The Slatest

Kirsten Gillibrand Tries to Explain Her Pro-Gun, Anti-Immigrant Past

A screenshot close-up of Kirsten Gillibrand on 60 Minutes.
Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand on 60 Minutes on Sunday.
60 Minutes/© CBS

Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand got the star treatment on Sunday night. CBS News devoted more than a dozen of its 60 Minutes to the New York Democrat, the bulk of which were spent painting her as an equal-opportunity crusader against sexual harassment. “She has called out the president of the United States and longtime Democratic allies like former President Bill Clinton and Sen. Al Franken,” correspondent Sharyn Alfonsi informed viewers at the outset. “That candor and her willingness to be out front—often alone—has made her a lightning rod and one of the most prominent political faces of the Me Too movement.”

That’s not bad press, if you can get it. If Gillibrand has the presidential aspirations many believe she does, she couldn’t have asked for a better introduction to those Americans who will vote in the Democratic primaries in two years’ time. And in addition to being dubbed “the #MeToo senator,” the segment also came with the usual soft-focus trappings of a newsmagazine profile that can leave you feeling like you’re watching a campaign ad. There Gillibrand was packing lunch for one of her sons and riding with her entire family in a minivan. Here she was walking around her childhood home and sledding down a snowy hill with her mother. And there she was talking about her religious faith and quoting Scripture with ease.

It wasn’t until about two-thirds of the way through the segment that Alfonsi went to the tape to press Gillibrand to explain a few of her past positions that could represent major hurdles in a nominating race that very well may come down to who can run left the fastest and farthest: her past conservative views on guns and immigration.

As my colleague Osita Nwanevu pointed out a few months ago, the Gillibrand we see today looks very different than the one we saw back in 2007, when she was on her way to becoming the unlikely winner of a House seat in a largely rural and heavily Republican district in upstate New York:

Upon winning, she became a member of the Blue Dog Coalition of conservative Democrats. She supported a balanced budget amendment and a ban on deficit spending. Her immigration platform was of a piece with the proto-Trumpism brewing during George W. Bush’s second term—no amnesty or benefits for illegal aliens; a crackdown on sanctuary cities like New York; more agents, fencing, and tech for the border; and legislation making English America’s official language. The Human Rights Campaign, an LGBTQ advocacy group, gave her the lowest rating of any New York Democrat in Congress for her positions on gay rights issues. Her rating from the National Rifle Association, meanwhile, was a solid 100 percent.

All of that made her a controversial pick to fill the Senate seat that opened up when President Obama tapped Hillary Clinton to be his secretary of state in 2009. Asked about why her views had changed, Gillibrand had an unusually straightforward answer.

“After I got appointed, I went down to Brooklyn to meet with families who had suffered from gun violence in their communities,” she said. “And you immediately experience the feeling that I couldn’t have been more wrong—you know I only had the lens of upstate New York.”

She offered up a similar answer on immigration: “I came from a district that was 98 percent white. … And I just didn’t take the time to understand why these issues mattered because it wasn’t right in front of me. And that was my fault. It was something that I’m embarrassed about and I’m ashamed of.”

As Alfonsi pointed out, to say Gillibrand “only had the lens of upstate New York” is somewhat misleading, since she had lived in New York City for a decade before returning to upstate to a run for a congressional seat. From their exchange:

Alfonsi: But you had—lived in New York City—

Gillibrand: I know.

Alfonsi: —for a decade.

Gillibrand: And that’s why I was embarrassed.

Alfonsi: You traveled abroad.

Gillibrand: I was wrong. What it’s about is the power of the NRA and the greed of that industry. Let’s be clear. It is not about hunters’ rights, it’s about money.

Alfonsi: Your critics will say it’s political opportunism.

Gillibrand: As is their right. They can say what they like.

It’s an approach that learns some lessons from the woman Gillibrand replaced in the Senate. Hillary Clinton had to explain away a lot two years ago—from her past use of the word superpredator and to her (more recent) use of a private email account and beyond. And you can believe those changes in heart were sincere and still concede she took an awfully long time to make them public. (The same can be said for Bernie Sanders and his views on guns, by the way.)

And that’s what makes Gillibrand’s mea culpa so striking. Rather than muddle through any based on the information I had at the time disclaimers, she’s skipping over that awkward step between explaining why you did something your base doesn’t like and apologizing for it.

That strategy has served her well in New York. Since her sudden conversion in 2009, Gillibrand has given liberal critics little reason to doubt her commitment to their cause, earning an F from the NRA (to go with an A from her upstate years) and becoming one of the louder champions for immigrants’ rights and immigration reform. Without an opening to her left, a host of Democrats who promised to primary her in 2010 never made good on the threat, and two years later, Gillibrand won one of the most overwhelming victories in New York political history. This year, she faces only a token Republican challenge to her re-election.

But Gillibrand won’t face such a clear path in 2020, when as many as a dozen Democrats could be battling for the progressive mantle. So, Gillibrand is doing her best to air out the issues now, hoping that liberals in Iowa and New Hampshire will focus on her unblemished record in the Senate and not a handful of highly damning House votes from a decade ago. As Gillibrand herself said in the 60 Minutes interview, “if you’re wrong, just admit it and move on.”