The liberal senator from New York, Kirsten Gillibrand

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Kirsten Gillibrand. (Via Kirsten Gillibrand's official website.)
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Kirsten Gillibrand got a surprise in late February when the Obama administration announced, in a procedural about-face, that it would no longer defend the Defense of Marriage Act against legal challenges.

Gillibrand had already produced a draft of a letter addressed to U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder, and had circulated it among other senators she hoped would attach their names to it, under hers. "We strongly urge you to make clear that sexual orientation discrimination by the government should be presumed unconstitutional," the now-moot letter said.

It was just two years ago that, as a prospective appointee to Hillary Clinton's Senate seat, Kirsten Gillibrand essentially had to audition for liberal interest groups wary of her for her opposition to strict gun control and amnesty for illegal immigrants, the very positions that had made her so popular in her conservative House district upstate.

Now that she's won statewide election by a 26-point margin, and has no credible challengers on the horizon for next year, when she'll run for a full term, it's becoming clearer what she intends to do with the remarkable political opportunity she has been given. In the tradition of Jacob Javits, Robert Wagner and Herbert Lehman—and in contrast to Charles Schumer, the Senate Democrats' de facto chief national electoral strategist, who has devoted much of his public-facing energy to aggressively nonideological battles for middle-class swing voters—Kirsten Gillibrand is going to be the liberal Senator from New York.

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"The reason why I'm here is because I really want to help people," she said, in an interview in her 26th-floor office on Third Avenue in midtown. "And I think I can be an advocate for issues and causes, for individuals on things that frankly don't get enough attention nationally, don't get enough attention on the legislative agenda."

That's the neat, very deliberate formulation Gillibrand has been using for a while now to describe the way she sees her role in the Senate. It sounds a progressive note while leaving her room for the sort of evolution that was always going to be a part of her political development as she tried to find a way to co-exist with Schumer—without either stepping on his turf or being reduced to functioning as his high-pitched echo.

But the contours of a discreet, coherent Gillibrand Agenda are now clear, highlighted—at least as far as the national press will be concerned—by aggressive advocacy of the liberal-wing position on issues like gender equality in the workplace, gun control, immigration and gay rights. She will sponsor and push hard for incremental economic-relief and local-stimulus measures. And she will use her seat on the Armed Services Committee to begin pressing the administration for a prompter exit strategy in Afghanistan.

Asked in the interview about her aspirational agenda for the rest of the current congressional cycle, Gillibrand, who wore a black skirt-suit (she had interviews with major media outlets that day, too), she unspooled an action-packed, eight-minute response identifying a raft of "common-sense" economic measures focused on small businesses, distressed families and veterans; the need to address the persistent issue of low salaries for women; immigration reform, the failure of which she called "the most disappointing thing in the last two years;" and an unfinished push for gay rights.

"I really am focused on civil liberties," she said. "As you know, I pushed really hard for the repeal of 'don't ask, don't tell.' I think we should strive for equality in our community and not allow any discrimination by the federal government. So we're working right now on DOMA—repeal of the Defense of Marriage Act.

"I was really excited when the president decided not to enforce the constitutionality—appeal the constitutionality arguments, which was fantastic. But that's good because that's all part of the advocacy of keeping gay rights on the national agenda, and sort of have a drumbeat effect of every issue keep challenging it and pushing it forward because every success along the way helps leverage more success on a state case or some other—whether it's Proposition 8 or marriage equality here in New York."

It hasn't always been easy to tell when Gillibrand's energetic advocacy for gay rights has been a catalyst for incremental progress in gay causes in Washington or just an incidental lead indicator of it. But she's able to make a good case.

She came out, without qualification, for gay marriage in all 50 states. She was also out in front of her party advocating a legislative repeal of "don't ask, don't tell," when some gay-rights advocacy groups thought, at best, that it might be possible to get an executive order that left the law on the books but forbade the military to enforce it.

She doesn't see the victories on these issues as cause for letting up.

"I think on equality in and of itself we have a long way to go, so this fight is not even close to being over," she said. "Not only do you have to repeal DOMA but then we have to guarantee marriage equality in all 50 states and there are federal things that I think you could do to move that forward. For example you could repeal DOMA as your first step because that defines marriage as between a man and a woman, so you need to repeal that completely. And then you really need to fight for civil marriage benefits on a federal level for all married couples.

