeal. Some reserve of magnetism, also hiding under a navy blazer. A glimpse into the reasons she’s not gaining ground as a candidate.

(Stephen Voss for The Washington Post)

The majority of Democratic hopefuls have yet to experience a moment like the surge of interest in Mayor Pete or Beto or Elizabeth Warren, let alone the preexisting support afforded the two candidates approaching their 80th birthdays. But Gillibrand’s lack of anointing seems conspicuous. After all, on paper, she’s set herself up to succeed: Gillibrand has never lost an election in her 13-year career in politics. She’s an advocate for women and families at a time when the law has been lapped by societal sentiment. She’s progressive enough to have supported Medicare-for-all since 2006, but she had enough bipartisan reach to get Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell to vote for her (as yet unpassed) Military Justice Improvement Act, which would protect those sexually assaulted while serving. She also co-sponsored the 9/11 first responders bill.

Yet Gillibrand is currently polling between 0 and 1 percent in national surveys, nestled in the bleak data crevice between Ohio Rep. Tim Ryan and Washington Gov. Jay Inslee. “Kirsten Gillibrand Is Struggling,” announced the New York Times in May. “Will Abortion Rights Be Her Rallying Cry?” Two weeks later, a Politico headline read: “Kirsten Gillibrand’s Failure to Launch.”

Maybe it’s that her recalibration on guns and immigration is often framed as pandering. Maybe it’s because her role in Al Franken’s Senate resignation has been cast as inconvenient for Democrats and convenient for her. Maybe it’s sexism: The careful, methodical journey to the presidency seems to read as a natural expression of ambition for the charismatics sweating through oxfords under stadium lights, but somehow feels forced when paired with a blowout. In Washington, D.C., two weeks after her Iowa trip, Gillibrand will tell me, “There’s certainly been many studies that said, ‘This is a picture of an ambitious woman, do you like her? This is a picture of an ambitious man, do you like him?’ With a woman, it’s generally seen as negative.”

Or maybe it’s all these things, with one other factor thrown in: At a time when our national cortisol level is tied to the president’s Twitter feed, and when candidates are live-streaming and clapping back and eating salads with hair equipment, it has become unforgivable to be boring. Taking on attention-gobbling Donald Trump feels like asking people to watch an eight-part PBS series on Reconstruction instead of the episode of “The Bachelor” where the guy is supposed to lose his virginity on TV. Gillibrand’s brand — motherly, responsible, pragmatic, experienced — is going to be a tough sell if what we really want, at some level, is for our politicians to entertain us.

Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) on the campaign trail in Iowa in May. (Joshua Lott for The Washington Post)

Two days before our workout, Gillibrand visits ShinyTop Brewing in Fort Dodge, just down the street from the office of Republican Rep. Steve “Not All Cultures Are Equal” King. As she does for the 12 to 100-ish people who show up at the nine events I attend over three days, Gillibrand begins with a 15-minute, very well-rehearsed, one-woman biographical show delivered in her creaky trill. Young Kirsten admired her lawyer mother, who, Gillibrand says, often rushing the joke, “not only cooked the Thanksgiving turkey but also shot the Thanksgiving turkey.” She proudly tells each room, “You could not get elected in Albany without the blessing of my grandmother” — a secretary for the New York state legislature — “and her lady friends.”

Inspired by familial matriarchs and then-first lady Clinton, Gillibrand leaves her corporate law job and enters politics, working for current New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo in the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. She and her handsome British venture capitalist husband, Jonathan, intentionally buy a house in a congressional district Gillibrand thinks she can conquer, despite it having what one pollster told her were “more cows than Democrats.” (Her detractors, Gillibrand says, “never took me seriously.”) But she triumphed in that 2006 House race, kicking off a 100 percent career win rate that followed her to Clinton’s former Senate seat. In 2012, she won reelection to the Senate with 72 percent of the vote. “Higher than President Obama, higher than Hillary Clinton, higher than any person who’s ever run for Senate or governor in the history of the state,” she says.

