Who is Kirsten Gillibrand? According to New York magazine's Rebecca Traister, the New York senator is "a Democratic holy warrior against Donald Trump." According to an even more glowing profile from Refinery29 writer Torey Van Oot, she's "a progressive leader of the anti-Trump resistance." Teen Vogue says she's "setting the Internet ablaze for creating the political slogan the resistance deserves." (That slogan: "We're here to help people, and if we're not helping people, we should go the fuck home.") Refinery29 again: "She's not our newest feminist leader: She's the one who has been here, waiting in the wings, for years." And that's just the press she got this week.
Gillbrand is the only senator to vote against all of Trump's cabinet picks (with the exception of Nikki Haley, the UN ambassador), a symbolic measure of defiance seemingly designed to give her cred with the completely fed up contingent of the Democratic base. She's firmly in the Hillary Clinton mold—she was appointed to Clinton's seat by then New York Governor David Patterson when Clinton became secretary of state—except plainspoken enough to say "fuck." People are asking if she'll run for president in 2020 in a way that means the answer is almost certainly yes.
But if she's a "feminist leader" and a "holy warrior," she's a relatively new one. Less than ten years ago, Gillibrand was an anti-immigration, pro-gun Democratic congresswoman from upstate New York with an A rating from the NRA. Before she got into politics, she was a lawyer who represented one of the biggest tobacco companies in the world. She fought against amnesty for undocumented immigrants and wanted to cut aid in sanctuary cities. When then Governor Eliot Spitzer proposed a policy to give undocumented people driver's licenses, she was firmly against it. Her past record is being mostly glossed over at the moment, but as she rises in stature, some of her allies in the resistance may wonder: How sincere is she?
At the law firm Davis Polk & Wardwell, she "was involved in some of the most sensitive matters related to the defense of [Philip Morris] as it confronted pivotal legal battles beginning in the mid-1990s," according to a 2009 New York Times story. Eventually she was placed in charge of a team of lawyers defending the tobacco giant; after she changed firms she represented Philip Morris's parent company, the Altria Group, assisting them with securities and antitrust issues. Her spokesperson naturally played down her relationship with Big Tobacco, telling the Times, "It is a small part of her 15-year legal career," but her former coworkers remember it differently. Vincent Chang, who worked with her at Davis Polk, told the paper, "The client was always in her office... She was probably accorded more responsibility than the average associate by far."
Along the way she volunteered for Hillary Clinton and acquired her as a mentor. Clinton helped Gillibrand win a deep-red upstate House district in 2006, though the candidate's folksiness helped too—she was the type of politician who openly bragged about having shotguns underneath her bed. A fierce opponent of immigration reform, she pushed for local law enforcement to carry out federal immigration policies. She wanted English to be the official language of the United States and cosponsored the SAVE Act, which aimed to "to crack down on illegal immigration with more border guards and surveillance technology, accelerated deportations and a mandatory program requiring employers to verify the immigration status of employees." When Patterson appointed her as a senator in 2009 she was immediately criticized for her inexperience, her obvious ambition for higher office, and her flip-flopping on issues.
The flip-flopping was real: Shortly after her ascension to the Senate, she hired "a public-affairs consulting company with ties to the Hispanic community" and pledged her support for the DREAM Act, according to a 2013 Atlantic profile. All of a sudden she was pro-immigrant and pro–gun control, which she attributes to going on a "listening tour" through New York State, a move borrowed from Clinton.
In an interview with Politico's Glenn Thrush last year, during the Democratic primaries, Gillibrand explained that she was deeply affected by meeting with families of gun violence victims. "It's so crippling—I mean, I sat down with a mother last week in Brooklyn, and she lost her four-year-old baby… she took her kid to a park," she told Thrush. "Every mom takes their kid to a park. And she took her kid to a park and the kid was killed, a baby, a four-year-old."
The catch is that she was telling that story in part to criticize Bernie Sanders, who, she said, "doesn't have the sensitivity he needs to the horror that is happening in these families. I just don't think he's fully getting how horrible it is for these families."
Now, it seems, Gillibrand has shifted to the left again: She's cosponsoring Bernie Sanders forthcoming "Medicare for All" bill. But she's hardly the next Sanders—the Vermont senator, after all, was beloved for his dogmatically dependable ideology, and his position as a Democratic party outsider. Will lefties embrace Gillibrand the same way they embraced Sanders, even if she's talking his talk?
Gillibrand has owned up the the fact that her views are different than they once were, though she insisted to New York that "I never changed my values." In 2009, she told the New York Times, "In a lot of these issues, it's a case of learning more and expanding my view."
Lots of people shift their opinions over time, but such processes are often slow; they don't necessarily come about after a couple of conversations. But if some part of Gillibrand's positions are based on opportunism, they are still powerful positions. The left is genuinely lucky to have her in the Senate, especially with the Democrats so far from power, and with some of their red-state senators, like West Virginia's Joe Manchin, being far from progressives.
We need more firebrands who aren't afraid to vote against Trump and talk clearly and convincingly about why he's wrong. As long as she's advancing progressive policies, does it actually matter what's in her heart? Only time will tell.
Follow Eve Peyser on Twitter.