Edward Markey had been a U.S. Senator for all of two hours when Kirsten Gillibrand button-holed him in the basement of the Capitol one afternoon last summer. Moving with characteristic speed, she pressed him to join her push to take cases of sexual assault out of the military chain of command and give them to independent lawyers to investigate instead. There were 26,000 cases of unwanted sexual contact in the military last year, she argued, out of which only 3,000 were reported and just 302 prosecuted. Too many victims, she added, are afraid to speak out because their commanding officers were either complicit or in denial about the problem. Within hours, Markey was on board.
After months of such conversations on the Senate floor, in quiet corridors and in a daring, onetime raid on the Republican cloakroom, Gillibrand is on the verge of beating the Pentagon (and the quiet opposition of the Obama White House) on a measure that she says will curb the epidemic of sexual assaults in the military. "I was hoping [the issue] would snowball," Gillibrand says, "because when you're talking about the lives of men and women, who are so selfless and so sacrificing, to have their lives destroyed not by some enemy abroad but by someone in their own ranks, it creates a very grave injustice."
And speaking of snowballs, Gillibrand has become something of a force in short order too, chiefly by taking on and then reviving what seem like lost causes. Since filling Hillary Clinton's seat in 2009, she's led the fight to repeal "Don't ask, don't tell," pushed through a long-stalled compensation fund for 9/11 first responders and helped pass a law that makes it illegal to profit from insider tips from congressional staff. Her agenda gives little comfort to leaders in either party, and already there is talk of higher office.