Donate

Kirsten Gillibrand Talks Immigration, Institutional Racism, And 'Why We Need To Get Money Out Of Politics'

Senator Kirsten Gillibrand
Dashed Arrow
Senator Kirsten Gillibrand William Graves / WNYC

As Democrats jump head first into the race for the 2020 presidential nomination, Senator Kirsten Gillibrand of New York, who announced her candidacy on The Late Show With Stephen Colbert earlier this month, stopped by WNYC on Friday afternoon.

New York’s junior senator talked about her vision for the future, what it means to her to tackle institutional racism, and why she didn’t endorse New York Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez in her primary bid but now says she’s “a woman who is on fire.”

The interview has been edited slightly for length and clarity.

In announcing that the government will reopen for three weeks, President Trump talked about how we have no choice but to build a powerful wall on the border, and either Congress funds it by February or he will declare an emergency. What's your reaction to how this debate has gone on, and the idea that we may be in this temporary holding pattern once again?

Well the shutdown was needless. It was self-created by President Trump because he wanted to get his way and he's harming people by what he's done. I mean the fact that this was the second week that 800,000 people did not get a paycheck. There's a lot of families who had no savings to fall back on, who didn't have enough money for rent or mortgage or food or heat and a lot of people who felt they had to do whatever they can to provide for their families, including TSA agents that couldn't show up to work because they had to provide for their kids. We heard from FBI agents that said this is very serious. We need to be able to have resources to fight terrorism and do our investigations. So the fact that President Trump has been holding these workers hostage just to get his way is really harmful. And now that we have a three week reprieve you know, whether President Trump will be willing to sit down and actually negotiate properly, I don't know.

Listen to WNYC’s Brigid Bergin interview Senator Kirsten Gillibrand:

Do you think this concept of a wall is going to continue to dominate the discussion around immigration policy?

I do, because I think President Trump wants to continue to divide this country and create barriers. He's been, I think, really ripping the fabric of this country apart as he demonizes immigrants and refugees and asylum seekers and Muslims, and it just hasn't stopped. And he really has tried to divide this country on every racial line, every religious line, every socioeconomic line that he can find. And it's not who we are as Americans at all. You know, we're a country founded by immigrants. Our diversity is our strength. Our diversity has led to innovation and entrepreneurialism and growth in the strongest economy in the world. And that's because we are so different and we just create and build things because of that ingenuity.

What does border security look like to you?

Of course we need to secure our borders. And Democrats believe we should have secure borders. We have to keep people safe. It's interesting. I was in Iowa last weekend and I was just walking along Main Street talking to folks, went to shops, and I went in this one woman's- owned shop and I met a woman. And I just said, "Do you mind if I talk to you?" and she said, "No, not at all, but I'm a Republican." And I was like, 'That's OK I still want to talk to you.' I asked her what's on your mind. And she said, "Well, I'm really scared." I said, "What are you scared about?" She said, "I'm really scared of the border." I was like, "What about the border?" She said,"I'm scared of the criminals and I'm scared of the terrorists." I said, "Oh. Well if we were able to get resources to make sure that we could fund our first responders to make sure we can find criminals, if we had resources to make sure we could stop cross-border terrorist actions and human trafficking and drug trafficking, would that make you feel better?" She said, "Yeah."

And then she said, "Well, I'm also worried about all the people here and you know they've been here a long time it doesn't seem fair." I said, "It sounds like if we had a pathway to citizenship where people could buy into their social security, pay their taxes, pay into our school system and eventually become citizens and have a comprehensive approach, how would you feel about that?" She said, "Well that makes sense to me.' I said, "It sounds like you're for comprehensive immigration reform and border security," and she's like, "yes I am." Now there's common ground, right there.

