TROY – Sen. Kirsten E. Gillibrand entered the race for the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination this week with a long record and strong message of reform – and critics who noted how often the New York Democrat has reformed her own views over the years.
A day after declaring her candidacy, Gillibrand met with the press here outside the Country View Diner, her favorite family diner. The 20-minute event put both her strengths and weaknesses in full view.
Standing in front of her mother, husband and two young sons, Gillibrand portrayed herself as a can-do reformer with both progressive views and a record of bipartisan success.
"You have to be able to take on the corruption in Washington," she said. "You have to be able to take on the special interests that write legislation in the dead of night, not for you and me, not for the people, but for those with the power. And I know that I have the compassion and the courage and the fearless determination that is necessary to get this done."
Reporters asked her again and again about her shifting stances – which, Republicans said, could be her undoing.
Once a relatively conservative House member from the Hudson Valley, she's now among the Senate's leading liberals. Most notably, she became a candidate for president only three months after saying at a debate that she would serve her full six-year term as New York’s junior senator.
"Kirsten Gillibrand's brand relies on morphing her views to fit the job," said Samantha Cotten, spokesperson for America Rising, a leading Republican super PAC. "However, with dozens of presidential hopefuls competing for the title of 'most progressive candidate,' her incessant flip-flopping will not go unrecognized by voters."
There’s little doubt, though, that Gillibrand ranks in the top tier of the more than two dozen Democrats hoping for a chance to defeat President Trump in 2020.
She has more than $10.5 million left over from her 2018 Senate campaign with which to sow the seeds of her presidential campaign, and she’s already doing so. Her Senate campaign has been transformed into a “Gillibrand 2020” website, filled with images from her career and a video that touts how much she’s accomplished in her decade in the Senate.
Meantime, Gillibrand 2020 ads started popping up on social media, capitalizing on the huge list of small donors she has made through eight years of backing female Democratic candidates nationwide. She’ll need money from small donors because she’s refusing corporate funds, refusing to take money from lobbyists and refusing to start her own super PAC to boost her campaign.
“I think it's important for people to know my values are never for sale,” she said Wednesday.
Gillibrand combines that good government message with fierce criticism of Trump and a record of accomplishment. Working with colleagues from both parties, she passed health legislation for survivors of the 9/11 terror attacks, the repeal of the “don’t ask,don’t tell” policy on gays in the military and a bill that aims to ban members of Congress from trading stocks based on inside information.
She’s also set forth a list of progressive goals that appeal to Democrats like Brian Nowak, the Cheektowaga town councilman who served as Sen. Bernie Sanders’ leading local organizer in the Sanders' upstart presidential race in 2016.
“There’s a lot to like about Kirsten Gillibrand,” Nowak said on Facebook Wednesday. “From Medicare for All to paid family leave, a federal jobs guarantee to postal banking, support for a Green New Deal and legislation to expand worker cooperatives, she’s serious about addressing the structural problems with our economy.”
Gillibrand wasn’t always so progressive. Serving in the House, she was so pro-gun that she kept one under her bed. She criticized illegal immigration at the time, but last year said she wanted to abolish Immigration and Customs Enforcement, the agency at the heart of Trump’s immigration crackdown.
Republicans also noted that while Gillibrand is no longer taking corporate PAC money now, she’s taken $4.9 million of it over her political career.
To hear Erie County Republican Chairman Nicholas A. Langworthy tell it, Gillibrand’s reversal on whether she would run for president proves that she is “a liar.”
Asked what she would say to a voter who distrusted her because of her shifting stances, Gillibrand said: "I just would tell them to look at my heart."
That’s what she did herself, she said. After she became a U.S. senator, she started meeting with victims of gun violence, and soon, she said, she became convinced she had to do something to help them.
Similarly, she said, her heart told her it was the right time to run for president, to offer voters a strong and proven alternative to Trump.
"President Trump has chosen to tear this country apart against all racial lines, all religious lines, every division, every line you can find," Gillibrand said. "And that is what we have to fight against."
While she was focused on the 2018 election and not 2020 last year, now she's had another change of heart.
"This sense of urgency has only grown in me," she said.