WASHINGTON – To hear Sen. Kirsten E. Gillibrand tell it, the #MeToo moment is part of something far larger than the fight against sexual impropriety. It's part of a new activist political movement that's just starting to show its strength on issue after issue.
And it could be part of something larger for Gillibrand, too.
New York's junior senator is running for re-election and won't discuss the possibility of seeking the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination. And while Gillibrand's willingness to criticize fellow Democrats has angered some in her own party, political pros say there's no doubt that Gillibrand's leading-edge role in the fight against sexual assault and harassment has enhanced her stature nationwide.
The Washington Post recently ranked her fourth on its list of top potential Democratic candidates in 2020, behind only Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont, former Vice President Joe Biden and Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts. Three months earlier, the Post ranked Gillibrand sixth — but that was before President Trump took to Twitter to say she would "do anything" for campaign contributions.
Reflecting on Trump's tweet, Post blogger Aaron Blake wrote: "It's difficult to imagine a bigger gift when it comes to raising Gillibrand's profile in advance of a 2020 run for the Democratic nomination."
For her part, though, Gillibrand prefers talking about the fight against sexual misconduct – and how it is part of a larger movement of people finding their political voices in opposition to Trump.
In a recent interview with The Buffalo News, Gillibrand said this movement started with Trump's election and began to come together at the Women's March that followed his inauguration.
"That moment in time was about being heard — about having the courage and the determination to stand up and be heard, perhaps, for many participants, for the first time in their lives," she said. "And that has not ended. And so you have seen this enormous push across the last few months about fighting against the health care bill, fighting against issues you don’t agree with."
The #MeToo movement is part of that, Gillibrand said. After several women accused movie producer Harvey Weinstein of sexual assault, at least 46 other men have seen their careers collapse in the wake of allegations of sexual impropriety. And they did so, she said, because of the larger tenor of the times, which is encouraging people to speak truth to power.
"This is a watershed moment," she said. "It’s a reckoning. In industry after industry, women and men are coming forward to tell their stories and having the courage to do so."
It's certainly been a watershed moment for Gillibrand. For years, she has led Senate battles to combat sexual assault in the military and on college campuses. Now the abuse she fought seems to have happened everywhere – including in her own political party.
And again she fought back, sometimes in surprising ways. In a November interview with the New York Times, she said President Bill Clinton – a Democrat – should have resigned two decades ago after revelations of his affair with White House intern Monica Lewinsky.
Not surprisingly, the dark knight of Clinton World – longtime aide Philippe Reines – responded on Twitter, saying: “Over 20 yrs you took the Clintons’ endorsements, money, and seat. Hypocrite. Interesting strategy for 2020 primaries. Best of luck.”
Asked if she had spoken with either of the Clintons or their inner circle in the wake of that dust-up, Gillibrand said: "I don’t really want to talk about that."
But she termed Reines' comment "ridiculous" and said her comment on Bill Clinton was a sign of how she and the nation have evolved on matters of sexual misconduct.
"I really think times have changed," she said. "I think what is acceptable today is very different from what was acceptable 25 years ago, or at least what was tolerated…I certainly tolerated things 25 years ago that I would never tolerate today."
Sen. Al Franken learned that earlier this month when Gillibrand became the first Democratic senator to call for his resignation after several women accused him of unwanted touching. Several other Democratic women senators immediately joined Gillibrand's call, prompting most members of the Senate Democratic caucus – including Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer of New York – to also say that Franken should quit.
He did just that, but some Democrats are not sure he should have.
“What they did to Al was atrocious, the Democrats,” Sen. Joe Manchin, a West Virginia Democrat, told Politico earlier this month.
Gillibrand said she had not spoken to Manchin about his comments, which appeared in a story that quoted two other Democratic senators who also said they had second thoughts about forcing Franken's departure.
But she insisted that forcing Franken out was the right thing for Democrats to do.
"It was a painful few weeks leading up to it, to hear these allegations against a colleague I'm personally very fond of," Gillibrand said. "It was very painful to hear. But as these allegations continued to pile up, enough was enough."
Gillibrand said the same thing, essentially, about Trump in a Dec. 11 interview with CNN. Given that more than a dozen women have accused Trump of sexual assault over the years, "he should be fully investigated and he should resign," she said.
That prompted Trump to lash into Gillibrand on Twitter – which inadvertently enhanced her standing even among Democrats who felt she treated Franken unfairly, former Rep. John J. LaFalce said on Facebook afterwards.
"It gives her standing to take him on toe to toe," LaFalce, a Democrat from the Town of Tonawanda, said of Trump's tweet. "On this, she wins, handily. It also enables her to recover from those understandably criticizing her for calling for Sen. Franken's resignation, without either due process or any consideration of proportionality."
Hence Gillibrand's rising status in early rankings of 2020 presidential prospects.
"Gillibrand’s profile has risen in tandem with her making the prevention of sexual assaults in the military a signature issue," the conservative National Review said last month in an article that ranked her 10th among possible Democratic candidates.
Gillibrand began pushing the military to crack down on sexual assaults back in 2012
"That gives her a lot of credibility on this issue," said Lt. Gov. Kathy Hochul, also a Democrat.
Noting that Gov. Andrew Cuomo has pushed a for crackdown on campus sexual assault as well as action on other matters important to women, Hochul said: "We need voices to be heard on the federal level on this issue, and Senator Gillibrand is doing just that."
Gillibrand has done more than just that, said Jennifer Lawless, director of the Women and Politics Institute at American University.
By consistently battling sexual abuse for years – and even speaking out against members of her own party who stand accused of it – Gillibrand has shown herself to be a leading Democrat who's ahead of the curve on a major issue and not wedded to the establishment, Lawless said.
"This is the kind of issue that appeals to liberal Democratic donors," Lawless said.
If Gillibrand does want to run for president, she will have to show that her interests and accomplishments go beyond this one issue, Lawless said. But in what's expected to be a crowded Democratic field, Gillibrand's willingness to take on Trump could stand out, she added.
For her part, Gillibrand won't say much about taking on the president on the electoral battlefield.
She said all the presidential speculation is "very humbling," but added: "As I told you I really want to be re-elected to the Senate, and I am focused on my reelection. I want to earn the vote of New Yorkers because I do believe I can serve people here. So that’s what I'm hoping to do."
Cynics might view that statement as something less than an ironclad vow not to run for president in 2020. But for the time being, Gillibrand doesn't want to talk about that.
Instead she wants to talk about empowering women to act on issues they care about. That's a gospel Gillibrand has been preaching since 2010, when she started an effort called "Off the Sidelines" aimed at getting more women to run for political office.
"I don’t feel any of this is about me," Gillbrand said. "It's really about the millions of women whose voices are now being heard."