When Kirsten Gillibrand moved left on guns in 2009, she did it fast.
But Gillibrand’s transformation had already begun. The day of her appointment, she vowed to work on a bill to strengthen background checks with a fierce critic of her gun record, then-Rep. Carolyn McCarthy (D-N.Y.). The following day, she told an audience in Harlem that she could perhaps be flexible on gun control.
The new senator proved more than flexible. She voted against the NRA’s entire agenda and received an F-rating from the group by her next election, less than two years later. Her shift on guns was so rapid that it drew a word of caution from McCarthy, who became an ally.
“I remember saying to her one time, ‘Don’t change your mind so fast — learn the issue first,’ ” McCarthy said.
Gillibrand overhauled her political identity during this period, abandoning the conservative positions that made her popular upstate and embracing or even moving further left than the liberal consensus on guns, immigration, Wall Street and same-sex marriage. As the Democratic Party itself moved left, she staked out positions popular with the party’s swelling base of liberals, a posture most evident when she called for abolishing the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency. She has voted against President Trump’s agenda more than any other senator.
Gillibrand’s evolution seemed to reach its apex last week when she introduced herself as a candidate for president and a fighter for liberal values. But her shift in views from a decade ago is already raising questions among Democrats and provoking attacks from Republicans eager to define her as a flip-flopper.
Experts who have followed Gillibrand’s rise said the impression that she has hair-trigger judgment and an overriding instinct to capitalize on the political moment could prove more problematic than any one shift on policy.
“This urge to have answers now, now, now is strong and can come across as inauthentic,” said Ted Johnson, a senior fellow at the Brennan Center for Justice who has observed Gillibrand. “It’s okay to say, ‘I didn’t know.’ It’s okay to engage audiences. But it’s not okay to compensate for the not knowing and the not engaging with a super strong position immediately in order to win them over. The thing about growth is that it takes time.”
Jonathan Tasini, a labor activist and supporter of Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) who weighed a primary challenge against Gillibrand in 2010, said the Democratic left should not reflexively turn its back on candidates who have changed positions.
“The thing we have to look at is: Does the evolution make sense? Is it a whiplash evolution or does it have some content to it where you can see someone changing? I don’t know the answer, in all candor, with Kirsten Gillibrand,” he said.
Gillibrand, now 52, has often described her changes of view as epiphanies. On the subject of guns, she tells about meeting in 2009 with the parents of a Brooklyn teenager who was killed by a stray bullet. She dropped her NRA-backed positions as a result, she says.
“When you absorb any amount of someone’s pain that they’re living in that moment, it’s hard to ignore it,” Gillibrand told GQ last year. “It changed my view completely and it changed my view immediately. It wasn’t an evolution. It wasn’t a thoughtful process. It was immediate.”
Last week, she said her shifts reveal political courage.
“I think it’s important to know when you’re wrong and to do what’s right. And I will do what’s right, and I will fight for what’s right, and I don’t back down from those fights,” she said Wednesday at a news conference in Troy, N.Y.
Gillibrand has gone against her own party on a number of matters related to women. She crossed fellow Democrats with her bipartisan push to remove the adjudication of military sexual assault cases from the chain of command. The plan failed to advance to a final Senate vote in March 2014.
She alienated the Clintons and some of their allies in 2017 when she became the highest-profile elected Democrat at that point to say Bill Clinton should have resigned over his affair with Monica Lewinsky. She had previously benefited from their support, financial and otherwise.
That same year, she was the first senator to call for the resignation of Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.) after he was accused by eight women of groping or forcible kissing. Dozens of colleagues followed; Franken, who denied some allegations and said he remembered other encounters “very differently,” said the next day that he would leave the Senate.
The Franken episode angered some on the left who felt Gillibrand abandoned Franken for her own gain. Through a spokesman, Franken declined to comment for this piece.
“I will stand up for what I believe in, especially when it’s hard,” Gillibrand said Wednesday. “With Sen. Franken, it’s sad for many people, but after eight allegations of sexual harassment and groping, credible allegations at the time, I just couldn’t stay silent. My job was not to stay silent. I couldn’t defend it. . . . If some wealthy individuals — that makes them angry, that’s on them,” she said.
