Kirsten Gillibrand Won’t Take No For An Answer

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from TIME Magazine,

How a junior senator gets a gridlocked Senate to pass bills once declared dead.

Gillibrand has become something of a force in short order too, chiefly by taking on and then reviving what seem like lost causes. Since filling Hillary Clinton’s seat in 2009, she’s led the fight to repeal “Don’t ask, don’t tell,” pushed through a long-stalled compensation fund for 9/11 first responders and helped pass a law that makes it illegal to profit from insider tips from congressional staff. Her agenda gives little comfort to leaders in either party, and already there is talk of higher office. “If you’re going to represent your people and be a good legislator, you can’t follow the party line,” says Senator Chuck Grassley of Iowa, one of nine Republicans who have signed on to Gillibrand’s sexual-assault-in-the-military bill. “She’s passionate, and that’s not a word I use a lot.”

If Gillibrand takes unusual risks with party elites, it’s because she is so familiar with them. She was born in Albany, N.Y., in 1966, to lawyer parents. Her maternal grandmother was Dorothea “Polly” Noonan, founder of the Albany Democratic Women’s Club and right hand to Mayor Erastus Corning II, who ruled Albany for more than 40 years. Her father, meanwhile, was a Democratic lobbyist close to two powerful Republicans: George Pataki and Alfonse D’Amato, for whom Gillibrand spent a summer interning. After graduating with an Asian-studies major from Dartmouth (Gillibrand speaks Mandarin), she went to law school at UCLA, clerked for a Reagan-appointed federal judge and then spent 14 years at tony Manhattan law firms where she helped defend tobacco company Philip Morris from criminal and civil racketeering charges. In 1999 she began volunteering on Clinton’s Senate campaign; by 2006 she’d been elected to Congress from her childhood Albany district.

And so in the months before the November 2010 special election to serve out the remainder of Clinton’s term, Gillibrand’s positions evolved. Quickly. She became a supporter of the Dream Act, which grants citizenship to undocumented children who’ve grown up in the U.S. And she moved left on gun control; an NRA spokesman said it was the quickest flip from “an A to an F rating I’ve ever witnessed.” Her staff says the change was inevitable given that she had gone from representing a small, rural, mostly white district to a hugely multicultural state plagued in many urban areas by gun violence. Still, those reversals were done at such high speeds that Chuck Schumer, the senior Senator from New York, reportedly told her to take it down a notch. Schumer now says he only encouraged her “to fight back against attacks when at first she was hesitant,” he tells TIME.

Gillibrand, who turns 47 on Dec. 9, has two children under 11 and is a Senate anomaly in other ways as well. She once chased Tim Scott, a South Carolina Republican, into the GOP cloakroom trying to win his vote. (Gillibrand came up short, but the gambit raised eyebrows.) Such efforts help explain why even her rivals give her points for energy and may be a reason Gillibrand has lost 40 lb. while serving in the slow-moving upper chamber.

Sitting with 18 of her female Senate colleagues for an interview with ABC’s Diane Sawyer in January about the historic number of women in the Senate, Gillibrand was silent when Sawyer asked if anyone in the room might one day run for President.

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