Displays of genuine bipartisanship in the Senate are rare these days. It’s even rarer for a Democrat to gain support from both establishment Republicans and Tea Party loyalists.
Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY), however, was able to do just that recently – and on a controversial issue to boot.
Last year Gillibrand, who chairs the Senate Armed Services Subcommittee on Personnel, introduced a proposal to remove the prosecution of sexual assault cases in the U.S. military from the chain of command. Her argument was that the victims of sexual assault have no faith that their commanders will handle the cases fairly.
In a vote last month, 54 senators agreed with her. Among those supporting the reforms were Rand Paul (R-KY) and Ted Cruz (R-TX), as well as Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) and Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY). That still wasn’t enough to overcome the 60-vote threshold needed to proceed – yet Gillibrand was seen as victorious and not just for winning over Republicans.
“This is not an issue she picked up on cynically to try to make a name for herself,” Norman Ornstein, a political scientist and resident congressional scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, told the Times Union. “Anyone who's talked to her knows she feels deeply about it.”
A 2012 Pentagon survey of active-duty troops found that only 2,949 individuals were named in criminal reports of unwanted sexual contact, despite an estimated 26,000 cases overall. Despite the astounding figures, Defense Department officials balked at allowing independent prosecutors – who were within the military but outside the chain of command – to investigate alleged assaults.
“The brave survivors of sexual assault are our sons and daughters, husbands and our wives, and they have been betrayed by the greatest military on earth,” Gillibrand said on Tuesday. “We in Congress owe it to them to make things right.”
Taking on the Status Quo
The military sexual-assault issue is one “that kind of appalled a lot of Americans who might otherwise be alienated by [Gillibrand’s] progressive stance on a lot of things,” said Margaret Susan Thompson, an associate professor of history and political science at the Maxwell School at Syracuse University. “It enhances her credibility with people she might not otherwise be popular with.”
Gillibrand, despite setbacks, has made clear she’s not done with the sexual assault issue.
“We will continue to work harder than ever in the coming year to strengthen our military,” Gillibrand said. “We owe so much to those who bravely serve our country, and I will never quit on them.”
The matter is likely to come up again during congressional consideration of the annual defense authorization bill, which sets military policy for the next fiscal year.
“She’s in a great position of strength,” Thompson said, noting that Gillibrand can use her leverage to push other issues of concern to her, such as raising the minimum wage. “She can say she’s taken a lot of risks. I think people admire that, even if they don’t necessarily share her passion for the issue.”
A lot of that risk-taking is made possible by the relative safety of her seat.
Gillibrand, 47, stepped into national politics in 2006 when she ran against four-term Rep. John Sweeney (R-NY) in a congressional district north of Albany, where she grew up. She won by about six percentage points. Two years later, she won re-election by 24 percentage points.
Just three weeks into her second term, she was tapped to succeed Hillary Clinton in the Senate after Caroline Kennedy withdrew from consideration. At her Senate swearing-in ceremony, Gillibrand was the youngest member in the chamber. Since then she’s won re-election twice by margins of more than 25 percentage points.
Those margins didn’t come without some political maneuvering, though.
Gillibrand’s stance on gun control appears to have reversed course, at least when it comes to scorecards issued by advocacy groups. The National Rifle Association gave Gillibrand a 92 percent candidate rating on gun rights in 2008, while the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence put her at zero percent. Four years later, those ratings flipped. Some political analysts said the reversal shows the difference between running for office in an upstate congressional district and needing to appeal to a statewide audience. Since then, Gillibrand has maintained her support for certain gun-control measures.
Now Gillibrand has caught the attention of voters beyond New York.
While she may not be mentioned in the same breath as possible presidential contender Hillary Clinton, she’s at least on the public’s radar now. When a poll conducted last month by Economist/YouGov asked participants to name women other than Hillary Clinton who should run for president in 2016 or 2020, Gillibrand was one of eight names to garner at least one percent of the tally. Sarah Palin, the 2008 Republican vice presidential nominee, received the most votes.
In addition to Hillary Clinton, Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D-NY) is considered another presidential contender – and Gillibrand has ties to both. During President Bill Clinton’s administration, Gillibrand served as the special counsel to Cuomo, then the Secretary of Housing and Urban Development. Gillibrand also credits Hillary Clinton as one of two people who motivated her to get involved in politics. The other was her maternal grandmother, Polly Noonan.
In the weeks and months ahead, Gillibrand will continue to focus on the issue of sexual assaults in the military, as well as affordable childcare, sexual assaults on college campuses, and federal rules governing the workplace, according to her aide, Glen Caplin.
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