Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand
Discover how Sen. Gillibrand started out representing a conservative district in upstate New York, then made a name as a politician willing to transcend simple ideology. Learn what drove her unlikely rise and her role as a leading voice for women’s rights.
- [Carlos] Kirsten Gillibrand comes from a family
of strong, vocal women.
But after her life in corporate law left her
in a moral crisis, she abandoned the lucrative career
for life as a public servant.
- If you care about national security,
if you care about our military readiness,
then you will repeal this corrosive policy.
- [Carlos] So, what inspired this political newcomer
to take on, and beat, the powerful congressman
in her home district, climb the steep ladder all the way
to the U.S. senate, and become a leader
of the modern day women's movement.
- This is the moment when women
stood strong and stood firm.
- [Carlos] And what keeps her moving on the campaign trail
to breaking big.
What makes people successful?
What are the unexpected turns in life
that propel people to greatness?
I'm Carlos Watson, editor of OZY.
I'm out to uncover the real secrets behind breaking big.
- So, you good? - Yeah.
- You ready? - Yeah. You ready?
- Other women traveled around the country
campaigning for state suffrage, giving speeches,
holding more and more conventions just like this one.
From Elizabeth Cady Stanton to icons of the civil rights
movement like Rosa Parks and Dorothy Height
and Dolores Huerta and Hillary Rodham-Clinton
who put that 65 million cracks
in the highest glass ceiling.
If you care about every woman and man, regardless of race,
sexual orientation or gender identity,
fight for social justice.
Because the resistance is you.
- What would you tell someone
about what it takes to break big, whether it's in politics,
or frankly, in something else?
- Believe in yourself.
It took ten years, literally, ten years of working on
other people's campaigns and helping others get elected
to build up enough self-confidence to say,
"I could do this job, I could run, I'm smart enough,
I'm tough enough, I'm capable enough."
And that's typical for a lot of women.
I grew up in a family with some very strong women,
and one of those was my grandmother.
She was a woman who was larger than life,
very involved in her community, and the way she amplified
her voice was getting involved in politics.
She was a secretary in the state legislature.
Obviously, the men were elected and the women worked
behind the scenes as support, and she thought the best way
to be heard on things she cared about was to organize women
to participate in politics
when very few women were doing that kind of work.
So, she really gave me that as a gift,
to be fearless when it comes to things like politics
and I never cared about failing either,
which I would say is from sports.
- What sports did you play?
- In high school, I played soccer and tennis.
The one thing I learned by being an athlete was you know
how to win, and you know how to lose.
And once you've lost a bunch of times,
you're not afraid of it anymore.
- If I had met you in high school,
and asked you what are you gonna do,
what would you have told me?
- I wanted, in the back of my mind, through high school,
through college, to do some kind of public service,
maybe run for office.
But I didn't really admit that last part
until much later in life.
- In the 80s, we met in college.
We went to Dartmouth together.
I was a sophomore, she was a freshman when we met,
and we just became friends.
She's always had incredible charisma and presence.
She sort of lights up the room.
- At Dartmouth, we were both studying Chinese.
I had taken it my freshman year and then chose
to go to China to study in Beijing.
So, we met on our way to Beijing,
and I remember being really culture shocked,
and I just remember her being courageous and fearless.
We'd ride our bikes
through these circuitous Chinese roads
and just on adventures.
She was guiding the way.
- [Carlos] In 1991, Kirsten earned her law degree from UCLA,
then moved to New York City, where she was hired to practice
corporate law at the international law firm, Davis Polk.
- She comes from a big family of lawyers
and public servants.
It made sense to me that she would go to law school.
But she practiced big corporate law.
- I was really struggling in the law
and really did not feel fulfilled as a lawyer.
And so that took a good five or six years of deciding,
who am I as a person and who do I wanna be?
I really had a crisis of confidence
and a crisis of morality.