Gillibrand introduces Jonathan and their 11-year-old son, Henry, who walk into the brewery mid-speech after spending the day shopping for RVs for an upcoming cross-Iowa road trip. (Her teenage son, Theo, is still in school.) “As a mother,” Gillibrand tells the crowd, “what I like most about RVs is you have a kitchen, so you get to cook where you go.”

Having extolled the maternal joys of caravanning, Gillibrand hands the mic to a crowd that seems there to information-gather rather than cheerlead. Yes, she supports free college, she tells them, and wants to create a system where two years of public service — anything from nursing to teaching to working in green jobs — gets you four years of community college or state school. (Ten years of such work eliminates student loan debt.) She will support whoever becomes the Democratic nominee, “because they’re all a billion times better than President Trump.” She will tackle the opioid crisis and reform the criminal justice system, helped by legalizing marijuana. She supports a 10-year goal to reach zero net carbon emissions because climate change is the greatest crisis facing humanity.

A farmer says he’s upset about the promises of the New Deal being broken. He’s disturbed by free-trade agreements and rainforests being cut down so soybean and corn farming can be outsourced overseas. “Why has the Democratic Party turned its back?” he asks.

“I’ve sat on the Agriculture Committee for the past 12 years,” Gillibrand answers. “I’m well aware that bad trade deals harm our farmers. I think we do have to take on bad actors like China.”

The farmer cuts her off. “That is absolutely wrong,” he says, leaning forward. “Who do you think printed the money to bail this country out?”

Gillibrand, who appears to very much want to avoid getting into a fight with a farmer in the middle of Iowa farm country, smiles and hesitantly answers: “China?”

“No,” the farmer says. “United States. The Federal Reserve.”

Gillibrand starts to gently point out that China purchased our debt. Then she snaps out of it, pledging to support farmers and read up on the Roosevelts. The whole time she’s speaking, the farmer and his wife shake their heads, visibly deflating Gillibrand with their reenactment of “American Gothic.” She goes up to talk to them at the end of the evening, taking notes to understand their concerns and incorporate in future speeches and bills, as she does at every stop with constituents willing to provide her data about the ills of America. (Two days later, another farmer hands Gillibrand a stack of charts about supply management and price floors; she will ask him to update them with the newest stats before returning them to her to read.) When I approach the farmer, I learn his skepticism for the government extends beyond farming policy: He is a 9/11 “truther” who thinks the World Trade Center was taken down in an “inside job.” “What happened to building seven?” a friend standing next to him asks. “Exactly,” he agrees.

In her 2014 memoir, “Off the Sidelines: Raise Your Voice, Change the World,” Gillibrand described her childhood self as “a massive kiss-ass [who] lived for positive reinforcement.” When I ask if that little kiss-ass lives on inside of her, Gillibrand tells me, “Yeah, she’s still there.”

Gillibrand meets Lucy Baranowski and her father, Tony, at an event in Iowa Falls. (Joshua Lott for The Washington Post)
Gillibrand speaking at ShinyTop Brewing in Fort Dodge, Iowa. (Joshua Lott for The Washington Post)
From left: Gillibrand meets Lucy Baranowski and her father, Tony, at an event in Iowa Falls; speaking at ShinyTop Brewing in Fort Dodge, Iowa. (Photos by Joshua Lott for The Washington Post)

Perhaps it’s that instinct to people-please that’s led to accusations of corelessness. During Gillibrand’s tenure in the House of Representatives, she catered to the primarily white, Republican towns and farming communities that made up New York’s 20th Congressional District. A 2008 mailer from her office supported “the removal of illegal aliens by expanding detention capacity and increasing the number of Federal District Court judges.” Now, 2020 presidential candidate Gillibrand wants to curb human, drug and weapons trafficking but calls for the end of “for-profit prisons” at the border and has put forth a 10-year “path to citizenship” in which immigrants pay taxes and into Social Security; this, Gillibrand says, “will transform the economy overnight.”