Susie Buell, a major Democratic donor who has criticized Gillibrand’s handling of the episode, wrote in an email to The Washington Post that she saw Gillibrand as “the leader in the force” calling for Franken’s resignation, calling it a rush to judgment “at a very intense moment.”
“It has nothing to do with wealthy people not wanting women being protected. It is about a great US senator, Al Franken, being accused and then driven out of his seat without the opportunity to defend himself. That to me is not acceptable,” Buell wrote.
Still, some liberal activists are not convinced the decision will be a problem for Gillibrand.
“If we’re going to be the party who believes women — and I think we should — Kirsten took a courageous position and that should be acknowledged,” said Neil Sroka, communications director for Democracy for America, a liberal political action committee.
Republicans have already started to hammer her.
“If you looked up ‘political opportunism’ in the dictionary, Kirsten Gillibrand’s photo would be next to it,” Republican National Committee spokesman Michael Ahrens said last week. “From jumping on the ‘abolish ICE’ bandwagon to turning on the Clintons, Gillibrand always goes where the political wind blows. Democrats know it, which is why she’s barely registering in the polls.”
Yet that ignores a central facet of Gillibrand’s policy changes: She has swung left in line with and occasionally ahead of Democratic voters, the sort of moves voters typically reward, not punish. The share of Democrats who want stricter gun laws has risen by 20 points since she embraced that view in 2009. What were once liberal views on immigration and LGBT rights have become mainstream.
In the Senate, Gillibrand has fought for the LGBT community, helping to lead the successful effort to repeal “don’t ask, don’t tell,” the policy barring military service by out gays and lesbians, and pushing legislation to stop discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity.
Her aides are particularly sensitive to her record on same-sex marriage and how it is described. Gillibrand started to vocally support same-sex marriage when she was appointed to the Senate. Under criticism at the time, she noted that she had backed a New York gay-marriage bill the previous year.
As a member of the House, Gillibrand said she personally supported same-sex marriage but argued for civil unions and letting states decide what to call them.
“I think the way you win this issue is you focus on getting the rights and privileges protected throughout the entire country, and then you do the state-by-state advocacy for having the title,” she told an LGBT publication not long before her Senate appointment, according to the Advocate.
While support for same-sex marriage is unanimous among high-ranking Democrats now, her position was common at the time among party leaders. Only two senators publicly supported same-sex marriage as of early 2008, according to Baptist Press, the news service of the Southern Baptist Convention. Gillibrand was among about six senators, all Democrats, who supported it at the time of her appointment, the news service reported. (As president, Barack Obama didn’t formally support same-sex marriage until 2012.)
Immigration represented a more dramatic shift for Gillibrand. As a House member, she opposed amnesty for undocumented immigrants and supported making English the official language and deputizing police officers to act as immigration agents. After joining the Senate, she began to support comprehensive immigration reform and a pathway to citizenship, along with other liberal priorities on immigration.
In late June, Gillibrand denounced ICE as a “deportation force” and joined calls by liberal activists to abolish it. She was the first U.S. senator to take the position, and at the time, her language put her further to the left than her potential Democratic presidential rivals. Abolishing ICE and replacing it with a different agency is now a position shared by much of the field.
“I don’t think ICE today is working as intended. . . . I believe that it has become a deportation force, and I think you should separate the criminal justice from the immigration issues,” Gillibrand said on CNN’s “Cuomo Prime Time.”
Peter Rivera, a former New York labor commissioner who in 2009 said Gillibrand’s then-
opposition to amnesty “borders on xenophobia,” said she accepted his invitation to meet with Hispanic legislators and has been “completely supportive” of their agenda ever since.
“I attacked her,” Rivera said. “I was opposed to her and she did not hold that against me. For all intents and purposes, she broke bread with me and said I want your support.”
Emily Guskin in Washington and Jenna Johnson and David Weigel in Sioux City, Iowa, contributed to this report.