I did not feel like I was doing good things
and helping people in the world, I was just pushing paper
for big companies, just trying to save them money.
- She had been defending big tobacco,
and just settling out that enormous
morass of lawsuits for some time.
I think she decided that she wanted to do
something more meaningful with her life.
- I attended a lot of bible study classes,
I went to a women's bible study, I really loved
that experience about understanding my faith
and what it tells me and how it informs me.
- She's a very devout Christian,
She knows who she is and she keeps her own council.
She has her own moral compass.
- I really believe that we are called
to be something on this Earth and to do good in the world.
I really wanted to shift my life into public service.
And I didn't think I could do that where I was.
- I started a political group in New York.
It was a group of under age 40 professionals
who were passionate about politics.
And, I remember distinctly the day that Kirsten
was brought to our board meeting.
We had a little bit of an exchange and I thought,
"Okay, who is this woman? She is a force."
- When I went to an event as a young lawyer,
it was Hillary who stood up on a stage
with a hundred women, looked out and said,
"Decisions are being made everyday in Washington.
If you're not part of those decisions, and you don't like
what they decide, you have no one to blame but yourself."
It was literally the moment that I started to sweat and
said, "Oh my god, she's saying I have to run for office."
- The way we make changes is we find
what we're doing no longer satisfying,
we entertain possible future worlds for ourselves
that would be satisfying, and the more we appreciate
that going to this new place will be growth producing,
the easier it is to make that change.
- [Carlos] Feeling unfulfilled by her life's work
and inspired by her political heroes,
Kirsten began exploring her options,
hoping to find a more meaningful career.
- I first tried to work
at the U.S. attorney's office.
I thought, I'm gonna be a do-good lawyer,
maybe I could be a prosecutor.
And so, I applied to the southern district,
to the eastern district, did not get in.
And then Hillary Clinton decides to run for senate
and I thought this is my chance, I'm going to work
on her campaign, I'll leave the law,
I'll become a campaign person.
Had no relevant experience, and so I didn't get that job.
So I was really struggling.
And I winded up going to an event that Andrew Cuomo
was the speaker, and he gave a very long speech
about why public service mattered, and I went up to him
afterwards and said, "I think politics is an insider's game,
and it's really hard to do public service
and you can't just do public service."
And Andrew, realizing that I was challenging him, said,
"Well, will you move to Washington?
I'll interview you and you can come work for me at HUD."
And so, I interview, get the job.
So, off I went to Washington, and I got to serve
only seven months at the end of the Clinton administration,
but it was really that shift that allowed me
to then begin to think, "Should I run for office?"
- [Carlos] After her brief stint at Hud,
Kirsten married her then boyfriend,
and moved back to her home district in Albany, New York.
Once there, they would start a family and begin to lay
the groundwork for her first political campaign.
- You and I were talking about bravery,
and how bravery can sometimes be tied in
not just who you are in the moment,
but to your sense that you're on a larger mission.
- What motivates someone to do something scary,
something that's hard, something that's not about you,
but about others.
It was my own personal journey about
what is the measure of success in this life.
And to me, it was something very religious,
It was very faith-driven.
- She called me up, said she was running
for the 20th district.
Upstate New York, rural.
There was some trepidation.
You're gonna give up a multi-million dollar a year career
to go make 167,000 dollars, and have to keep
two households and move your kids to DC.
- I ran in 2006. It was a 2-1 Republican district,
I had a friend who was a pollster,
and I remember asking him,
"I want to run for office in this district.
Do you think I can win?"
And he looked at the district,
and he analyzed the numbers and said,
"Nope, you can't win." I was, like "Why?"
He said, "Because there's too many republicans."
- Kirsten knew that she was an underdog
in the race, but was just as passionate
as if she was told she was the front runner.
As a friend I just said, "Go for it."
- It's clear to me that you don't see daunting odds
as a reason not to do it.
You ask, "How will we do it?"