She has also changed her views on gun control. As a congresswoman, Gillibrand supported the right to bear arms so vigorously that she signed a legal brief calling for the overturn of a handgun ban in Washington, D.C. The National Rifle Association recently published a 2008 letter from Gillibrand that includes statements like “the attempt to limit the purchase of firearms to arbitrary time periods … will not solve any crimes and will only curtail the Constitutional rights of law abiding citizens.” Gillibrand now calls the NRA “the worst organization in this country” and supports moderate gun control, including a bump stock ban and background checks.

“I was very progressive on everything else,” Gillibrand tells me on a couch in Washington, two weeks after her interaction with the farmer. She is folded up comfortably, leaning deep into the cushion. “But on those two issues,” she says, “I recognize that my perspective as an Upstate member of Congress wasn’t sufficient for representing the entire state. When you look at a president like President Trump — a person who has no humility, who would never admit he’s wrong, would never change his mind on anything — what it means is he makes mistakes and he doesn’t learn. Whereas for me, I had the humility to recognize this isn’t good enough. Not only did I change my view, but I started to lead on the issues so that I could represent my whole state.”

Does this capacity to meet a larger pool of needs mean the liberal Gillibrand campaigning for the Democratic nomination would, as president, swing right to meet the needs of her new, Trump-supporting constituents? Can even the most accomplished kiss-ass please an entire country? “I think I can bring constituents with me,” Gillibrand tells me. “Interestingly, those 10 [Republican] counties that I used to represent, I’ve not lost them since. And I’ve won my district with a higher percentage since being a senator. When you explain what gun violence is like in other parts of the state — how horrible it is to lose a child on a park bench in Brooklyn — any mother anywhere in my state would say, ‘Absolutely. Make sure criminals do not have access to those weapons.’ ”

Gillibrand frames her leftward tilt with appealing, party-neutral language. Our children should be safe. We should be able to afford to live. It’s better to take in new information and evolve than be an immutable zealot. Of the Green New Deal, which Gillibrand supports, “most of the components are already bipartisan,” she says. “It’s infrastructure, it’s green jobs and it’s clean air, clean water.” Gillibrand points out that “in the last Congress with a Republican House, Senate and president, I passed … the kind of bills that would help a place like Iowa. Money for rural broadband. Money for made-in-America manufacturing. Money for small businesses.”

Certainty is, understandably, a valued quality in presidential aspirants. We’d be entrusting them, after all, with our country. With ourselves! It makes sense to want someone who can confidently tell us they’ve got this. But would it really be the worst thing for the next president to be reasonably flexible? To occasionally change her mind in response to growing awareness of previously unexplored crannies of this mortal realm, or tangible shifts in reality? Or to patiently try to bring some voters toward her side — even voters who don’t exactly have their facts straight? (And who among us …)

Let’s also consider who gets called expedient. Like Gillibrand, Bernie Sanders had a less-than-liberal record on gun control. And Sanders, too, has now moved left on the issue — and later than Gillibrand. So what distinguishes the two candidates when it comes to pandering? Maybe nothing more than the human tendency to view data as evidence for whatever we already think: Strident curmudgeon Bernie can’t possibly be a panderer; accommodating mother Kirsten, by contrast, is overly pliant to the needs of whoever’s in front of her.

Still, Gillibrand and her campaign have to operate in the world as it is — a world where Democratic voters crave defiance, not pragmatism, finesse and heterodoxy. A week after her Iowa trip, she will do a Fox News town hall. Moderator Chris Wallace will ask, skeptically, whether men get a seat at her metaphorical “intersectional,” “feminist” table, and the audience will laugh when she responds, “They’re already there — do you not know?” When she criticizes some Fox personalities’ characterizations of third-trimester abortions as “infanticide,” Wallace will say, “I’m not sure it’s frankly very polite when we’ve invited you to be here.” Gillibrand’s campaign will begin selling tote bags bearing the phrase, “Frankly, not very polite.”

