Kirsten Gillibrand Won't Take No For An Answer

How a junior senator gets a gridlocked Senate to pass bills once declared dead

  • Share
  • Read Later
Marco Grob for TIME

(2 of 4)

As a compromise, the Pentagon in August pushed through a series of internal reforms hoping to show that it was taking the matter seriously. Now, in an early sign of Gillibrand's effectiveness, every victim is automatically assigned an advocate who is responsible for making sure the victim's commanding officers take action. The White House--backed move was designed to undercut Gillibrand's campaign, but it didn't stop it. Gillibrand now has 53 solid yes votes for her deeper reforms and, she claims, a few others to push her close to the 60-vote threshold she will need to overcome a filibuster.

The fight over how to handle such cases, which will come to a head in the coming months, has already led to an unprecedented display of female power on the Senate floor, with Gillibrand going toe to toe with Missouri Democrat Claire McCaskill, who has taken the Pentagon line. If Gillibrand holds a trump card in the showdown, it is that some conservative Republicans have joined her team, perhaps seeing the chance to hand the Obama White House a defeat. Among them: Rand Paul of Kentucky and Ted Cruz of Texas. (Meanwhile, Gillibrand says she has 182 House members on board and is working on reaching the 218-vote threshold for passage in the lower chamber.) "If we can't pass it as an amendment," Gillibrand says, "then we'll push for a stand-alone act in both chambers."

Born to the Game

If Gillibrand takes unusual risks with party elites, it's because she is so familiar with them. She was born in Albany, N.Y., in 1966, to lawyer parents. Her maternal grandmother was Dorothea "Polly" Noonan, founder of the Albany Democratic Women's Club and right hand to Mayor Erastus Corning II, who ruled Albany for more than 40 years. Her father, meanwhile, was a Democratic lobbyist close to two powerful Republicans: George Pataki and Alfonse D'Amato, for whom Gillibrand spent a summer interning. After graduating with an Asian-studies major from Dartmouth (Gillibrand speaks Mandarin), she went to law school at UCLA, clerked for a Reagan-appointed federal judge and then spent 14 years at tony Manhattan law firms where she helped defend tobacco company Philip Morris from criminal and civil racketeering charges. In 1999 she began volunteering on Clinton's Senate campaign; by 2006 she'd been elected to Congress from her childhood Albany district.

Gillibrand (pronounced with a soft g) was a dogged House member, helping ban junk food from school lunches in 2007 while making public her daily schedule in a show of transparency. But when New York Governor David Patterson named her to fill Clinton's Senate seat in January 2009, gun-control advocates and immigration groups rebelled. Hailing from a rural district, Gillibrand had bragged of having two rifles and an A rating from the National Rifle Association. She also opposed giving undocumented workers amnesty.

  1. 1
  2. 2
  3. 3
  4. 4