It’s only been a few days, but already the crutches are getting on Kirsten Gillibrand’s last nerve. A mid-October misstep on the squash court has left the famously energetic senator with a torn calf muscle that prevents her from putting weight on her heel without grimacing. Seated at a conference table in her Capitol Hill offices, she demonstrates, flexing her foot, clad in a black Toms flat (“The most comfortable shoes I own!”), and gesturing at the large Ace bandage swaddling her right leg. “The doctor says it will be four weeks,” she tells me. The pain isn’t so bad, the senator insists, but the crutches are slowing her down. And these days, Gillibrand does not have time for such hindrances.
Since moving into Hillary Clinton’s vacated seat in 2009, New York’s junior senator has already made her mark on the upper chamber—and drawn comparisons to her indomitable predecessor. During the 111th Congress, the petite blond legislator successfully led the charge to repeal Don’t Ask Don’t Tell and to secure aid for 9/11 first responders. This year, Gillibrand emerged as the fiercest voice demanding that the military tackle its sexual-assault problem and introducing legislation to remove assault investigations from the chain of command.
As if taking on the Pentagon weren’t enough, in late September—as Washington was bracing for the shutdown, which Gillibrand called a “Tea Party tantrum”—the senator rolled out her most ambitious effort to date: a handful of economic proposals called the Opportunity Plan. Her focus? The nation’s working women. Gillibrand’s brainchild, including bills she wrote and those put forth by colleagues, would raise the minimum wage; ease access to quality, affordable child care; provide universal pre-K; create a trust fund supported by employees and employers to give workers paid family medical leave; and ensure equal pay for equal work. It is an ambitious plan—and one that is sure to meet opposition in this hyperpolarized era.
As Gillibrand sees it, however, every one of the proposals is a sorely needed revamp of workplace policies established back when husbands went off to work and wives stayed home with the kids. (Gillibrand, 46, has two children of her own with her husband, Jonathan Gillibrand.) “The face of the American working family is so different, and our workplace policies haven’t kept up with it,” she says. Then there’s minimum wage. The senator declares it “perverse” that “today, you are literally working 40 hours a week and you are still living in poverty in a country that has always prided itself on rewarding work.”
While the agenda touts itself as “five simple solutions,” its consequences—new taxes and expanding entitlements—also seem tailor-made to push the buttons of the GOP. But the aggressively optimistic Gillibrand refuses to let the political landscape fluster her. “I don’t know that the Tea Party will oppose any one of these measures,” she counters. “Just look at what Ted Cruz said when faced with the bill on sexual assault. He said, ‘Yes!’ ” she crows, referring to the Texas bomb-thrower’s embrace of her military reform. “He said, ‘I listened to the argument. I think Kirsten’s right.’ ” Gillibrand insists that, if she can just get enough lawmakers to look at her new agenda “on the merits”—and with a nudge from the reform-minded business leaders she is recruiting to support the cause—gridlock can be avoided.
Not that Gillibrand is naive about the task at hand. She knows that moving any one of these bills will take time and effort and, most of all, serious public pressure. Indeed, whatever her specific policy aims, Gillibrand harbors a more overarching goal: getting more women engaged in politics. “Women determine election outcomes, and they rarely ask anything for it,” she says, lamenting the resulting imbalance in how issues are prioritized. “The debate is really lacking. It’s so male-dominated.”
Credit Gillibrand’s persistence at least in part to Hillary Clinton. During her years as a young attorney, Gillibrand saw Clinton deliver a speech at a Democratic-women’s-club meeting in Manhattan with the message: If you’re not involved in the political process, you cannot complain about any outcomes you dislike. “She was good,” laughs Gillibrand. “I was sweating and thinking, Well I guess it’s my fault; I really need to get involved.” More recently, it was the 2010 election that sparked her women-focused economic package. When the midterms led to the first decline in the percentage of female congress members in three decades, “it was really a smack in the face,” she recalls. “It was the greatest sign that we were going in the wrong direction, that we weren’t constantly evolving and moving women up the ladder.”
Thus was born not just Gillibrand’s policy blueprint but also a related PAC, Off the Sidelines, through which she raised more than $1 million for women candidates last cycle (and has a goal of twice that this cycle). She sees it as a rallying point for women to demand more from their elected leaders and a way to expand the national discussion of “women’s issues” well beyond reproductive rights. “What I want to do through this Off the Sidelines campaign is talk about these issues and say, ‘The next time a senator comes to your state or district and asks you for $100, ask him or her what his or her view is on paid family medical leave or raising the minimum wage,’ ” she explains.
Gillibrand is clearly pleased to be carving out a reputation as a congressional champion of women. She’s even writing a memoir on this same theme, taking full advantage of the Lean In movement spurred by Sheryl Sandberg. “It’s all about creating a call to action to basically engage America’s women and tell them how important their voices are.” Asked if she’s concerned some of her male colleagues in Congress will roll their eyes at her focus on women’s empowerment, Gillibrand fires back: “They don’t have to read my book! It’s for every 18-year-old girl who wants to figure out what to do with her life and isn’t quite sure that she matters.”
As for what Gillibrand wants to do with the rest of her life, the senator denies any interest in a 2016 presidential run—even in the event that Hillary doesn’t get into the race. “I love being in the Senate,” she demurs.
But down the road, who can say? For the moment, though, Gillibrand’s focus is on the many legislative irons she has in the fire—and, of course, on getting rid of her infernal crutches. “I’m going to be in physical therapy every day this week,” the senator tells me as we say our goodbyes. “And I can swim!”
Injuries be damned, Gillibrand has places to go.