EXCLUSIVE: “That’s outrageous! And incorrect and sexist!”: Sen. Gillibrand unloads to Salon

Sen. Gillibrand talks about why Congress doesn't grasp real people's struggles -- but why she's optimistic anyway

By Joan Walsh

Published February 9, 2015 3:58PM (EST)

Kirsten Gillibrand         (AP/Charles Dharapak)
Kirsten Gillibrand (AP/Charles Dharapak)

Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand’s book “Off the Sidelines: Raise Your Voice, Change the World” got a lot of attention for its stories about male congressional colleagues sharing their unsolicited opinions about her body and her beauty. ““Don’t lose too much weight now. I like my girls chubby!” is the one I can recite from memory. You may have your own favorite.

Personally, I was most impressed by the number of times in the book she described herself using the word “fuck” – and not a euphemism like “F-word” -- in political combat (three, to be exact, though a few may have been redacted before publication). This was before IDGAF became a kind of feminist war cry. It showed the combativeness and comfort with herself that has come to be associated with New York’s junior senator.

Gillibrand was a corporate and then a government lawyer until 2006, when she won a traditionally Republican upstate congressional district against all odds, in the Democratic wave that swept Congress that year. When Hillary Clinton left her Senate seat to become secretary of state, Gillibrand won appointment by Gov. David Patterson – after she got over her girlish deference and outright lobbied for it, as she explains in “Off the Sidelines."

Widely underestimated by Beltway elites – former Tennessee Rep. Harold Ford publicly mulled a primary challenge, until it was revealed he mainly knew the contours of his new home state via helicopter -- she then had to win reelection twice in three years. She did it, while tackling tough issues like the repeal of “don’t ask, don’t tell,” accomplished in 2010, and military sexual assault. (Her proposal to take such cases out of the military chain of command won support from Sen. Ted Cruz, but failed on a Senate vote.)

Now, with longtime women’s rights champion Rep. Rosa DeLauro, she’s working to put the spotlight on the nation’s sorry state as the only industrialized country without paid family leave, with the Family and Medical Insurance Leave (FAMILY) act, which would offer American workers 12 weeks of paid leave at up to $1,000 a week. President Clinton signed DeLauro’s Family and Medical Leave Act in 1993, which President Bush had vetoed. It was a big step forward, but because it’s unpaid, an estimated eight of 10 workers can’t afford to take it.

What’s innovative – and controversial – about the Gillibrand/DeLauro proposal is that it contains its own funding mechanism – a small payroll tax, which is also the way Social Security, Medicare and disability insurance are funded. That makes it an “earned benefit,” neither an employer perk nor a welfare program and thus a pillar of social support that will endure. But it also requires adding a new tax – two-tenths of 1 percent of salary, or about $100 a year for a worker making $50,000, the equivalent of a cup of coffee a week, Gillibrand likes to say.

So while you’ll hear virtually every living Democrat say he or she supports “paid family leave,” only 88 members of Congress signed on to sponsor the Gillibrand/DeLauro FAMILY Act. In June, the Washington Post reported that the White House didn’t support the bill, because it would break a 2008 campaign promise not to raise taxes on the middle class.

“Cost is an issue for any federal program,” presidential advisor Valerie Jarrett said, “and we need to make sure that we do this in a way where we are not raising taxes on middle-class families.” Instead the administration has hiked funding for states that want to extend or examine paid family leave policies – California, Rhode Island and New Jersey do so now – which Jarrett called “due diligence” before making a federal proposal.

Gillibrand and DeLauro both told me they believe the White House can be brought along. But the senator was a little bit tougher on the administration.

“I really think they should look at it as an earned benefit…I think if you don’t look at it that way, you are missing the point.”

She was tougher still on Democrats who’ve argued that the party lost in 2014 because of an overemphasis on women’s issues. Noting that Sen. Mark Udall – derided as “Senator Uterus” by some supporters for his appeal to women – did better among women voters than most Democrats, she blasted such criticism as “disgraceful” and “sexist.”

And despite Clinton’s telling CNN’s Christiane Amanpour that she didn’t support a federal paid family leave law “because I don’t think, politically, we could get it now,” she says Clinton, whose presidential aspirations Gillibrand passionately supports, “definitely supports it.” Though she adds: “She may be less optimistic than I am.”

Our conversation of Feb. 4 has been lightly edited and condensed.

At some point, once I began covering the issue of paid family leave, I realized that even though lots of Democrats talk about supporting it, they didn’t support the bill that you co-sponsored with Rep. DeLauro. Which was strange to me. Can we talk about why that’s been a heavy lift – I mean, the president didn’t support it, in the last session, maybe he will next time around…

I can’t speak for other Democrats. But I think we need to have a national conversation about what paid leave should look like, how it is necessary for all working families; it’s not just about having children, it’s about dying parents, it’s about having ill family members, it’s about sick spouses. And it really has to be talked about in terms of, this is the most family supportive safety net that is still not available for Americans families who are working. Every other industrialized nation has it…

I’ve heard you say in speeches, “Let’s finally become the last industrialized nation to have paid family leave.” Yes!