- If people fight for what they believe in,
if they're willing to knock on doors
and make phone calls, anything can happen.
My campaign was about speaking truth to power,
it was about being a voice for the voiceless.
We wanted to run on change,
and what needed to change in Washington.
People were angry about the Iraq war,
people were protesting about the Iraq war
all across my district.
We had one of the highest number of veterans
in the whole state in my own district.
And so really listening to the grassroots
and understanding this was something
that was really urgent for a lot of families.
By election day, we were knocking on 50,000 doors
every weekend and making 20,000 phone calls every night.
Every voter had been touched five times by our campaign.
Every single voter.
That's about 200,000 people touched five times.
That's a million touches. That's a lot.
That's how much grassroots activism
was going on in that race.
And I won, and that's how
I got my political career started.
- There are a lot of different skills
which translate from being an attorney,
and being a successful attorney,
to being an elected official and a politician.
Certainly the amount of tenacity that you have to have
in an attorney, you know, kind of position,
is something that works very well for the rough
and tumble of New York state politics.
Kirsten Gillibrand was absolutely someone
who used that tenacity to actually get elected.
- [Carlos] In 2006, at age of 40,
Kirsten defied the odds and was elected
to the United States congress, fulfilling the ambition
she'd been instilled with since childhood.
- I think what Kirsten learned
from watching her mother and her grandmother,
who both very much did things the way they wanted to do it,
is that she does things the way she wants to do it.
She was the first member of congress
to post her official daily schedule, her earmark request,
and her personal financial disclosure form on her website.
And leadership said, "You can't do that."
Well, this is how I'm going to do it.
- [Carlos] Kirsten quickly learned that her conviction
would be the key to a long, political career.
But after being re-elected in 2008,
moves by a new white house administration opened a door
that she had never anticipated.
And again, Kirsten would have to find the courage
to step through it.
- I was only in congress for two years.
And so, I ran my first election '06 and won,
and then I had a landslide victory in '08
and won by a 24 point margin.
So that was something that was significant.
So when Hillary Clinton was appointed
to become the secretary of state,
a bunch of articles started getting written.
And the articles typically had 20 people's names
and lists of who might be considered.
And for some reason, my name
was on the bottom of those lists.
And so I was having conversations with my husband
about this and he just said, "Do you think you could help
more people if you were a senator or a congressperson?"
And I said, "Yeah, I would represent 20 million people,
I'd have a lot more opportunity
to lead on different issues."
I decided to do it, and so we went through the process
like everybody else.
- For all the people who are trying to learn
the secret sauce of breaking big,
I don't think the answer is you just apply and hope.
- I think ultimately, the governor liked the fact
that Hillary Clinton was our first female senator.
A lot of the women from downstate that I've been
working with to raise money for candidates across the country,
they were my advocates.
They went up and said, "We like Kirsten.
Let us tell you why", and I think that's why he picked me.
- She is dynamic, she is articulate, she is perceptive,
she is courageous, she is outspoken.
I am appointing her to the United States senate
representing New York today, please welcome our next senator
and current Congresswoman Kirsten Gillibrand.
- [Carlos] In January of 2009, Kirsten was sworn in
as one of only seventeen women serving
in the United States senate, filling the seat left vacant
by the woman who first inspired her to run for office.
And she was no longer just representing her home district,
but the entire state of New York.
What surprised you the most during your time as a senator?
- The biggest surprise was how much opportunity
you have to make a difference.
That despite Washington being broken,
despite the extraordinary dysfunction,
any senator can start a debate,
stop a debate, shape a debate.
And so, I've taken on issues that didn't really have
champions, and each one I've taken on I think
has helped people, starting with don't ask don't tell.
Just before we had marriage equality in our own state.
But having this conversation constantly be elevated, to say,
"We value men and women serving in the military
regardless of who they love.
We should value their right to marry the person they love.
We should value their ability
to be treated as equal citizens."
This is a policy that is corrosive.
