Virtual Town Hall: 5 Questions for Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand

Virtual Town Hall

This is the second installment of MYD’s “Virtual Town Hall,” a series of exclusive interviews with newsmakers, lawmakers, and other fascinating New Yorkers. Our first was with Rep. Carolyn Maloney, and today we have Senator Gillibrand. The format is simple: We ask any five questions. They answer. No edits! 

Senator Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) is the current junior U.S. Senator for the state of New York. She was appointed by Governor Paterson in 2009 to fill the seat vacated by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. Previously Gillibrand represented New York’s 20th District in the U.S. House of Representatives. Gillibrand is seeking election to her Senate seat in a special election this fall.

Gillibrand speaking
Senator Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY)

1. You received inspiration and lessons from your political family, how do you recommend that young people find mentors and learn the craft of politics?

I was fortunate to grow up with a wonderful role model for public service – my grandmother. She taught me the importance of organizing to give voice to people who had no voice. When I was young, I worked alongside her on the front lines, licking envelopes, making phone calls, and working to elect candidates we believed in. Before I decided to pursue public service, I did the same thing, working with women across New York to raise money for other women candidates that cared about the same issues I did. But it wasn’t easy to break in and get a job. Finally, I approached Andrew Cuomo at an event here in New York City. Andrew was serving as Secretary of HUD under President Clinton at the time and he challenged all of us in the audience to get involved. I told him what I’d been doing and that I was having a hard time making inroads. He ended up inviting me to DC to interview for a job with him at HUD. Andrew became just the mentor I needed. I worked as special counsel under him until 2000 and it was that job that made me realize that I truly wanted to work at the federal level and to run for congress. So, my advice to all young people is to get involved, organize your friends and others who care about the issues you care about and seek out mentors that can help guide you to great opportunities in public service.

2. The Obama administration is calling for a crackdown on Wall Street bonuses but some state and local officials, included Mayor Bloomberg and Governor Paterson, have come out against increased taxes, citing the importance of the financial industry to the New York economy. Where do you stand on the issue?

I’m proud that we were able to pass legislation that establishes common sense rules of the road for the financial industry. My priority has been to make sure that we never again suffer from a financial crisis due to too much risk in the system, institutions that are too big to fail, and a lack of proper oversight and accountability. To this end, one of the proposals I’ve fought for is the establishment of an independent Consumer Financial Protection Agency that has real teeth. We must have systems in place that protect all American families, put consumers first and remove bad actors that threaten our financial security.

3. As a member on the subcommittee for Green Jobs, how can work to ensure that green job training for the unemployed is targeted to difficult-to-employ populations? How will you work to ensure that women, who are traditionally under-represented in green job fields from engineering to carpentry, are included in the push for green jobs in NY?

Creating Green Jobs and fair opportunities for all workers are two of my top priorities. Women-owned small businesses are among the fastest growing segment of our economy, and in order to promote economic development and sustainable growth, this segment of businesses must be supported. That’s why I, along with my Republican colleague Senator Olympia Snowe of Maine, recently introduced the bipartisan Fairness in Women-Owned Small Business Contracting Act of 2010. This legislation would address the imbalance in workplace opportunity that women face by enabling female entrepreneurs to receive non-competitive federal contracts when circumstances permit, providing them with the tools to compete fairly in the federal contracting arena. This bill would put women-owned contracting firms on par with other federal small business socio-economic contracting programs and will help the federal government to finally meet its goal of contracting 5% of its annual work to companies owned by women.

In addition, as part of the Environment & Public Works Committee-passed climate bill, I secured language, working with Green For All, a coalition of Environmental Justice, Religious, Labor, and Environmental groups that creates a framework to target employment and training opportunities in green construction to workers and communities who traditionally have had little access to career-track jobs with high-road contractors in the building trades. If the Senate proceeds with comprehensive climate and energy, which I hope we will, I will fight for similar language in that legislation.

4. You moved from serving a slightly more conservative constituency upstate from representing the whole state: how do you balance serving public interest with serving public opinion? How do you balance your principles with what your constituents want?

I ran for Congress in 2006 because I am passionate about serving my constituents. It was my number one focus as a Congresswoman and is my number one focus as a Senator as well. I will always serve the people I represent. Being a strong representative and advocate is not simply about how you vote, it’s about making government open and transparent; it’s about making sure people have access to opportunity; it’s about being accessible to all your constituents by going to supermarkets or diners to speak one on one with everyday citizens. Remember, when I represented one of the most conservative districts in the state, I was voting more than 93% of the time with the Democratic majority. This was not a Democratic district yet they sent me back to Congress with 68% of the vote in 2008. It was because they knew every day I woke up with the goal of fighting for them in Washington. I look at my job as Senator the exact same way.

5. Some of our members are interested in running for political office, but one of the most difficult problems they see with politics is how much money one needs to raise to be a viable candidate. As a successful fundraiser, what advice would you give these young people?

One thing I would say is that before I ran for office, I spent years raising money for other people here in NYC. I worked with the Women’s Campaign Forum and other advocacy groups and organized mostly women to raise money for candidates and organizations that shared our values. That’s a good start. You meet people who want to help and you build important relationships with them. If you help them by raising money for them, they’ll most likely never forget you.