"Now that is important, to create a strategy; and this is something—I'm just working with the groups now—how do we create a strategy to guarantee all federal rights and priviliges to all civil marriages? And actually creating that strategy and the vehicle to make that happen is something we haven't figured out yet. But I'm going to do that. That's what I'm going to do in the next year."

Her effectiveness with the blur-of-activity strategy on gay rights—as well as with her successful pushes, often with Schumer, for more parochial victories, like passage of the Zadroga 9/11 Bill, which secured billions of dollars in health care money for first responders—has been made possible her (and her advisers') ability to spot market opportunities and seize them.

Schumer takes up a lot of room in New York and Washington, but he derives much of his immense national influence from his successes as a two-cycle Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee chair—a role he continues to play, even with a broader party-leadership brief. His political aim, for himself, is merely to be the guy who figured out how to create a lasting Democratic hegemony by making it the undisputed party of the American middle class in the purple states.

Gillibrand has been carving the working-mom niche to distinguish her voice from Schumer's right from the beginning. But it's Schumer's own preoccupation with other things that has left Gillibrand room in New York (presumably with Schumer's hearty approval) on gay- and women's rights, to add to her brief on homeland security—an inheritance from her interest in those issues as the congresswoman for a veteran-heavy district.

Gillibrand's expanding footprint is also a function of the fact that she's responding a very particular set of political needs. Her challenge is the mirror image of the one faced by her predecessor, Hillary Clinton, who arrived in New York with universal name-recognition, and who as senator was constantly seeking to prove both that she was tougher and less partisan than her political opponents and the press made her out to be. Gillibrand, by contrast, was a gun-defending, sharp-elbowed moderate-to-conservative Democrat when she was in the House, and was unknown outside her district; she had effectively abstained from contentious debates about gay rights. 

Her task, as a new senator, was to prove to constituencies that held little sway in the 20th district—gay-rights organizations, black and Latino Democratic officials—that she was actually on their side.

This tacking left has occasionally put her on the other side of arguments with other Democratic officials, some of whom don't have constituencies in which a fight over gay rights (or women's rights, or guns) is the slam dunk it is here, and who may even find her constant whipsawing to be inconvenient, if not downright impertinent.

Gillibrand is OK with that, too.

"It needs constant pressure," she said. "With all civil-rights battles, some people will think it's more convenient to do it at another time."

She also said, "I make the very simple argument, what about equality do you like—I mean what about discrimination do you like? What about inequality do you like?"

Was this actually an argument she would ever have made to her colleagues, or to the Obama administration, in private?

"No, because the administration supports gay rights, so I would say, 'What can we do together?'"

But until recently ...

"I would also say 'what can we do together,'" she interrupted, with a laugh. "Because they believe in it, they believe in equal rights, and pressure comes from different points."

Asked what other issues she felt her fellow Democrats could use some pressure on going forward, she said, without hesitation, "Women's rights. I think women's rights has fallen off the face of the earth and no one wants to pick it back up. Honestly I think it is something that so many people believe that we need equality for women in this country, believe that equal pay is smart, believe that women shouldn't be discriminated against, that women in public life matter, but there's very little happening on the political landscape to really change the status quo."

She said the party needed to do more to engage women voters, and to get more women elected to Congress.

Asked whether there could possibly be resistance within the party to doing such things, she said, "I don't think there's resistance to talking about it, but there's resistance to doing it—do you understand? You can die a slow death by just not doing something and I feel that's what's happened to the women's movement in the last decade."

She said that the party's leaders (who are not women) simply "might be less sensitive to it—I think that's why you need more women in government."

Gillibrand thinks that need is particularly acute now, with the House in the hands of a highly ornery Republican majority.

"The Republican Party is focused entirely on undermining women's rights and reproductive health," she said. "They have put forward various bills, one to defund planned parenthood—which means defund prenatal care—defund basic health care for at-risk women, cancer screenings, and access to reproductive health care. So it's not just addressing abortion. They're addressing every safety net that women have for their health and wellbeing of their children."

I asked whether she thought the White House had been responding forcefully enough to Republican assaults on the Obama-Democratic agenda.

For the first time in the interview, she hesitated.

Finally, she said, "I think the president is rightly focused on the economy, because I think it is the most destabilizing aspect for any family right now, and I thought his state of the union was pitch-perfect because it really did focus on a vision for how we're going to turn the economy around ... I will welcome his support for every one of the women's rights, civil rights, gay rights issues that I care deeply about, but I think as a president, and as really creating the national agenda, his focus on the economy is exactly where it needs to be."

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