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Why Gillibrand didn’t connect

2019-08-29

Former Democratic presidential candidate U.S. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) (Alex Wong/Getty Images)

If you’re the kind of person who subscribes to political emails lists, try this exercise. Search the names of presidential candidates and re-read their emails. Search for Kirsten Gillibrand specifically and you’ll find a consistent narrative. Go back to May 2013 and you’ll find an email about a legislative accomplishment:

“[We] have big, important news. Today, Kirsten [Gillibrand] led a bipartisan group of lawmakers introducing bicameral legislation to reform how the military handles sexual assault cases. Kirsten’s Senate hearing, the first on this issue in 10 years, helped move this forward to where it is now. Rep. Tulsi Gabbard...is pushing it ahead in the House and two Republican senators and two Republican congressmen have joined the effort.”

That’s the kind of story Gillibrand the candidate hoped voters would hear, and appreciate, during her eight-month-long presidential run. She’s a consensus builder, a mover of legislation, and — most of all — a champion for women.

Women’s candidacies and “women’s issues,” especially sexual assault prevention, have been Gillibrand’s bread and butter since the start of her Senate career. So why, in the era of #MeToo, did no one care about Kirsten Gillibrand’s run for president?

August should have been good for Gillibrand. Prevalent reporting on Jeffrey Epstein left her plenty of room to talk about one of her key issues. Sordid details about the role of the legal system protecting Epstein were a reminder that addressing rape and assault requires a system-wide effort. In a society where power is unequally distributed, women are often complicit in carrying on the status quo.

Gillibrand has long worked hard to not be complicit. From the male-dominated U.S. Senate, she took on the even more male-dominated U.S. military. Though her proposals received mixed reviews, she has worked hard to ensure that survivors’ assault claims are taken seriously and prosecuted sufficiently. Gillibrand’s reform proposals bring attention to an issue that few want to talk about.

Gillibrand stood by her principles in calling for former Sen. Al Franken’s ouster after he was accused of inappropriate behavior. She was clobbered by negative comments about that choice throughout her run for the presidency. In January, The Cut wrote a piece on the impact of anger over Franken on her campaign. They called it “Gillibrand’s Franken Problem Won’t Die.”

Apparently, we like it when politicians stay true to themselves — but not when that means calling out powerful men. Especially powerful men with whom we are assumed to be allied. This can only happen in a society where sexual assault is normalized, particularly when committed by the powerful.

It’s a crowded primary field with many important issues that need advancing. Yet, a sitting senator with massive fundraising capability, a successful PAC, and a solid base of support is typically expected to gain at least some traction. Why did no one care about Kirsten Gillibrand’s run for president? Because so few of us are truly outraged by the issues that form her political legacy.

James is an assistant professor of political science at Borough of Manhattan Community College CUNY. Szitanyi is an assistant dean at the New School who studies women in the military.