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Kirsten Gillibrand announces a 2020 presidential exploratory committee

Her main message: Women are the future of the Democratic Party.

Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) speaks to protesters rallying against Supreme Court nominee Judge Brett Kavanaugh on October 4, 2018.
Drew Angerer/Getty Images

Kirsten Gillibrand, a New York lawmaker known for her #MeToo advocacy, has announced an exploratory committee for a run for the Democratic Party presidential nomination, becoming the second senator to make her interest in the 2020 race official.

Gillibrand made the announcement Tuesday evening during an appearance on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert. In it, she cast herself as a unifying figure who can bring the country — and Democrats and Republicans — together. “You have to start by restoring what’s been lost, restoring our leadership in the world,” she said.

In her campaign, she is also emphasizing that the future of the Democratic Party is inextricably tied to the power of women.

Gillibrand, 52, announced her move at the top of the show with Colbert, who during his opening monologue joked that she was “going to say something important.” She said she was running for president because she is “going to fight for other people’s kids as hard as I would fight for my own,” and touched on familiar Democratic talking points — health care, education, and job training. She also said she would take on institutional racism, corruption and greed in Washington, and special interests.

“I know that I have the compassion, the courage, and the fearless determination to get that done,” she said.

Gillibrand is expected to highlight gender inequality as a key issue in her campaign. In 2013, she spearheaded a charge in Congress to change how sexual assault cases are handled in the military, contributing to a national conversation and winning over some Republicans in the Senate.

And in 2017, she called on Sen. Al Franken to resign over allegations that he groped multiple women, a decision that pitted her against establishment Democrats and many Democratic voters who were reluctant to see the popular Minnesota senator go.

Gillibrand will likely run on her proposal to provide Americans with paid family leave. She has repeatedly introduced a bill in Congress called the FAMILY Act, which would provide 12 weeks of paid family leave for new mothers and fathers. This program would be covered by a payroll tax, a unique funding mechanism that differs from a Republican plan that would dip into people’s Social Security benefits.

Other key policies Gillibrand is known for include a measure that helped guarantee ongoing health care coverage for 9/11 first responders, many of whom are dealing with serious medical fallout years later, as well as her work repealing the military’s “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy.

She mentioned both during her Colbert interview on Tuesday, invoking them as examples of her ability to work across the aisle. “What you have to do is start by listening,” she said. “You can find common ground, which is what I’ve done in the last 12 years I’ve been in public service.”

Gillibrand has evolved politically. She was once a moderate Democrat in the House who took positions that would likely be unpopular with the current progressive base. In the last 10 years in the Senate, she’s taken far more liberal positions consistently, become known for her staunch opposition to Trump, and appears ready to run as a progressive.

Gillibrand was speaking out about sexual misconduct long before the #MeToo movement took off

Gillibrand stepped into the spotlight in recent years as a prominent voice on the issue of sexual misconduct. She spoke out against Franken, and she’s one of very few Democratic politicians to have said Bill Clinton should have resigned as president.

Her comments have raised a fair share of ire from a portion of the Democratic base and some big donors, including billionaire George Soros, some of whom seem to think women should be blamed for calling out a man’s misdeeds.

Gillibrand’s critics have argued that her stances on the subject have been opportunistic and an effort to set herself apart as the 2020 election approaches. Philippe Reines, a former adviser to Hillary Clinton, has been among those who’ve wondered why Gillibrand chose to take a stand on both Clinton and Franken, arguing in 2017 that she hasn’t fully explained her “rationale” for doing so.

Like all politicians, Gillibrand no doubt weighs how decisions factor into her political ambitions. But she’s not new to the issues of sexual assault or harassment. Those implying that she’s only jumping in now obscure that fact.

Gillibrand has been pushing reforms on the subject since 2013, after she first saw a documentary highlighting the military’s obliviousness to its problem with sexual assault. For more than five years, she’s gone up against the Pentagon in an effort to establish an independent process for prosecuting sexual assault within the military.