You are asking men and women who want nothing,
but to serve this country, to give their lives
for this country, to say, "No, you cannot
because of who you love."
I can't think of something more...
- Her fearlessness is nothing but an asset.
And when you combine fearlessness with relentless optimism,
that is how you get the repeal of don't ask, don't tell,
that's how you get the 9/11 health bill passed.
- This bill is about our first responders,
this bill is about our heroes and their families,
this bill is about the victims who lived at Ground Zero.
- I was asked to walk the halls of congress
for the 9/11 health bill.
I had over 1100 meetings with members of congress
in the senate, and for years, years,
members of congress across the country.
Well, this is a New York issue.
Well, how are we going to pay for this?
- When I was first asked to handle that bill, you know,
my chief of staff said to me,
"You have no chance of passing this bill."
And I thought, "No chance?
That's not okay, no, there has to be a chance.
And let's figure out the 10 things we would do
if we were going to be successful."
- When we got the bill in 2010 through the house,
I was passed off to senator Gillibrand's office.
There were a lot of people that were skeptical
about the senator working with me.
We fought to get healthcare and compensation.
- These men and women were willing to come to Washington
week after week, month after month,
to tell these heartbreaking stories of what it's like
to die of cancer in your 40's when you have a wife
and three kids at home, and how destructive
that is for society, and that we need to be standing
by these brave men and women who answered the call of duty.
- [Carlos] In 2010, against enormous odds,
Kirsten and her colleagues successfully
pushed through the 9/11 first responders bill,
cementing her as a force in the senate
and reaffirming her commitment to the people of New York.
- Democrats and republicans came together to make sure
that we could fulfill our undeniable,
moral obligation to our men and women
who are first responders, our heroes,
and all the survivors at Ground Zero.
- Senator Gillibrand has taken on a number
of different issues, that are really ones at the heart
of helping empower those who are underrepresented,
or those who are marginalized in American society.
She's certainly done this with reforming the military
around sexual assault and gender equality in the military.
By expanding the amount of rights in equality
for folks within that male dominated context.
- [Carlos] And later that year,
Kirsten picked up where her grandmother had left off,
publishing her first book and calling women everywhere
- Off The Sidelines is a movement that she has started
that is about encouraging and empowering women
to get up off the sidelines
and become active and make your voice heard.
A lot of her Off The Sidelines work has been
around encouraging women to run for office.
- We only have about 18 percent in the house.
We have 22 women senators in the senate
and so we're not there yet.
We need more women in congress, we need more women of color
in congress, because they've lived it.
They know what's wrong with this country.
They know why the system is rigged.
So for that young African American woman
who's thinking about running, who thinks,
"Am I right for this job?" You are right for this job
because of who you are.
It is literally your life experience
that makes you qualified, and makes you the better candidate
because your voice isn't being heard in Washington.
- Off the sidelines might end up being her greatest legacy
because I know that
that is one of her deepest desires
is to really shift where we are in the culture
as far as women in office and women in leadership roles.
- You're a mom of two boys? Yes?
- What's it like to try to balance being a mom,
being a wife, with being the professional that you are?
- You should build the life you want.
And don't listen to anybody when they tell you
that you can't do something a certain way.
I do my job so differently in the U.S. senate
than any male senator does, I can promise you.
I actually make breakfast for my kids every morning,
make their lunches, make them dinner at night.
I tend to not schedule myself before nine or after five,
so I can actually do parenting.
Most female workers do not have that privilege or ability.
So, my advice is try to build the life you want,
but always know that you could always be a good mom.
- [Carlos] While her movement was picking up traction,
2016 would bring change to D.C. that many democrats feared.
- Best thing I have is my temperament.
We know how to win.
- [Carlos] But it would also bring new purpose
and energy to her cause,
and help fortify a growing cultural movement.
- I could have never imagined that someone
who has been accused by over a dozen women of sexual assault
and sexual harassment would be our president,
but that one thing that's happened in the world
has inspired women to get off the sidelines,
to work their hearts out.
