The Shape-Shifter

Kirsten Gillibrand's name is being floated as a progressive 2020 presidential candidate. But her record shows she's a poor tribune for anti-Trump resistance.

New York senator Kirsten Gillibrand at a Third Way panel in 2013. Third Way Think Tank / Flickr

New York senator Kirsten Gillibrand has had a banner few months.

She racked up the best record on Donald Trump’s cabinet nominees, opposed Neil Gorsuch’s Supreme Court nomination, railed against Trump’s immigration executive order, and grilled his appointees in widely shared videos. She was even singled out by the Trump team — along with Vermont senator Bernie Sanders and, of all people, New Jersey senator Cory Booker — as one of the “radical liberals” blocking his anti-Muslim travel ban.

Now her name is being floated as a progressive presidential candidate in 2020.

Gillibrand — who has consciously positioned herself as an elite face of “the Resistance” in the wake of Trump’s election — has some good spots on her record. She led efforts to curb sexual assault in the military, pushed to get the 9/11 first responders bill passed, campaigned to end Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell and the Defense of Marriage Act, and has been advancing a paid family leave bill for years.

But if we’re going to remember Gillibrand’s voting record on Trump appointees in 2020, we should also remember some of the less laudable aspects of her political career.

1. She has questionable political connections.

They say you are the company you keep. Kirsten Gillibrand keeps some curious company.

Gillibrand cut her teeth interning for former Republican senator and state GOP boss Alfonse D’Amato, an associate of her father. D’Amato is probably best known for hounding the Clintons in the 1990s with his Whitewater investigations into their alleged real estate shenanigans in Arkansas. He was also a law-and-order Republican who inserted proposals into an anti-crime bill that would have allowed gun murders to be punishable by death and placed a mandatory thirty-year sentence on any crime carried out with a firearm that involved federal authorities. He now makes his living as a powerful lobbyist.

D’Amato and Gillibrand have remained close over the years despite their respective party affiliations. He enjoyed a prominent place at her first senatorial press conference — which the late journalist Wayne Barrett called a “not-so-subtle advertisement of his influence” meant to benefit his lobbying firm — and authored a gushing piece on Gillibrand for Time’s 2014 “100 Most Influential People” issue.

After jumping from the House to the Senate in 2009, Gillibrand settled in under the tutelage of former law-and-order Democrat and forever Wall Street–friendly senator Chuck Schumer. Now the Senate’s minority leader, Schumer is often cited as Gillibrand’s “mentor,” pushing behind the scenes for then–New York governor David Paterson to select her to fill Hillary Clinton’s vacated seat and subsequently shaping her early political “evolution.”

Speaking of Clinton, the former senator and presidential candidate is another one of Gillibrand’s mentors. Gillibrand has cited Clinton as the reason she got into politics, and the two quickly developed a close relationship. She acted as one of Clinton’s surrogates during the last presidential campaign, and according to emails released by WikiLeaks, the campaign deployed her to stop congressional candidate Zephyr Teachout from being “too vocal” in her support for Sanders in the Democratic primary and to harangue Elizabeth Warren when she was “not being effusive enough or critical” of Clinton.

Finally, there’s former New York mayor Michael Bloomberg. Though the two aren’t close, it’s not for lack of trying on Gillibrand’s part. Bloomberg, the centrist billionaire who oversaw stop-and-frisk and the NYPD’s surveillance of Muslims, among other things, reportedly disliked Gillibrand so much his advisors were in talks with potential challengers. Gillibrand said she didn’t “get it,” but was undeterred and seemed “determined to win over Mr. Bloomberg,” according to a New York Times report. They later appeared together at an event for No Labels, a “post-partisan” centrist group.

2. She’s “evolved” in record time.

Most politicians shift their positions when it’s convenient. But the speed of Gillibrand’s flip flops on a number of fundamental issues raises questions about how far she’s willing to take her much-publicized opposition to Trump.

Before her appointment to the Senate, Gillibrand was a Blue Dog Democrat through and through. Representing a House district in Upstate New York, she backed the Bush tax cuts and voted to expand government surveillance every chance she got (this continued to 2015, with CISA, a bill that allowed companies to pass their customers’ data to the government). She opposed gay marriage and bragged that her voting record was “one of the most conservative in the state.” As late as 2009, she was referred to as an “ostensibly non-liberal Democratic congresswoman” and a “conservative Democrat.”

