TIME Newsmaker Interview

Interview: Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand on Running for President, Sexual Assault in the Military and College Campuses and Why Women Should Rule

Senator Kirsten Gillibrand attends a press conference in the Russell Senate Office Building on Capitol Hill in Washington, Feb. 6, 2014.
Senator Kirsten Gillibrand attends a press conference in the Russell Senate Office Building on Capitol Hill in Washington, Feb. 6, 2014. Mandel Ngan—AFP/Getty Images

New York Democratic Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand tells TIME she'll consider running "someday," but says Hillary Clinton will be "our first woman president." Days after her sexual assault bill failed to overcome a filibuster, she adds "I will certainly never give up the fight"

President Obama may want to watch out: Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand has him in her sights. The New York Democrat is anticipating the next time she sees the President and has an proposition for him: “If he’s looking for ideas for things he can do with the power of the pen, [paid family leave] may be one of them—that he could actually instill paid leave for federal workers,” Gillibrand says, brimming with enthusiasm in an interview with TIME in her Senate office.

Her plan to expand paid family leave is just one part of a women’s agenda that Gillibrand says she’ll spend the better part of this year pushing. “One of the biggest problems is that our work place rules do not reflect the face of the workforce. In New York State, 48% of workers are women and our workplace policies are stuck in the 50’s and 60’s,” Gillibrand says. “Women are earning more than half of the college degrees, more than half of the advanced degrees. So when you’re constantly undermining them by not having the support necessary in the work place, you are going to undermine the full potential of our workers and our economy.”

Though Democrats have made women’s economic issues the centerpiece of their 2014 electoral strategy, Gillibrand says she is looking to work with Republicans. “My goal is to reach across the aisle and find some cosponsors on each piece of legislation,” she says. “I’m more concerned about that than making it an electoral issue.”

Still, it’s on the merit of the issues that she is helping half a dozen female candidates run for Congress as part of her program and PAC called Off the Sidelines, which is also the title of her forthcoming book in September. Gillibrand has five issues that she asks her candidates, women voters, and virtually every woman she meets, to support: raising the minimum wage, universal pre-kindergarten, affordable day care, paid family leave and equal pay for women. “It’s a call to action, asking women to participate in politics all across the country,” she says, “to make sure that women are voting, to make sure their voices are being heard.”

As for her own call to higher office? Say in 2016? Not happening, she says. “I will consider it someday, I’m sure, but not any time in the near future,” she says of running for President. “Hillary Clinton will be our first woman president. I think she will run in 2016. I think she will win in 2016. I will help her. I will campaign for her.”

Besides, Gillibrand says, she has too much unfinished work in the Senate, like tackling sexual assault on college campuses and getting through her sexual assault in the military bill that failed last week—in no small part thanks to the tacit opposition of Obama, who said he wanted a year to study the issue. “That year of study is nearly expired by the end of this year so I will be asking for President Obama for his support for this legislation as we begin to show this is not a problem that can be fixed easily,” Gillibrand says. “I will certainly never give up the fight.” As Obama well knows few senators are as dogged as Gillibrand when she has found a cause. The President’s signature pens for legislation Gillibrand has pushed through—the repeal of Don’t Ask Don’t Tell, the 911 First Responders Fund and emergency aid for Sandy Hook—decorate Gillibrand’s office.

Gillibrand sat down with TIME for a wide-ranging interview on Tuesday morning. Below are excerpts of her remarks:

Q. What do you tell women who are thinking of running?

I describe what my life is like so they know it’s possible. I obviously bring my kids to school on most days, pick them up on most days. I make them dinner most days but I am somebody who can generally set my schedule. Unlike the lady who is going to clean this office tonight or the ladies doing a double shift in an emergency room, or a shift worker, they generally don’t get to set their hours. So I’m able to manage my time and be there for my kids in a way that I need to be and be here at work when I need to be. If I have late night votes, I’ll get a sitter. If I have late night meetings, I’ll get support. If I have to travel, my mom will visit.

Q. What is the Off the Sidelines goal?

It’s a call to action, asking women to participate in politics all across the country: to make sure that women are voting; to make sure their voices are being heard; to choose issues that they care about and become advocates on those issues.; to run for office and if they don’t want to run for office, find a woman candidate who shares your values. With only 18% women in the House and only 20% women in the Senate, often women’s voices aren’t heard at the level that they should be. We should have 51% of women in Congress reflecting our actual population, as opposed to being a very small minority.

