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July 13, 2011

Why Kirsten Gillibrand Wants You to Run for Office

The number of women in Congress has declined for the first time in decades. The junior senator from New York wants to change that.


New York Senator Kirsten Gillibrand

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When did you first meet Hillary?
I met her probably a year later after she gave that speech. I called a friend's mother who was very involved in national politics and asked, "How do I get involved in politics in New York City?" She said, "Join this women's group called the Women's Leadership Forum." So I joined that group, and Hillary and Tipper Gore were the national co-chairs of the group. I got to meet Hillary at an event. 

Are the media tougher on women candidates?
I wouldn't describe it as tougher, but the focus is different. And that's just the nature of things. If you remember, during the presidential debate, almost every commentator would assess what Hillary Clinton was wearing. There was no equal assessment of what the male candidates were wearing. But that is the nature of our society.

You were a Manhattan lawyer when you decided to move home to Albany and pursue a political career. By the time you ran for the House, in 2006, you had raised $2.6 million for your campaign. How did you raise so much money? And how would you advise other women to launch a campaign?

First, a woman should run for the office she's most passionate about. If there's something she wants to change, something she wants to make a difference on, that is what should drive her decision. Nothing else. Not the "that's too senior for me" or "I'm not prepared for that job." It should be: "What are you passionate about?" If you're passionate about education, run for the school board. If you're passionate about changing the way the U.S. educates children more broadly, run for U.S. Congress. Second, be prepared, and that means learning what it takes to run a successful campaign. I went to three campaign training schools before I ran for office: I went to the Women's Campaign School at Yale for a week; I went to the Eleanor Roosevelt Legacy Campaign School; and I went to the Women's Campaign Fund Training School. Third, know what you're getting into. I spent about 10 years working on other people's campaigns. I worked on both of Hillary Clinton's Senate races. I worked Bill Clinton's Presidential race in '96. I worked on a number of gubernatorial races in New York. And the reason why I learned how to fundraise was when I was interested in a candidate, and I asked, "How can I help? They said, "Will you host a party will you help me meet people and raise funds that I need for my campaign?" So I learned how to network well to help candidates. I networked with women, with lawyers; I was able to create advocates for the candidates that I cared about. The other advice I would give to a woman who is considering running: If she decides to run, then run. Do not look back, and do not give up. You have to stay the course, stick with your plan, follow through on your plan, and you can win. But you have to stay determined because it's never going to be easy. It's always going to be difficult.

What your biggest disappointment in your political career?
I'm very concerned about the statistic that you referenced earlier, that this is the first year in 30 years that fewer women were elected than in any previous year. I'm worried that the women's rights movement has been significantly stalled. We're fighting the battles of our grandmothers and mothers. We are not fighting the future battles. We are not moving the debate forward. The fact that women still earn 78 cents on the dollar for men is an awful statistic that shows an unacceptable disparity. It was just released today that women are now getting more graduate degrees than men. We've just turned the corner. But the reality is that will not affect the pay gap. Because women are paid less in all major industries. Even in industries where more women work than men. If you look at nursing, women are paid 87 percent of what men are. If you look at teaching, it's 91 percent of what men are paid in the same profession.


What's being be done about it? 

The first bill that the President signed into law was the Lilly Ledbetter bill, which basically allows women to sue and not to have a statute of limitations. So, for example, you found out today that all your male colleagues get paid more than you, you can sue, even though it might have been over the last five years. And then the next step is to give access to information to women so that they know they are being underpaid, so they could do something about it. We've been working on a bill called the Pay Check Fairness Act. It was introduced by Barbara Mikulski, and, among other things, it prohibits employers to retaliate against workers who discuss their salaries with coworkers. Currently it's difficult for workers to learn how their pay compares to fellow employees, because many employers prohibit employees from discussing their salaries.

That's why we need women in Congress. Speaking of which, you're good friends with Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords. How did you become close?

I got to know Gabby right away because she was one of the few young women in Congress. We immediately gravitated toward each other and we became friends right away. And we also served on Armed Services together. And over time, her and her husband and my husband and me, we'd go on double dates.

You were there for that stunning moment when she first opened her eyes after the shooting. 

That whole day was beyond my understanding and comprehension. I was so grateful that I got the chance to see her. We were all in the hospital room: Her parents were there; her chief of staff was there, along with Debbie Wasserman Schultz and Speaker Pelosi. And we were just holding her hand and telling her how much we love her and how inspiring she had been to the nation, and that we knew she was a fighter and we couldn't wait for her to get better. Then we started talking about all the things we wanted to do with her. And I said I wanted to take her and her husband out for another double date. And Debbie was saying, "We'll go up to my house in Vermont, and we'll have fun this summer." And just all of a sudden, while I was holding her hand, she was just fluttering her eyes. And we didn't realize she hadn't opened her eyes yet. So when she started fluttering her eyes, her husband leaped across us and said, "Gabby, Gabby, open your eyes, open your eyes!"  You can't imagine being in a hospital room with a sick person like that coming to life in a very real and immediate way. And then she opens her eyes and Mark is beside himself and he says, "Gabby, Gabby, can you see me? Can you see me?" And he said, "If you can see me, give me the thumbs up." And we're just crying. I mean, you can't believe that we're watching this moment of a husband who clearly loves his wife and is pulling her to recovery with every inch of his being. All of a sudden, she just pulled her whole arm up. So it was like a full-arm thumbs-up. And we couldn't believe it. We were just gushing with tears and joy and this unbelievable moment of witnessing a miracle.

We got to stay for maybe two minutes more, and then the doctor said, "Gabby's had enough excitement. Thank you all for coming, but she needs her rest now." So we kind of got shuffled out of the room, but it was a window onto a miracle that you are so privileged to be part of. It just was another testament to how strong she is and how much her family and her husband love her. The doctor said it must have been the familiarity of friends and the excitement of being with friends.

Have you seen Gabby recently? How is she doing?

I was there a few weeks ago. She's talking in short sentences. She's communicating her ideas very effectively. She's got every bit of her personality intact. She's as charming and sweet and happy as anybody. And she's determined. She's been doing physical therapy and speech therapy everyday. And she's going to heal herself. She's going to overcome this violence done to her. And she'll continue to inspire all of us.

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