Gillibrand and her presidential campaign have to operate in the world as it is — a world where Democratic voters crave defiance, not pragmatism, finesse and heterodoxy.
(Stephen Voss for The Washington Post)

Gillibrand may have drastically changed positions on guns and immigration, but from the beginning, she’s bolstered women. She’s earned a 100 percent lifetime rating from the Planned Parenthood Action Fund, supported the Paycheck Fairness Act, and introduced the Campus Accountability and Safety Act and the MOMS Act, a maternal health initiative.

At the apex of the Me Too reckoning in November 2017, then-Sen. Al Franken was accused of sexual misconduct by radio host Leeann Tweeden; subsequently, a photograph of Franken pretending to grab Tweeden’s breasts was released, and seven other women came forward, including a congressional staffer, saying Franken kissed or touched them inappropriately. Other future 2020 candidates encouraged Franken to resign — Harris, Sanders, Warren, Gillibrand’s friend Cory Booker — but Gillibrand was, by 16 minutes, the first to publicly say he should step down. Consequently, much of the coverage focused on her. Gillibrand says she told her older son, Theo: “It’s not okay to forcibly kiss a woman ever without her consent. It’s not okay for Senator Franken, and it’s not okay for you.”

This decision was divisive. Never mind that Gillibrand had been vocal about protecting women for years and is one of the Senate’s most public proponents of legislation to prevent sexual assault and protect its survivors. Gillibrand has been accused — by what has turned out to be a vocal lobby of forced-kissing apologists — of overreacting to the mostly pre-governmental behavior of a popular senator, of enforcing standards of behavior that Republicans would never agree to follow, of hurting her political chances and, of course, of capitalizing on a cultural moment for publicity.

Gillibrand’s determined stand against sexual assault may have even alienated her “mentor and role model” Hillary Clinton. Gillibrand continues to cite Clinton as an inspiration and tells me that since she announced, she has spoken to Clinton, who “gave me her advice.” (When I ask what it was, Gillibrand says, “I’m not going to disclose the advice that anybody gives me.”) But Clinton has not spoken publicly about Gillibrand since the senator said in November 2017 that Bill Clinton should have resigned the presidency in the wake of his sexual misconduct with a subordinate. (After the scandal, Gillibrand worked at HUD in his administration, and he campaigned for her during her 2006 House race.) In her memoir, Gillibrand presents herself as a newer model than the woman who would not be president: “As much as I admired Hillary,” Gillibrand writes, “I knew I wasn’t walking in her precise footsteps. She had to travel a harder road, leading a generation that didn’t take women’s rights for granted, as my generation did. … My generation has a responsibility to take the power and freedom they fought for and make the world a better, safer place.”

It feels contradictory to subtly distance yourself from your mentor in the same chapter where you detail the honor of following her to the Senate because your “commitment to Hillary was personal.” But really: What’s the better way? Also, it’s possible to admire a mentor and still recognize that the mentor’s spouse has done ugly things. Many people have unfortunately had to accept help or a job from someone they know has behaved badly. (Or at least I have, from gatekeepers whose odiousness I’ve experienced firsthand, everywhere from restaurants to magazines.)

Gillibrand has placed her gender at the forefront of her campaign in more intangible ways as well. Ever since her campaign announcement in January on “The Late Show With Stephen Colbert,” when she told the host that she would “fight for other people’s kids as hard as I would fight for my own,” she’s played up her role as a mother. “Your biggest responsibility as the president is to protect the country,” she tells me. “I think there’s a responsibility to make sure everyone has what they need to thrive and survive. One of the biggest worries I have right now is that President Trump’s divided us on every racial, religious, socioeconomic line he could find. He does it purposefully to demean the vulnerable and to diminish the weak. That enrages me as” — what else? — “a mother, and it enrages me as a public servant that someone could be so cruel.”

In Cedar Rapids, Iowa, she’s asked how she would deal with Trump during a debate. “Exactly as I would a spoiled child,” she says. “When he starts to loom over me, I will say, ‘Your space is over there.’ When he interrupts me, I will say, ‘Excuse me, it’s not your turn. Wait your turn.’ I don’t think name-calling is as effective as actually calling out the behavior for what it is.”