Gillibrand’s record on immigration deserves special mention. Before taking up her Senate post, Gillibrand came out against giving undocumented immigrants a path to citizenship and opposed then–New York governor Eliot Spitzer’s plan to allow undocumented immigrants access to drivers licenses. In 2007, she cosponsored the SAVE Act, which significantly beefed up border patrols, required all employers to check the immigration status of their employees through a flawed computer database, established monetary rewards for anyone who helped catch an undocumented immigrant trying to obtain falsified documents, and turned local police into an arm of federal immigration enforcement.

She supported financially penalizing sanctuary cities, the same thing now on Trump’s wish list. And she wanted to make English the United States’ “official language.”

These positions would haunt Gillibrand for some time. In December 2010, the Spanish-language New York newspaper El Diario ran a cover story on Gillibrand titled “ANTI IMMIGRANTE,” and quoted Gillibrand’s own website boasting about her anti-immigration stances. One Hispanic assemblyman criticized Gillibrand for having a “hard-line stand” that “borders on xenophobia.”

Yet there was never any doubt in the minds of Gillibrand’s backers that she would renounce her beliefs as soon as she entered the Senate chambers. “Her views will evolve,” Schumer assured the crowd at her appointment announcement. Gillibrand agreed, saying, “I think on some issues my positions will change. Others will become simply broader.”

And sure enough, Gillibrand carried out a comically quick evolution. She immediately came out in favor of gay marriage. After meeting with the New York Immigration Coalition, she announced her support for a moratorium on government raids, for clearing the backlog of entry applications for immigrant families and reducing the waiting time, and for a path to citizenship in the temporary worker program.

Many, including Gillibrand, credit her “listening tour” of New York — which she embarked on before coming to the Senate — for her change of heart. “I did expand my views on immigration, mostly because I did not have a large immigrant community in my district,” Gillibrand said in 2010.

The more likely explanation for her shift is that she faced a challenge from activists and other politicians. She was immediately made aware of several potential primary challenges for her seat. She was explicitly told by representatives of the governor that she would only be given the Senate seat if she improved her standing with gay rights groups, at which point she phoned the executive director of the Empire State Pride Agenda and expressed her support for gay marriage. And, of course, knowing she would be answering to a more left-leaning set of voters must have helped.

On the one hand, this shows that Gillibrand isn’t implacably opposed to taking more progressive stands. But more importantly, it indicates that she’s less a torchbearer for anti-Trump resistance than a garden variety ladder-climber. How, after all, can a politician whose past positions on immigration rival — and in some cases mirror — Donald Trump’s lead a far-reaching fight against political reaction?

3. She’s bad on Israel.

Upon ascending to the Senate, Gillibrand said she would “offer what I think is the best policy, regardless of what [Israeli prime minister Benjamin] Netanyahu says is what he wants to do.”

Turns out the “best policy” is unwavering support for anything and everything the Israeli government does.

As early as April 2009, Gillibrand met with Robert Cohen, one of the board members of the right-wing group AIPAC, to talk Israeli policy. Members of AIPAC are now regular visitors to Gillibrand’s offices, according to her public schedule.

In 2013, Gillibrand appeared at AIPAC’s annual conference alongside John McCain, who told attendees she had “done a magnificent job in defense of the state of Israel.”

Indeed she has. After Israeli forces raided the unarmed, nonviolent Gaza Freedom Flotilla in 2010 (which resulted in a US citizen’s summary execution), she helped draft a letter calling on Obama to investigate whether one of the flotilla groups should be labeled a foreign terrorist organization. She signed on to the resolution expressing US support for Israel during its horrific 2014 devastation of Gaza, and later spoke out against the UN Human Rights Council’s inquiry into Israeli war crimes during the conflict.

While Gillibrand insisted that Obama pressure Arab leaders to resume peace talks, she has been silent on the illegal settlements in occupied territory, the single biggest roadblock to a peaceful resolution. In fact, she’s gone further, actively opposing any measures aimed at preventing continued settlement building.

Gillibrand criticized the call from the UN Human Rights Council’s special rapporteur for a boycott of companies in illegal settlements (and called for his removal), criticized a food-labeling measure by the EU that mandated that products made in the settlements be labeled as such, and worked with Schumer to rebuke the UN Security Council’s condemnation of the illegal settlements early this year.