I think Democrats can agree that we can make sure this community and our country's safe, we can make sure we have funds for law enforcement to find criminals and fund antiterrorism and make sure we don't have human trafficking, drug trafficking and gun trafficking and make sure that the people who do this hard work have resources. But there's no reason to demonize immigrants or refugees. We should have a proper asylum program. We have real judges who actually take these cases and understand what's happening in these communities far away that are causing people to stream out of these countries and what can we do. We have the Statue of Liberty in New York Harbor. You know, she stands there as a beacon of light and hope calling out to the world. We'll take your tired, your hungry.

You attended a women's march in Iowa, right?

I did. It was amazing. I really had a great time this weekend because you know the folks I met with, they're really sincere about wanting to make this country better and stronger and helping people.

Do you consider women your base?

Well for sure. I mean I think women is half of America. Fifty one percent. I think they're part of anybody's base. And I think that it's important to talk to all voters about all the issues they care about and not leave women out of that conversation. They deeply care about the economy, they care about national security, they care about health care and better and cheaper drug prices. They care about everything that everybody cares about. So having direct conversations with women throughout my state has always been a priority. But around the country and changing the players list. The fact that we only have approximately 20 percent of women in Congress isn't good enough. We should have 51 percent of women in Congress and have the full diversity of this nation represented in Washington and in local governments.

I've been thinking about some of the criticisms of the first women's march, which people said was driven too much by white women. And when we think of truly intersectional feminism it requires women of color to be leaders, too.

Of course.

Listen to Brigid Bergin and Richard Hake discuss Senator Gillibrand on Morning Edition:

I've heard you talk about trying to amplify the voices of people of color. Do you think running for president right now as a white woman is the best way to do that?

I do. Because I will fight for women of color as hard as I would fight for any woman. I would fight for their children as hard as I would fight for my own children. And I think you have to tackle institutional racism directly. You have to take on institutional racism in the healthcare system and the education system in the economy and jobs. And white women like me must take on these battles because we have to lift up these voices of women who may not be being heard who certainly are speaking out but not listened to. And I have to care as deeply for their community and their families as I would for my own. And it is my responsibility to do that. That's why I sponsor legislation to deal with maternal mortality. The fact that in this city in New York City if you are a black woman you are 12 times more likely to die in childbirth because of racism in our health care system.

When you look at the field of candidates, there is someone like Senator Kamala Harris, who is out there trying to make a similar case. Considering how important black women voters are as a constituency to Democrats, can you make the case that it is more important for you to be a leader than someone like Senator Harris?

Well I certainly wouldn't say it that way. I think it's amazing that Kamala is running and I think she's an amazing candidate and she'd be an amazing president. I think a lot of the Democrats that are running are incredible. They're all better than President Trump, we can start there and they would all do much better things for this country. And I think it's great that we have four maybe five women running for president because it's wonderful for America to see what American leadership looks like in all its forms. And I think that the candidates, particularly the women candidates, will have a different vision for this country that is broad, broad-based and exciting and visionary.

How do you begin to start taking apart something like institutional racism, that is so woven into so many structures within our society?

Right. So I gave you one example from healthcare. Obviously the criminal justice system. I think it's outrageous that someone who doesn't have any resources who is arrested for perhaps a low level offense is incarcerated and not let out of jail until their court date if they don't have money. It might be as little as a $100 or $500. It could be a very small amount of money and they don't have that right to be able to go back to their job to provide for their family. But they are literally incarcerated because they have no money. So I want to change that system. I want to change the fact that if you are a black or brown young man in this city, you are ten times more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession than a white young man, even though usage is the exact same. As a mom of a young boy, I can imagine what would happen to my son. I'm going to be very upset about what happens to someone else's son if they're treated differently because of the color of their skin. But that is the truth about our criminal justice system today. They are treated differently.

There's been a lot of conversation about the divisions between Democrats and Republicans. But there's also divides within the Democratic Party itself. How do you see the party moving forward into 2020? Does there need to be an effort to bring the party together?