In person, Gillibrand is indeed maternal. Not quite warm, exactly, but caring — like she might help you through your problems, not hug you while you cry. In Iowa, I was struck by the ubiquitous presence of Gillibrand’s son Henry — impossibly well-behaved on a Take Your Child to Work summer. Henry has been a teaching aid since he was in utero, when Gillibrand spent 12 hours on the floor of the House before leaving to give birth, her exit cheered by the standing room full of congressmen.

During a Memorial Day weekend takeover of Gillibrand’s Instagram account, Henry records a video in the Scratch Cupcakery in Cedar Falls, explaining why his mom will be a great president: “She’s kind, she’s nice to other people, she’s thoughtful and caring.” A cynic could call him a shield. When Gillibrand recounts an early congressional race, she says, “we learned that you actually can’t win with negative ads against a woman with an infant and a toddler. Because no one believes you.”

I asked Gillibrand whether she deliberately frames her presidency in the context of motherhood because that’s the singular kind of female authority almost everyone accepts, and she told me, “It may be.” But she also said, “I just know it’s who I am.” Watching her deliver a Family Bill of Rights next to a son who’s received the benefit of her protection, it’s hard not to imagine what America could be like if a maternal figure — even one who lacks added entertainment value — were looking out for us, too.

Gillibrand with her husband, Jonathan, and younger son, Henry. (Joshua Lott for The Washington Post)

Gillibrand’s camp spins her abysmal numbers — polling at 1 percent at the most, with national name recognition averaging in the mid-50s — as a positive thing. “Public polling shows that the majority of Democratic voters don’t yet have an opinion of Senator Gillibrand,” says national press secretary Evan Lukaske. “Those Democrats who do know her view her favorably. This represents a tremendous opportunity going forward, given that voters’ attention will increase dramatically as we head into debate season. We believe we’re well positioned to continue introducing Kirsten to voters.”

Still, it’s difficult to fill in the ballot bubble next to a candidate’s name if you don’t know what that name is. When I bring up Gillibrand’s dismal polling numbers on the couch in D.C., she smiles widely. “When you poll in New York, there’s still typically between 20 and 30 percent of the state who don’t know who I am,” she says. “Nationally, you’ll have that challenge exponentially.” This comes off as both an understatement and enormous problem, especially given the growing awareness of, say, South Bend, Ind., Wunder-Mayor Pete Buttigieg, or even non-politician Andrew Yang.

The reality is that you have to be a thirsty little Rube Goldberg machine to get voters’ attention: horn-tooting credentials triggering locally appealing policy proposals, which then set off national news coverage, which inspires campaign donations. So far, none of this has really been Gillibrand’s strength. (Her most notable moment during the second night of the first Democratic debates came when she assigned a speaking order to the female candidates being talked over by the men onstage: “Kamala, then Marianne.”) Gillibrand is most compelling and genuine when she’s listening, and has yet to figure out how to retain that magic in the transformation from input to output.

If Warren is known as the primary’s policy manufacturer and Buttigieg its smart mayor, Gillibrand’s vanilla status may come, at least partially, from her almost humor-repellant literalness; as Jonathan tells me in Iowa Falls, she can be a little “lawyerly.” This has not gone unnoticed: In a good-natured segment on Showtime’s late-night series “Desus & Mero” shot in Gillibrand’s hometown of Troy, N.Y., a “ding” sound accompanies moments when she doesn’t get a joke or understand slang. “If you become president, hire us as your street consultants,” says Desus Nice. “Yeah, I will,” Gillibrand says, adding, “if you’re eligible to be hired.” Ding!

To counteract this, Gillibrand has allowed herself to be the subject of a well-documented series of winning encounters. After drinking neat whiskey on “Desus & Mero” — a consumable she will later tell the New York Times is her “comfort food” — Gillibrand went to an April drag show at Des Moines gay bar the Blazing Saddle and contoured backstage with the queens. Later that month, she tweeted a video of herself playing beer pong. Her walkout song is “Good as Hell” by Lizzo, which she sings a cappella at a May campaign event in Cedar Rapids.