Q. Are you targeting women voters with your women’s agenda?

I’m targeting the entire middle class because one of the biggest problems is that our work place rules do not reflect the face of the workforce. In New York State 48% of workers are women and our workplace policies are stuck in the 50’s and 60’s. We are the only industrialized country in the world that doesn’t have paid medical family leave. What happens time and time again is that in a family emergency—an ill child, or a dying parent, or a new baby—it’s often the women that have to ramp off their careers because they don’t have paid leave… Unfortunately, this results in more women having to start again in a lower paying job, sometimes having to change fields, missing out on promotion and retirement. When all of your workforce isn’t working to your full potential it’s just a drag on the economy. Women are earning more than half of the college degrees, more than half of the advanced degrees…

Raising the minimum wage affects everyone but two-thirds of minimum wage workers are women, so it especially affects women. If you raise the minimum wage, you’re going to create economic growth. More people are going to spend more money in the economy every single day, so it’s important for the whole economy. The same with universal pre-K or affordable day care. Both of these issues would keep more working parents in the work force during early childhood years, but it also allows those children to reach their full potential. The National Institute of Health says every dollar that you put into early childhood education, you get $11 out during the lifetime of that individual. It’s such an economic engine that’s going untapped and we’re not realizing the full potential of our future workforce.

Q. How much of the agenda, though, do you think you could realistically get through in an election year?

The one’s that moving the fastest is minimum wage. I’m actually quite optimistic that we might be able to include that by the end of the year. Paid family medical leave… I hope to speak to the president specifically about it and ask: why not do this for federal workers? If he’s looking for ideas for things he can use with the power of the pen, this may be one of them, that he could actually instill paid leave for federal workers… Universal pre-K is going to be something that goes state by state the same way that we did marriage equality and then will get amplified on the federal level… The Affordable day care legislation is a tax credit, something Republicans are very fond of… Every piece of it has the possibility to move forward in this Congress.

Q. Are women voters the Democrats’ secret weapon n the 2014 midterms?

I’m hoping that it’s not a partisan issue. I am hoping that we will actually build Republican support this year. My goal is to reach across the aisle and find some co-sponsors on each piece of legislation.

Q. Last week must have been disappointing. You saw your bill on sexual assault on the military fail to overcome a filibuster. Where do you go from here?

I will certainly never give up the fight. We’re just still building momentum, we were only a few votes shy of being able to overcome the filibuster. We had the majority of the Senate. We had a bipartisan wide-ranging majority of the Senate. To have both Mitch McConnell and Harry Reid and senators with view points as disparate as Ted Cruz, Rand Paul, Bernie Sanders and Barbara Boxer, it’s extremely meaningful. We need to just keep working, keep developing the evidence and making sure that people understand what it really is like serving in the military if you’ve been raped and how difficult it is to report because of the breach of trust with the chain of command. And as far as I’m concerned, I feel like we’re just getting started.

Q. What are the next steps?

My goal this year is to continue to speak with senators who did not side with us by introducing more evidence to them, more information and continue to try and get their support. I will work with our House colleagues to see if they can get a vote because they were not allowed a vote when we did the [National Defense Authorization Act, or NDAA]. But we have another NDAA coming up in just another few months, and that’s going to be the next opportunity for both my bill and the bill in the House.

Q. Obama tacitly worked against you here. Is he to blame?

He is still looking at the issue and what he said is he wants to eradicate sexual assault in the military but he wanted it to have a year of study. That year of study is nearly expired by the end of this year so I will be asking for president Obama for his support for this legislation as we begin to show this is not a problem that can be fixed easily and it needs real reform. It needs transformative reform and we need to listen to the victims. At the end of the day, the issue that the victims bring up over and over and over again is they don’t report these crimes because they don’t trust the chain of command. Until you address that fundamental breach, I don’t think that you have hope that we’re going to fix the problem.

Q. You’ve said you won’t run in 2016 if Hillary Clinton runs. If she doesn’t run, would you consider a bid?

No. I feel so privileged that I get to serve in the Senate.

Q. So you wouldn’t consider it at all?

No.

Q. Ever?

No, I don’t think so.

Q. Not ever ever?

[laughter]

I will consider it someday, I’m sure, but not any time in the near future.

Q. Do you think the country is ready for the first woman President?

I do and I think Hillary Clinton will be our first woman president. I think she will run in 2016. I think she will win in 2016. I will help her. I will campaign for her. I will make sure that we get the vote out for her. I just think that there’s no one better poised than her to lead this country. With all of her breadth of experience I think there’s no better candidate to be president.

Q. You’ve worked with both Ted Cruz and Rand Paul, what do you make of the Republican field in 2016?

Our candidate’s better! [Laughter]

Q. Anything else that you’re working on?

We’re also going to start delving into sexual assault on college campuses… I’ve been hearing very troubling reports that we need a deep dive, in the same way we did into sexual assaults in the military. I’d like to introduce legislation this year… I suspect that this will be very bipartisan.

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