I don't think the party is as far apart as you think. I think we deeply care about fairness and opportunity for everyone. I think we very much believe that healthcare should be a right and not a privilege. We certainly want better public schools and we want higher education to be more affordable. I don't think Democrats want people to be laden with student debt and they're willing to fight against it. I think Democrats want to take on the drug companies to make sure that they stop gouging. And so I think there's a lot of unanimity about who we are, what our values are and what we're willing to fight for. I think you'll see small differences over the next year and a half.

But I just think there's a huge difference between what we stand for and what President Trump stands for. President Trump has really divided this country on every line he can find and he's really created an anxiety and a worry on behalf of voters. That woman in Iowa, she was scared. Our president made a woman living in Iowa scared about criminals and terrorists coming from our border. He created that. She should not be frightened in this country. She should not be fearing immigrants because we are a country founded by immigrants. She should not be afraid of moms and babies seeking refuge in this country from horrible lives other places. And so I think, you know, certainly what I'm going to do is create a vision for this country.

You spent a lot of time ahead of the midterms campaigning for other women candidates across the country: Lauren Underwood, Kyrsten Sinema, Jacky Rosen. But here in New York. You endorsed Congressman Joe Crowley over Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. Why was that?

Well, just because I was a good friend of Joe's for a very long time and we worked together on a lot of legislation, particularly the 9/11 health bill. But that is not to diminish Alexandria because she is a woman who is on fire. She's got a vision. She wants to get things done. I love her energy. I love her passion and I think she is shaking things up and I think she's really sincere about what she wants to accomplish, and I'm going to help her.

Has she changed how you thought about anything, like social media for example?

Like she's really good at it and I'm learning. I mean she's, she's really good. She's got talent.

It’s her voice, it's her doing it all the time. Is that something that you could imagine doing?

Well we have very different lives. I have younger children. Like I could take some video of me eating and cooking dinner but don't know that Henry [her son] would appreciate that. But our lives are different. And we're all different. And I'm certainly not going to be like her. She's going to be who she is and she should. But I do think what she's done effectively is brought voters along to talk about things she cares about and that is good for democracy because we really want a direct democracy. We want to get the moneyed interests out of politics, we want to get money out of politics. And the more you can restore one person/one vote, take on voting rights, take on the endless money in politics by banning the corporate PAC money and ultimately getting into publicly funded elections, you're going to restore that.

So I think what's appealing about Alexandria as well as others who have been good in social media is they're just trying to bring what they do closer to people and letting them know what their job is and what their goals are. I think we can all do more to do that, to open up the curtain, break open government, let the sunlight in, something I've always believed in. I was the first member of Congress to post my earmark requests, my schedule, my financial disclosure and my taxes online. I passed a bill to make sure we can make sure members of Congress don't engage in insider trading with their non-public information. So transparency and accountability has been a hallmark of my entire life in public service and I think we need more of it not less of it.

As a presidential candidate, people are going to be poring over your record, your life. And I just want to ask you a question about your career as a corporate lawyer. It's been reported many times one of your clients was Philip Morris, and you were part of a team that was defending them in tobacco litigation. You left that career for a life in public service but, how do you reflect back on the time? Do you have any regrets about doing that work?

I think that time was interesting for me because it allowed me to understand and decide what my definition of success in life is and really decide what my purpose in life was. I was deeply unhappy as a young lawyer and I was young and single but I didn't feel like I was making a difference. I spent my free time doing lots of pro bono cases. I loved working for clients who couldn't afford to pay, or who needed help setting up a charity, or clients that were in the Bronx who were trying to get divorced from a husband who beat them or their children. So a lot of the work I did, I really, really did enjoy and it made me decide I really wanted to do public service.

It was also a time when I realized that politics is important to me. I hadn't really thought about it as a college student. I really hadn't thought about since I was a young girl with my grandmother you know working on campaigns with her and knocking on doors and when I became a young lawyer in New York, I realized that I did care. And I know my real awakening came when Hillary went to China and gave that speech on human rights being women's rights and women's rights being human rights. It just made me want to have been there and I realized I wasn't there because I wasn't invited. And so during my young time as a lawyer I'd spent a lot of time just helping candidates get elected and really realize that our voice can be amplified through politics. But over time I just decided my definition of success was no longer getting the corner office or making money. In fact, that we are literally on this planet to help people and that I needed to take my career in a direction where I could be helping people full time.