A February incident at an Iowa City restaurant generated the most viral moment of her primary race so far. During a campaign event, a young woman squeezes up to Gillibrand, who reaches down to acknowledge someone seemingly coming to address the candidate. The woman slips away, saying, “Sorry, I’m just trying to get some ranch.” A T-shirt followed — “Just trying to get some ranch” — which Gillibrand procured and wore in the chest-press Instagram post that inspired me to ask her to work out. College and Young Democrats of Iowa President Olivia Habinck tweeted, “OK WHY IS KIRSTEN GILLIBRAND RIPPED” and challenged her to an arm-wrestling match, which Gillibrand (obviously) won.

Gillibrand tries on sunglasses at a vintage store between campaign events in Cedar Falls, Iowa, in May. (Joshua Lott for The Washington Post)
A supporter in Iowa carries a Gillibrand poster. (Joshua Lott for The Washington Post)
From left: Gillibrand tries on sunglasses at a vintage store between campaign events in Cedar Falls, Iowa, in May; a supporter in Iowa carries a Gillibrand poster. (Photos by Joshua Lott for The Washington Post)

The ability to be a genial subject of memes is an odd — but, in 2019, perhaps necessary — road to the Oval Office. Gillibrand’s staff tries to sell her as a good time, telling me how much they love drinking with her after work. (I ask an aide if I can join Gillibrand for a neat whiskey and am smoothly deflected, though the senator extends an open invitation to her favorite Troy bar.) The team keeps insisting on how wild and unpredictable she is; when asked for an example of her impulsiveness, Lukaske tells me that she once requested they pull her car over so she could go sledding with a child.

Jonathan Gillibrand says that wandering through the vintage and cupcake stores of a place like Cedar Falls is just the sort of thing they’d be doing on a weekend if they weren’t campaigning. And Gillibrand does look relaxed as she puts on a temporary tattoo and tries on sunglasses with Henry. But whimsically enjoying a small town with your son, husband and half-a-dozen-ish campaign staffers can seem a little forced when there are two photographers documenting it. Publicly displaying private moments is the necessary Catch-22 of political campaigns and reality shows.

So I am prepared to be slightly mortified when Gillibrand takes the pulpit at the Mount Carmel Missionary Baptist Church in Waterloo, to deliver what immediately becomes clear is going to be an actual sermon given by a white New York politician in an Iowan church she does not belong to, in a room that appears to be exclusively filled with black congregants. Though Pastor Frantz Whitfield introduces her as his friend — admittedly just of, he says, “the last several months” — there’s a clear potential for this to drift into pandering. “I had received a phone call from Reverend [Al] Sharpton,” Whitfield says. “About five minutes after he called, she called my phone and she said, ‘When Reverend Sharpton says to call you, you better be on the phone and calling.’ ” The pastor hands Gillibrand the mic, and the room dutifully applauds.

“I think all of us are called, as Christians, to do what’s right,” Gillibrand says, starting slow, the vowels long and holy. “In fact, in Matthew, it calls us to be both the salt of the earth and the light of the world. And the salt of the earth means we are called to preserve what’s good. If we lose our saltiness, we have no use.” Gillibrand’s non-mic hand starts swooping wider than her usual controlled gesticulations, conducting the chorus of her words. “We’re called to be the light of the world … [just] as a town built on a hill cannot be hidden, neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl. Instead, they put it on a stand. It gives light to everyone in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your father in heaven.”

It’s clear the weekly bipartisan Bible study she attends on Tuesday mornings isn’t just some extracurricular to brag about. If I’m a bit shocked by her performance, it’s by the fact that it isn’t actually a performance. Gillibrand keeps telling us exactly who she is, and we keep looking over her shoulder for someone more entertaining, more strident, more meme-worthy. But here she stands, a no-kidding woman of God, literally shouting the good word — and Mount Carmel is shouting back. They’re quieter when Gillibrand calls out political lines that don’t quite have that sacred flow: “Will we take on the maternal mortality rate in this country? Will we make sure that businesses and start-ups get access to capital regardless if it’s women-owned, regardless if it’s minority-owned?” But when Gillibrand finishes 10 minutes later, the congregation cheers as Whitfield hugs her, apparently stunned. “I don’t need to preach today,” he says, brows raised heavenward. “I can take my robe off. Amen.”

