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Analysis

Kirsten Gillibrand is looking toward the future. Is she ready to face her past?

Gillibrand's past stances on immigration and guns -- as well as her work with big tobacco -- are likely to come back to haunt her as she jumps into the 2020 race.

Kirsten Gillibrand's past is likely to haunt her as she jumps into the 2020 race. CREDIT: Drew Angerer/Getty Images
Kirsten Gillibrand's past is likely to haunt her as she jumps into the 2020 race. CREDIT: Drew Angerer/Getty Images

During a Tuesday night appearance on “The Late Show with Stephen Colbert,” Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) announced that she is officially running for president, joining what looks to be a crowded field of Democratic contenders.

“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,” Gillibrand said. “Which is why I believe that health care should be a right and not a privilege. It’s why I believe we should have better public schools for our kids, because it shouldn’t matter what block you grow up on. And I believe that anybody who wants to work hard enough should be able to get whatever job training they need to earn their way into the middle class.”

To accomplish any of those things, Gillibrand said Tuesday, you have to take on the “systems of power,” including institutional racism, corruption and greed in Washington, and special interests.

“I know that I have the compassion, the courage, and fearless determination to get that done,” she added.

Gillibrand’s 2020 strategy seems clear: Lay out a clear vision for a progressive future, and keep your fingerprints off anything Trump touches. Nevertheless, the Gillibrand who’ll soon be headed to Iowa for the pre-primary presidential campaign rituals is nearly unrecognizable from the Gillibrand who was first elected to the House more than a decade ago. As the 2020 field continues to grow, the one-time Blue Dog Democrat who was once best known for representing a conservative upstate district is inevitably going to have to square this past with her newly-fashioned, “progressive presidential contender” brand.

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Since President Donald Trump took office two years ago, Gillibrand has voted with him just 11.9 percent of the time, less often than any other Senate Democrat (though only about one percent less often than Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), who also recently announced her bid for the White House). Gillibrand also attracted attention in the early months of Trump’s tenure for opposing his nominees more often than any other senator, and, impressively, she alienated some tragically shortsighted bigwigs in the Democratic donor caste when she led the charge to force former Sen. Al Franken (D-MN) out of the upper chamber following sexual harassment allegations.

She supports Medicare for All, joining a long list of progressive co-sponsors of Sen. Bernie Sanders’ (I-VT) bill, and she has called for the abolition of Immigration and Customs Reform (ICE), joining a much shorter list of leftist candidates who took up the issue during the midterms.

“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 last summer. “I think you should reimagine ICE under a new agency with a very different mission and take those two missions out.”

But this position stands in stark contrast to the ones she proudly touted during her tenure as the representative of New York’s 20th District in the U.S. House. When Gillibrand first took office in 2007, she quickly joined the conservative Democratic Blue Dog coalition and made her name supporting a slew of immigration priorities that would make Trump proud.

“In Congress, Congresswoman Gillibrand has been a firm opponent of any proposal that would give amnesty to illegal aliens,” the issues page of her House website read. “The federal government must provide the necessary resources to secure our borders, which is critical for America’s economic and national security. She strongly supports legislation that would significantly increase the number of border patrol agents and place sophisticated technology along the Southern border to catch human and drug smugglers.”

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Gillibrand authored and passed an amendment that “will prevent employers who have hired illegal aliens from receiving federal contracts,” the site touted.

It continued, “In addition, Congresswoman Gillibrand believes English should be made the official language of the United States and she opposes providing non-emergency taxpayer benefits to illegal aliens.”

Screenshot of Gillibrand's website while in the House of representatives
Screenshot of Gillibrand's website while in the House of representatives

While in the House, Gillibrand also co-sponsored the “Secure America Through Verification and Enforcement Act of 2007,” a bill that a later New York Times editorial described as being “all about border fencing and requiring everyone in America to prove legal status before being allowed to work.”

And at one point, as Slate noted in 2017, the Human Rights Campaign bestowed on Gillibrand the dubious distinction of having the lowest rating of any New York Democrat in the 110th Congress for her position on LGBTQ rights. On this matter, however, she quickly evolved to emerge as a relatively early proponent of same-sex marriage in the Democratic party, beating current Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) and the woman whose Senate seat she would later fill, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, to supporting the issue. That said, a skeptical New York Times editorial board suggested in 2009 that her embrace of the issue was largely due to the fact that former New York Gov. David Paterson, who appointed her to the Senate following Clinton’s departure, was an early and strong supporter of gay marriage.

That same editorial, published not long after Gillibrand was appointed to Clinton’s seat, raised questions about Gillibrand’s history with guns: When she was appointed to the Senate, Gillibrand — who often touted the fact that she slept with two guns under her bed — held a perfect grade from the National Rifle Association.

“If I want to protect my family, if I want to have a weapon in the home, that should be my right,” she said in 2010. Gillibrand quickly fell out of the NRA’s favor and was downgraded to an F before the year’s end, an early sign of her coming reconstruction.

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Nevertheless, as recently as 2014, Gillibrand still teamed up with Republicans — in this case to push a resolution condemning Hamas. That summer, more than 1,800 Palestinians were killed by Israeli forces in just a single month.

Gillibrand’s work before holding elected office is also worth examining. As a young lawyer in the 1990’s, she represented big tobacco, helping the Philip Morris Company fight a federal perjury investigation as the Justice Department was trying to prove that industry executives had lied about the dangers of smoking.

In the years since, she and her team have downplayed her involvement in the case, saying it is just a “small part” of her legal career and that she “worked for the clients assigned to her.” She has argued that the lucrative work allowed her to take on pro bono cases defending women and children and tenants in unsafe conditions.

In a 60 Minutes interview last February, Gillibrand addressed her past more bluntly than ever before.

On guns, she said, “After I got appointed, I went down to Brooklyn to meet with families who had suffered from gun violence in their communities, and you immediately experience the feeling that I couldn’t have been more wrong—you know I only had the lens of upstate New York.”

On immigration: “I came from a district that was 98 percent white. … And I just didn’t take the time to understand why these issues mattered because it wasn’t right in front of me. And that was my fault. It was something that I’m embarrassed about and I’m ashamed of.”

But Gillibrand was hardly restricted to “the lens of upstate New York.” She had, as 60 minutes correspondent Sharyn Alfonsi noted, lived downstate in New York City, for more than a decade before representing her upstate district. While it’s refreshing to hear any politician admit being embarrassed or ashamed about their past, it’s likely not going to be a good enough answer when Gillibrand’s history inevitably comes under renewed fire.