As the hierarchical system currently stands, military commanders are the only ones with the power to advance prosecution of such cases, a process which has heavily disadvantaged victims in the past and ignored the retaliation they’ve faced. Measures Gillibrand has pushed to address the issue have thus far been stymied and opposed by leaders in the military, who argue that such changes would up-end the way the body operates.

Gillibrand compiles an annual report about sexual assault in the military to highlight abuses and has sought to strengthen protections for sexual assault victims on college campuses as well.

Gender equality has also been at the forefront of her policy proposals, including her bill aimed at making paid family leave federal law.

She’s also known for her fundraising prowess. Off the Sidelines — a group she started back in 2012 — has since raised roughly $7 million for women candidates across the country, according to the organization.

Gillibrand is now a progressive, though she’ll likely face questions about how she’s moved left since she joined the Senate

Gillibrand is no stranger to the comparison between her and former Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton, whose Senate seat she now holds. Much like Clinton, she’s a former attorney, and she’s worked for corporate interests in the past, serving as a lawyer on behalf of Philip Morris during the early years of her career. She’s also been accused of having close ties to Wall Street, one of her key constituents as a New York senator, though she’s repeatedly backed certain policies that would rein in the banks.

Unlike Clinton, Gillibrand has significantly less baggage to contend with, though she will have to explain a shift to the left she’s made since taking her Senate seat almost a decade ago.

Gillibrand will likely be pressed on this shift during her campaign. While she’s now one of the most progressive members in the upper chamberbacking the abolishment of ICE, turning down corporate PAC money, and advocating stringent gun control laws — she was once a relatively centrist Blue Dog Democrat in the House who was awarded an “A” rating from the National Rifle Association. Similarly, she once backed a more conservative immigration policy, which rejected amnesty for any undocumented immigrants.

Since joining the Senate, she’s become significantly more progressive and now says she’s “embarrassed” about her past positions on both policies. Gillibrand previously represented an upstate New York district with more conservative leanings. She’s said that meeting with constituents and people who have been affected by gun violence and immigration policies have helped reshape her stances on these issues.

“Politicians who never change their mind, who never thought they were wrong, who never wished they did it differently, I would question that as well,” Gillibrand told Newsday in a story on her changing positions. “Because you learn and you grow and you become a stronger, better person and you recognize where you didn’t have it right and you recognize where you did and you move forward.”

In her Colbert sit-down, Gillibrand emphasized her ability to work across the aisle, saying that as president she would try to bring Democrats and Republicans together on the “shared values” of the United States. Gillibrand noted that she has co-sponsored bipartisan legislation with almost all Republican lawmakers in Congress, including Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX), a remark that garnered chuckles from Colbert and the crowd.

During her time in the upper chamber, she’s also proven to be an effective champion for her New York constituents, with one of her landmark policy wins centered on guaranteeing health care coverage for first responders and law enforcement officers who are still recovering from the debilitating effects of their work conducting cleanup after the 9/11 terrorist attack.

With the 2020 field expected to be an exceedingly crowded one, Gillibrand is set apart by her long-time work on gender equality and sexual misconduct. She’ll also have to keep emphasizing just how much she’s changed since her time as both a corporate attorney and moderate member of the House to win over wary progressives.

It’s crucial she highlights both to demonstrate that her policy positions — and her candidacy — are here to stay.

Gillibrand on Tuesday indicated that she’s certain to run for the presidency after the exploratory committee. “It’s an important first step, and it’s one that I’m taking because I’m going to run,” she said.

Her announcement had some lighthearted moments as well. Colbert pointed out that the senator likes to swear, and she said that she would “definitely try” not to do so on the campaign trail. When he asked which word she would miss the most, she replied, “rhymes with duck.”

Colbert also gave her a gift basket for the campaign trail — a corn cob for Iowa, barbecue sauce for South Carolina, and a plane ticket to Michigan “so you can campaign there,” a jab at Hillary Clinton’s 2016 campaign.

Gillibrand took the opportunity to mention newly elected Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, who she helped campaign for, bringing the message back to the gender focus of her bid. “She crushed it in the last election,” she said.