Gillibrand keeps telling us exactly who she is, and we keep looking over her shoulder for someone more entertaining, more strident, more meme-worthy.
(Stephen Voss for The Washington Post)

In Charles City, Iowa, the day before Gillibrand takes us to church, a man asks the senator, “Do I have a right to defend myself and my family and my house?” Gillibrand, standing in cowboy boots at the front of a tiny office crammed with about 60 people, nods.

“Do I have a right to kill?” he shoots back.

Gillibrand’s omnipresent encouraging smile evaporates as she chooses her response, squinting as she seems to look for a path that will alienate neither him nor the crowd. “If they’re knocking on the door because they broke down and need help with their car,” she says carefully, “no.” (Gillibrand is referencing Renisha McBride, a 19-year-old black woman in Michigan who was fatally shot in November 2013 by Theodore Wafer, a white man, while seeking help after a car crash.)

“I didn’t say that,” the man in the crowd says. “If they broke into my house and they have guns —”

“Yes,” Gillibrand says, increasingly wary. “Right to self-defense exists in our state laws and our federal laws. It always exists.”

“Now last summer, a kid was raped and stabbed to death down here in Iowa,” the man says, invoking another murdered young woman: 20-year-old University of Iowa student Mollie Tibbetts. “If she would have had a gun — ”

The room issues a susurrus of horror at the implication that Tibbetts, who could have legally bought a gun, was complicit in her assault and death because she wasn’t properly armed. Gillibrand sees what she must do.

“I don’t think arming students and arming teachers is smart,” Gillibrand says, surer and louder with each sentence. “I just don’t. It would be better if the people who did have access to weapons are responsible, law-abiding gun owners. But right now, because of the NRA, that’s not the case. Criminals can get such easy access to weapons. Do you believe in law enforcement?” Gillibrand asks this in a way that could persuade even a Trump voter. “Do you believe in our law enforcement being able to have a voice? Well, they asked — they begged — ‘Please have a federal anti-trafficking law.’ And you know who stands in the way? The NRA. Because they do not care about anyone except gun sales. It’s the definition of greed.”

Gillibrand is nearly as loud as she will be in church. “I don’t want criminals to have [guns],” she says. “I don’t want people who are gravely mentally ill [to have them]. I don’t want a young man who’s had mental illness his whole life to be able to walk in and buy an assault rifle at a store because it’s available to anybody.” She sounds as honest and aggrieved as any candidate you’ve heard when she says, her voice piercing as a Lizzo flute solo, “It’s not okay.”

I liked being weight-trained by Gillibrand. I find her policies pragmatic and her response to the people she encounters empathic. I feel comforted that her literal style and purposeful motherliness have not been crowdsourced into something more entertaining. In other words, I like the things about Gillibrand that are probably going to keep her from coming anywhere close to the White House.

Perhaps not surprisingly, as she sings the virtue of gun control to the climaxing fervor of her audience in Charles City, Gillibrand can’t help herself: What if she can still win over the firearm enthusiast? Before the crowd can go wild, she cuts them off with a disclaimer. “There’s nothing wrong with the Second Amendment,” she says, rushed and low and responsible, like she’s listing the side effects at the end of a commercial for Gillibrex. “We can protect the Second Amendment.”

Then Gillibrand returns to her aria. “What’s wrong,” she says, yelling into the mic and pointing at the room, “is greed and corruption at the heart of Washington!” It’s not the most interesting line in the history of politics. But for now, if anyone is bored by Gillibrand, you can’t tell over the cheering.

Anna Peele is a writer in New York.

Credits: Story by Anna Peele. Designed by Christian Font. Photo Editing by Dudley M. Brooks.