Kirsten Gillibrand Talks Family Leave, Guns, Building 'Common Ground'

Apr 8, 2019

Credit Allegra Boverman for NHPR

NHPR's Morning Edition Host Rick Ganley is sitting down with presidential candidates as they make their early trips through the Granite State to meet with potential voters.

Rick recently caught up with New York Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand at a restaurant in Concord.

(Below is a transcript of the NHPR interview, edited lightly for clarity.)

The theme among many Democratic candidates in this primary is bridging the divide between parties and bringing the American people together. How do you plan to accomplish that?

I think the most important thing any public servant can do is listen. Find out what are the worries, and fears and anxieties of the families you hope to represent, and then find bipartisan solutions to solve their problems. That's what I do every day in the Senate. It's why I was able to pass 18 bills last Congress. And these were bills that I wrote and passed because I heard of concerns from my constituents and found Republicans who had constituents with the same concerns. So it's not hard to do. You just have to start by listening and then building common ground. And the areas where most people want us to focus on is health care is a right, not a privilege, fixing our public schools, making college more affordable, helping people get higher paying jobs so they can provide for their kids. It's really that simple.

So if there are so many people in Congress that are willing to be looking in that compromise and in that direction, why aren't we hearing more about that?

I think a lot of times politics gets reduced to us against them and gets reduced to an argument about who's right, about this the other thing. But that's really not it. What politics should be about is public service. We are servants first. It means you put others before yourself, and it means you try to make people's lives better that you're supposed to help people. And so if you find other senators who have that same perspective, you can get pretty much anything done.

Particularly in New Hampshire voters who are familiar with your record most likely associate you with advocacy for a national family leave program. You've introduced legislation in Congress with family medical and leave every year since 2013, but so far it's been unsuccessful. If you've been unable to persuade colleagues to deal with that issue up to now, you know why should voters expect you to deliver as president?

Well some issues you need to drive the advocacy over many years. When I repealed Don't Ask Don't Tell, I was able to do that because state by state advocates were working on marriage equality. In my own state, we had had a vote on marriage equality and it had failed. But after we repeal Don't Ask Don't Tell, which was the very discriminatory policy that told men and women who are serving in the military that they couldn't based on who they love -- after we repeal don't ask don't tell, the next time we voted on marriage equality in New York it passed. So sometimes you have to build on successes and failures to move forward. And I think paid leave is exactly that. I think we're having a national conversation right now about do we value women. Do we want women and families to thrive in America? Do we want caregivers to thrive in America? Do we want to change the workplace rules to reflect the actual face of the workforce? And that's what the paid leave debates about, and it makes such economic sense.

And Republicans in some way, do agree with you. They're increasingly in support of their own version…

I think it's great. I mean, when I started this advocacy six years ago, my goal was just to get it debated on the presidential stage. Sure enough we got it debated. Both Hillary [Clinton] and Bernie [Sanders] had proposals. [Donald] Trump had a proposal. Marco Rubio had a proposal. To have four presidential candidates debate what's the best way to have paid leave, to me was a complete success. And so now we've got actually legislative proposals from Republicans.

The one area of common ground that I've just found that I think is terrific is the fact that the Republicans who are proposing it are suggesting that they want caregiver's to be able to draw down on Social Security. Where the common ground lies,is they believe therefore that paid leave should be an earned benefit. I believe that we need to buy in as an earned benefit a point two percent of our income to add to social security, not to take away from. And I think if they're already there, that it's appropriate to have it funded through an earned benefit, we're halfway to compromise. And so I hopefully can persuade a Republican in this Congress to lead on this issue and to find that the way we've structured it really does make the most sense.

 You've said in the past that you're embarrassed by your previous position on gun rights. While serving as a Congresswoman in a rural district of New York, you received an "A" rating from the NRA. Now you've since changed your stance on the issue since you were elected statewide. Is it fair for voters to see that change in position is a political calculation?

No, I think it was one of the most heartfelt decisions I made. When I met families who lost their loved ones to gun violence, when I met the parents of Nyasia Pryear, a high school girl who was with her friends when a stray bullet killed her. I met all her classmates and that was 10 years ago. And when I met that family and those classmates, I just realized instantaneously that I should have been a better leader. I should have cared about communities outside of my own where we didn't experience the same gun violence that Buffalo does, or the Bronx or Brooklyn.

But I still should have cared about those families just as much and maybe lead my district on that issue. So I regret it. I think it was a lack of strength and a lack of humility to know that you need to care for everybody, even if it's not in your backyard and even if it's not the constituents that you're representing that you actually do need to care about everyone.

Do you see it more as a state’s rights issues though?

It is a state's rights issue for a lot of people. But for me, I really was just focused on the priorities that I was representing my district on and that wasn't among them. It doesn't matter. When people are dying around this country, you need to protect their families too. And that's why I think I'm a great candidate for president. Because I can go to red and purple places that deeply believe in the Second Amendment [and] that really admire and support hunting rights, and say yes but you also do care about a 4-year-old losing his life on a park bench in Brooklyn. And we all care about that. So let's actually make sure that guns don't get in the hands of criminals.

Voters here in New Hampshire have already heard a lot of talk from Democrats in this race about fundamental changes to democracy – lowering the voting age, scrapping the Electoral College. How necessary do you think that kind of change is at this point?

Well, I've talked to a lot of voters around the country that like me believe that it should be one person, one vote. And it just doesn't make sense that there's such a disconnect between the Electoral College outcome and the actual vote. And so I think it's something we as Americans should actually have a national debate about whether we need the Electoral College anymore, and shouldn't it actually be one person, one vote.

Do you feel that the country as a whole though is going in that direction, or do you feel that that is kind of a far left issue at this point?

I don't see it as a far left issue. I think it's an issue that we should debate. I think we should talk about it with the American people, because if you're going to do something that significant, you need to make sure the American people are behind you. So I think it's an issue we should talk about.

So it's an open question at this point in your mind?

Yeah. I mean, I have a preference for one person, one vote. So I lean on the side of getting rid of it, but I'd love to talk about it with voters and hear what they think.