Breaking Big


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.

AIRED: August 03, 2018 | 0:25:47

- [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.

(audience cheering)

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?

(audience cheering)

- 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.

(audience cheering)

- 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,

practicing 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,

very red.

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.

(audience applause)

- [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

to action.

- 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?

- 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.

And action!

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.


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