Kirsten Gillibrand first stepped into the role of U.S. Senator as an appointee by former New York Governor David Patterson in 2009, to complete the term of Hillary Rodham Clinton after she was appointed Secretary of State by President Barack Obama. She retained her seat outright in a special election in 2010, and was re-elected to a full six-year term in 2012. In less than a decade, the former congresswoman from Upstate New York has become a major voice for the Democratic Party within the upper legislative chamber. We did not wish to squander this rare opportunity to speak with the senator, therefore the questions for this interview have been compiled by three separate FIN staff writers to better reflect the range of concerns of our whole readership: Robert Levine, for the eastern end of Fire Island; Lorna Luniewski, South Shore Long Island; and Shoshanna McCollum, western Fire Island.
Fire Island News (FIN): What do you feel has been your greatest achievements so far during your tenure as a United States Senator?
Kirsten Gillibrand (KG): One of my greatest achievements was working to pass the 9/11 Health Bill, including a second time to make it permanent. Our brave first responders sacrificed their whole lives to serve others, and on that horrific day these heroes ran up the burning towers when everyone else was running down. They are now sick and literally dying from working on the pile at Ground Zero, and to have Congress turn its collective backs on them was infuriating. Today, these heroes will always have access to the health care they so desperately need and deserve. I was proud to lead the fight on “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” a policy that was one of the most corrosive and terrible policies in terms of denying someone’s basic civil rights and civil liberties. To say to someone you cannot serve this country even though you want to sacrifice everything for this nation was wrong, and it harmed our national security. Today, our military is stronger because all of our service members are free to serve openly with respect and dignity. I am proud that I wrote and helped pass the STOCK Act, which finally made insider trading by members of Congress illegal so that nobody is above the law. And I am proud to have helped create a national conversation about sexual assault and harassment in the workplace with three bipartisan bills to take on this scourge in the military, on college campuses and in the halls of Congress. This conversation about workplace safety, along with another national conversation we have led about paid leave and the economy goes to whether we value women in our society. Both conversations are really important and I will not stop fighting for progress.
FIN: What basic human rights do you feel are most imperiled today?
KG: The president has undermined our sense of security, our sense of what’s right, and our balance of powers, which keeps our democracy stable. He’s tried to undermine freedom of religion with the Muslim ban, and he’s promoted freedom of religion as an excuse to discriminate against others. He’s tried to undermine our sacred freedom of the press, and he’s tried to undermine the independence of the judiciary. And now he’s been implicated in a federal crime, and his nominee for the Supreme Court, who could eventually have to rule on a subpoena of the president, thinks that the president is above the law. All of this is dangerous for our democracy, and we all must fight back against it.
FIN: With recent and pending judicial appointments, do you think that women’s reproductive rights will be eradicated by the U.S. Supreme Court?
KG: President Trump promised he would nominate someone to the Supreme Court who would “automatically” vote to overturn Roe v. Wade. We should believe him when he says that. If Judge Kavanaugh is confirmed by the Senate, then women’s rights are going to come under attack. The Supreme Court could take away women’s reproductive rights, they could tell employers that they don’t have to provide birth control to their workers, and they could tell women that they aren’t allowed to make their own decisions with their own doctors about their own health.
FIN: Your campaign during the 2018 mid-term elections seems very broad-based as you have been advocating for people running for office in all levels of government across the country. Can you explain this strategy?
KG: If we want a different outcome, we need to change the dynamics in government and change who has a seat at the table, because women’s priorities and solutions are different. And that’s exactly what’s been happening over the last year and a half. Since President Trump was sworn in, more women than ever before have been raising their voices, speaking out, and demanding to be heard – and it is changing our country for the better. We saw it starting with the Women’s March. We saw it with the defeat of Roy Moore in Alabama, with a huge turnout of black women voters. And now a record number of women are running for office, and they’re winning. All of this is a testament to the power of women’s voices.
FIN: In a recent interview with CNN’s Chris Cuomo, you said. ‘We believe that we should protect families who need our help and that is not what ICE is doing today, and that’s why I believe you should get rid of it, start over, reimagine it and build something that actually works.’ What does a reimagined ICE look like to you?
KG: I believe we need to separate the criminal justice and immigration missions and reimagine ICE under a new agency with a different mission and different leadership. According to news reports, 19 elite investigative agents agree with separating these two missions because President Trump’s immigration policies are getting in the way of their mission of focusing on transnational crime and terror risks. The president’s immigration policies are immoral and inhumane and his administration has no real plan to reunite children with their parents – this is an ongoing crisis that demands accountability for its incompetence. I believe in border security, which is handled by Customs and Border Protection (CBP). They have been our first line of defense and I thank the hard working officers who work at all our ports of entry. I have supported bipartisan comprehensive immigration reform legislation in the past to bolster funding for border security.
FIN: When we last saw you on Fire Island, you addressed people at a private gathering in Fire Island Pines on Aug. 12, 2017. We all left the party that day to learn of the tragic Unite the Right riots that took place practically within the same hour in Charlestown, Virginia. Reflecting back one year later, what are your thoughts on that day?
KG: On the issue of white supremacy, there is only one side: It is an evil that should not be ignored or tolerated. There is no place in our country for this ideology. We all need to continue to speak out and show leadership where we are lacking it, and that means standing up and speaking out when equality is in jeopardy and hateful ideologies are undermining our common values. One year after that tragic weekend, we must continue to speak out against hatred and bigotry and make it clear that we as a nation are all better for our diversity.