She’s also opposed the Palestinian bid for statehood, calling it a “harmful distraction” and teamed up with Marco Rubio to push Obama to block the Palestinian Authority’s attempts to join the International Criminal Court. While Gillibrand’s office frequently puts out press releases about violence directed at Israel, you’d be hard-pressed to find a single generic statement regarding Israeli attacks on Palestinians, whether vigilante or state-sanctioned.

Schumer and Clinton must be proud.

4. She’s best friends with Wall Street.

Another thing Gillibrand appears to have inherited from Schumer and Clinton is her chumminess with Wall Street.

The New York senator seems to have not only decided that finance money is essential to a successful political career in the state, but that she needed prodigious fundraising prowess to go with it. Gillibrand’s been called an “unstoppable machine when she works the room,” and once attended nineteen fundraising events in three days. She’s often ranked as one of the Senate’s top fundraisers, usually behind — who else? — Schumer.

She raised nearly $16 million in 2012, besting her opponent by a ratio of twenty to one. In 2010, she brought in $13 million.

“Raising money,” Gillibrand told Newsweek in 2011, “is the very same effort as developing a grassroots advocacy.”

So who makes up this “grassroots advocacy”? Her biggest givers are lawyers, lobbyists, and members of the FIRE (finance, insurance, and real estate) industries. While Gillibrand’s top two individual donors have always been her former law firms, there are some other, familiar names on the list: Morgan Stanley, Goldman Sachs, JP Morgan Chase, and Blackstone Group all rank consistently high on her top twenty, and UBS, Deutsche Bank, and Citigroup have also made appearances. In fact, Goldman Sachs gave more money to Gillibrand than any other congressperson in 2011 and 2012.

According to leaked emails, Clinton’s campaign wanted to use Gillibrand as proof that financial donations aren’t necessarily corrupting. She may not have been the best choice.

To her credit, Gillibrand did vote against the bank bailout three times. But she also tried to undermine the Lincoln Amendment, an addition to the Dodd-Frank financial reform bill that barred any institutions assisted by the federal government from trading in derivatives, the risky financial instruments that played a major role in the US housing crash.

The five largest US banks had made a total of $23 billion off of derivatives trading in 2009. So unsurprisingly, Goldman Sachs, one of Gillibrand’s top donors, launched a major lobbying campaign to kill the measure.

Initially, Gillibrand put forward an amendment that weakened the ban, before thinking better of it. Her spokesman told Salon at the time she had merely filed it as a procedural measure in case she wanted to bring the issue up in the future, but decided she “supports the package as written.”

A year later, Gillibrand was part of a group of lawmakers warning federal regulators not to impose new rules on derivatives because they would make US financial firms uncompetitive internationally. In 2013, she, Schumer, and four other Democratic senators wrote to the treasury secretary asking that new guidelines that would have expanded the scope of derivatives rules be delayed. The New York Times editorial board, hardly a paragon of leftism, accused them of “going against the cause of reform, lobbying for delays that would derail the law.”

Incidentally, between April and August 2010, Gillibrand met thirteen times with members of various financial firms, including Credit Suisse First Boston, JP Morgan, PwC, Ernst & Young, and Fidelity Investments, according to her public schedule. In the months before asking federal regulators to act on new derivatives rules, she met with representatives of Blackstone, JP Morgan, Goldman Sachs, and Zurich Financial Services. She also attended a Wall Street fundraiser in May 2010 in the midst of working on financial reform, showing up even after then–Connecticut senator Chris Dodd backed out due to negative publicity.

If Hillary Clinton’s closeness to Wall Street torpedoed her campaign — and more importantly, made her a poor agent of change — then Gillibrand has the same problem in spades.

And the rest of her record isn’t any better. Her unyielding, at-all-costs loyalty to Israel, her expedient shape-shifting, her questionable links to certain political figures — all make Gillibrand a suspect tribune for anti-Trump resistance.

Ultimately, the effort to defeat Trump and build a new egalitarian politics must come not from a single political figure, but from grassroots action. Still, it helps to have politicians in office resolutely committed to advancing equality and democracy.

Gillibrand’s history suggests she’s not one of them.