This whole Me Too movement is entirely focused on,
"Do we value women?" And the answer is no.
We have not, as society, valued women on any level
which is why sexual harassment, sexual assault continues,
and every institution protects the powerful,
they protect the predators.
- She is the most unabashedly feminist in her agenda.
But in a way that I think is suddenly kind of mainstream.
Partly its her stepping into that spotlight,
and partly it's her being pushed into it
because of the events happening around.
- We know that not until every women and girl
in this country has the chance to reach their God-given
potential that America will not reach hers.
This is the moment you will remember when women stood strong
and stood firm and said, "Never again".
This is the moment that you are going to be heard.
- [Carlos] The following year, while riding a wave
of backlash against perpetrators of sexual misconduct,
Kirsten decided it was time to take her fight
all the way to the White House.
- Trump, of course, responds in the worst possible way.
He doesn't answer the allegation,
he doesn't address the issue,
and he calls her a whore in public with that infamous tweet.
She took on the guy with the biggest bully pulpit
in the world and paid a huge price for it.
She had to go home and talk to Theo and Henry,
her two boys, and tell them that the President
of the United States just called her a prostitute.
And that's rough.
- [Carlos] Holding to her principles,
Kirsten didn't just call out those
on the other side of the aisle.
But she also held her own party accountable as well.
Something that many saw as a high risk, political maneuver.
- She alone took the podium and called
for Al Franken's resignation.
Al Franken was a very popular democrat, fellow democrat.
And they were personal friends.
A month later, she says in retrospect,
Bill Clinton probably should've resigned the presidency
in light of the Monica Lewinsky scandal.
When's the last time you heard a democrat
call out Bill Clinton?
This has been her issue for 10 years,
and she's not gonna carry a double standard.
- There was a real gasp when she made the choice to do this.
I don't know that she made this choice kind of in a vacuum,
in the sense that there was, you know,
a certain amount of pressure for democrats to kind of say,
"We're not just in favor of ending sexual harassment
and ending sexual assault, but we also have to call
our own colleagues to account for it."
- [Carlos] Harnessing the discontent of women across
this country, Kirsten turned the influence of her mother
and grandmother into a political movement.
And though she hadn't planned on it, it's launched her
into the political spotlight as an iconoclast,
and a leader in her party.
- This woman takes issues that other people are afraid
to address. That is the sign of leadership.
- She is never afraid to challenge the status quo
if it will get to an outcome she believes in.
- This is what women do.
This is what we have always done.
Fight for a level playing field, for health care.
Fight for Planned Parenthood.
- In my view, she's the most qualified,
most charismatic democrat in the party right now
for the 2020 ticket.
- On the day I die, when I meet my maker, I can say,
"I spent my life trying to make the world better.
That I actually spent all the talents you gave me
to do good work in the world."
And that is, to me, the definition of success.
And so to tell young people, you can be the difference.
Your voice, your life experience, what you've lived,
what makes you angry, what injustice you wanna fix,
is the difference.
And if you take all that time and talent
that you've been given and direct it towards doing good,
you will make a difference.
Because that's what life's about.
And if you cannot recognize that, and say,
"I'm here to help people and make a difference,"
you're missing the whole story.
You're missing the whole point.
- I came to Hollywood.
I got off the bus, and I was homeless.
And then, AIDS hit. My lovers were dying around me.
As a director, I use those experiences.
Lee tells a lot of stories based on his own life.
With The Butler, Precious, or Empire,
these are real people that he creates.
- I speak for that face that you don't see.
- They'll know that you're a lawyer,
they'll know you grew up in upstate New York,
but like, um, make them smile.
Give them something that they may not know.
- I like going to the movies with my kids,
and I really like the superhero movies
and my absolute favorite is Wonder Woman
because she went through the fire for people
because she wanted to do the right thing.