After graduating from UCLA law school in 1991, Kirsten Gillibrand spent 15 years as a lawyer working for tobacco firms and other big corporate clients. Today, the New York senator is more of a corporate scold than a supporter. She decries the role of corporate donations in American politics and says corporate lobbyists have “bought and sold” many members of Congress.
Why the change? “I left the law and decided to run for Congress because I wasn't fulfilled through the work I was doing,” Gillibrand told Yahoo Finance during a recent interview at her New Hampshire campaign office. “I felt like it didn't represent who I was and my values and wanted to accomplish in life. Now that I've been in Congress for 12 years, I really do see the root of the problem as this unbelievable, unmitigating corruption and greed that drives all policy.”
Gillibrand tried to enter public service by working for the Justice Department, prominent charities and Hillary Clinton’s first senatorial campaign, in 2001. With no experience in politics, nobody would hire her, except for a brief stint at the Dept. of Housing and Urban Development at the tail end of the Clinton Administration. So she ran for Congress as a Democrat in 2006 in a conservative district in upstate New York, winning two terms. When Hillary Clinton left her Senate seat to become Secretary of State in 2009, the governor appointed Gillibrand to fill it. She won reelection in 2012 and 2018 and likes to say she has never lost an election.
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As a presidential hopeful, Gillibrand’s pitch to voters is that President Trump has filled the swamp, not drained it, with moneyed elites more powerful than ever. Gillibrand wants to provide public funding for federal elections, in lieu of corporate contributions. She’d amend the Constitution to overturn the 2010 “Citizens United” Supreme Court decision allowing unlimited corporation donations to political-action committees. She’s also a sexual-harassment hawk who has criticized Bill Clinton’s behavior toward women, and who led the charge for former Democratic Sen. Al Franken to resign, following harassment allegations by several women in 2017. Some liberals feel Gillibrand went too far in attacking a fellow Democrat.
Gillibrand favors “Medicare for all,” which would be a huge government health care program replacing most private insurance. Her approach differs slightly from that of Sen. Bernie Sanders and Sen. Elizabeth Warren. She wouldn’t force all Americans into the government plan right away, but instead would allow Medicare to compete for customers with private insurers, such as those providing coverage for many big employers. Medicare would eventually force most insurers out of business, she believes, since it doesn’t need to turn a profit or appease shareholders. “If they want to compete, let them lower their rates, let them cover more stuff,” Gillibrand says. “I doubt they will.” In that way, most consumers would eventually migrate into the government program, where they could get a better deal.
During the first set of Democratic debates in June, Gillibrand raised her hand when the moderator asked who felt undocumented immigrants in the United States should qualify for health care coverage. Gillibrand elaborates on that by saying undocumented migrants should pay for coverage, and also pay taxes. Preventive care, she points out, is far less costly than treatment in an emergency room, which is where many migrants end up getting care. She does favor a path to citizenship for most migrants in the country illegally.
As a senator from a high-income state, Gillibrand would reinstate the full income tax deduction for state and local taxes paid, which the 2017 Trump tax cut legislation capped at $10,000 per year. As a member of Congress with many rural constituents, Gillibrand once had an A rating from the National Rifle Association. But she now favors several gun-control measures and says the NRA has many members of Congress in a “chokehold.” Her current NRA rating is an F. She obviously hopes voters rate her higher.
Rick Newman is the author of four books, including “Rebounders: How Winners Pivot from Setback to Success.” Follow him on Twitter: @rickjnewman