Did it teach you anything about how big corporations work and has that informed any of your work on policy or how they look at the legislative process?

I didn't have much window into that when I was a young lawyer, it just wasn't the type of work I was doing. But I certainly have seen it my last 12 years of public service. One of the reasons why we need to get money out of politics is I see how legislation's written. I know that the reason why we've done nothing after all these horrible gun deaths, after all of these shootings locally and mass shootings is because of the chokehold the NRA has. I know that they are funded entirely by, actually not entirely, they're funded by gun manufacturers and probably other large corporate interests for their own reasons. But they only care about profits of their manufacturers and that greed drives everything. So if they believe that teenagers who shop in Wal-Mart should have access to military style weapons they're going to make sure that Congress doesn't make that harder. If they believe that you know they want to sell more weapons to more people, well they're not going to want universal background checks because they're not going to want to exclude anyone including criminals, including people on the terror watch list, including people who are so mentally ill and violent they should never have access to a weapon. So they block the common-sense things that Americans are for. That's because of greed.

If you look at Medicare part D, our seniors spend so much money on prescription drugs. People do all across the board. But when that deal was made under the Bush administration they purposely made it with the drug companies to make sure that in Medicare you couldn't buy in bulk get the cheapest drugs. That's how legislation is written. It's written in the dead of the night by the special interests because they have so much power and the power they have is just flows through Washington in the form of money. And so if you really want to take on corruption and greed you've got to get money out of politics.

Do you have a favorite author or what are you reading now?

So I really love C.S. Lewis. I think he's a very amazing author who's done a lot on issues that are relevant to my faith. But I also loved his children's books. And I wanted both my sons to read them. I like Madeleine L'Engle for the same reasons. I just read a couple of her books with Henry which was a blast.

Have you binged watched anything on Netflix?

OK, I don't know which programs are on which, so I can't answer that question. But I have binge watched series.

What’s a series that you've binge watched.

Veep. I think it's really funny. Love it. I know that's HBO. Also Game of Thrones. I definitely watch lots of those right in a row. But not while I haven't watched television in probably in many, many months like I literally can't remember the last time I got to watch TV show. Oh, I did watch one: Stranger Things. Yeah. Do you know that one? So Theo wanted to watch it—my 15-year-old. So I said, 'OK this will be a series we get to watch together.' And I was so frightened in the first three episodes, I was angry. I was throwing things and saying, 'why did you make me watch this, it's too scary as a mommy because children are being taken.' It was freaking me out of my crazy heart palpitations and I was so angry. But my sister said, 'no keep watching it's really good.'

I know you're out on the road a lot. What do you do when you can't get home to tuck Henry into bed?

I call him and we do FaceTime. And Henry loves the new cameras because sometimes he likes to put an emoji on his face which of course makes me laugh very hard. And I won't tell you which emoji a 10 year old boy prefers. You can imagine. Anyway so we will we will talk to each other and we'll do FaceTime we'll do that in the morning, I did this morning. I will do it tonight before I go to bed. And I just try to talk to him every night and every morning because you know. The hardest thing of this decision to run for president is just the time I won't be with Henry. And Theo's already you know made his decisions about his schooling so he's less he's around less. But for Henry it's going to be hard because he's used to me there every morning. I mean I always make breakfast, I make lunch, I make dinner. I bring him to school, I pick him up from school, I'm home most weekends. I coached his baseball team. I go to every soccer game. So it's hard, it's going to be different. But he's ready and he's committed and he said, “Mommy you have to do this. You might be the only one who could beat him.”

Brigid Bergin is the City Hall and politics reporter for WNYC. You can follow her on Twitter at @brigidbergin.

Featured in News