Yes. And it’s as important as Social Security. See, people are very comfortable saying, “We don’t want seniors to live in poverty, we think you should have an earned benefit that you pay into your entire life, so that when you become old and unable to work, you have enough money so you’re not living in poverty and you’re not starving to death.” We should have the same national conversation that says: Just because you have a family emergency, it shouldn’t mean you’re going to have to ramp off your career, take a different job, quit for a certain amount of time – all of which damages the strength of the family, and the economy. The negative economic consequences for not having this protection in place is absurd. It’s such a negative drag on the economy.

In terms of how you fund it, though: I’ve seen it reported that the reason the White House didn’t sign on is that it is funded through a small payroll tax, and they’ve made a big deal about not imposing any new taxes on the middle class – and even though it’s a payroll tax, it would be perceived as a tax…

I really think they should look at it as an earned benefit. It is a benefit that you earn, that you buy into, that is fully supported by all businesses, small business and big businesses. I think if you don’t look at it that way, you are missing the point – this is something that you’re buying into, that you have that safety net when you need it, like Social Security.

And if you don’t fund it that way, the question becomes, how would you fund it? You’re relying on employers to provide it voluntarily?

Well, it should be an earned benefit! It travels with you and you’re going to have these family needs met regardless of whether you work full-time or part-time, for a big company or a small company.

It also seems to me that it could help employers: They’re not paying your salary out of pocket while you’re having a baby -- and maybe even paying a temporary replacement while you’re gone – it’s funded, over time, by the payroll tax, and thus paid by the government when it’s needed.

Right, totally. So employers that have finally looked at this – we have states that have put it in place so we can have some trial runs, we can have some data – employers in those states say overwhelmingly that they support paid leave, that it was beneficial to their workforce and it didn’t undermine efficiency or productivity on any level. So the data that’s coming in is overwhelmingly positive.

So back to the question of how do we start a national conversation about this: It’s going to be based on some of those real-life experiences with employers who, perhaps with male-run businesses, it hadn’t occurred to them that they’re losing female employees, they’re losing their best and brightest because they don’t have this accommodation, because they’re not the primary caregivers.

But even women don’t get it sometimes. I interviewed Mary Burke last year when she ran, unsuccessfully, for Wisconsin governor, and when I asked her “Do you support paid family leave?” she was honest and said “It’s not a priority for me right now, and I would first have to be convinced that it’s a problem…”

Where is she on the socioeconomic scale?

Well, you know where she is.

No, I don’t. That’s why I’m asking you.

(laughs) Oh, I’m sorry. Duh. Well, she’s very well off, she’s a businesswoman, her father started Trek bicycles – not to make it about her, but…

No, look at members of Congress. Very few members of Congress, I suspect, have dropped a child off at day care. Very few members of Congress know exactly how much day care costs, because they didn’t pay those bills. And so for a lot of members of Congress, they don’t relate to the issue – either because they have enormous wealth so they have unlimited caregivers, or they’re men whose wives chose to stay at home and they had the resources to do that. They don’t realize that eight out of 10 mothers are working today, and most don’t have the support through every family emergency through their lifetime. They’re gonna be forced to ramp off, take time off, change jobs. And what happens? They pay less into Social Security over the years. They lose seniority at their company.

You dealt with some of the reasons people oppose paid leave on the Brian Lehrer show recently. I heard a man call in, a business owner, and say he doesn’t think this is something employers, or society, should pay for, because it’s our choice to have children, so women should save up enough money to be able to afford time off if they choose to be mothers.

[laughs] It’s almost like saying, “It’s your choice to grow old.” It’s part of nature, it’s part of human life, people have children -- humanity counts on it. So there’s a time in your life you’re going to start a family, there’s a time in your life you’re going to grow old, so we should have support: We should have Social Security, and we should also have paid leave. It should be part of supporting our economy and our workforce. So I made the point to him, obviously you’re not valuing your female employees, because they will leave. If you do not accommodate them during their childbearing years, or when their mother is dying...

Well, yeah, I mean, clearly they chose whether their mother was dying or not, right?

Yeah. And by limiting it to women’s choice to have a pregnancy you’re minimizing the issue. And that’s why, to your first question, why doesn’t everyone understand this issue, well, it’s a gender-neutral issue about accommodating the needs of families. To be the only industrialized nation in the world that doesn’t have it? It’s a competitive issue, too.

So are you making any progress with this argument? I know you haven’t yet introduced the bill yet this session…

I think we are making progress, because it’s now being discussed in the national media. We’re having more aha moments for lots of opinion leaders. I recognize we have a long way to go, even with some of my Democratic colleagues. I’ve talked to people who said exactly what that Democratic gubernatorial candidate said to you, “It’s not a priority right now,” because they’ve never lived it. They tend to be male, predominantly affluent, not having the exigencies of being needed by a family member and not being able to be there. So they just haven’t seen it personally.

Once people start analyzing it, why is it beneficial and not harmful – it’s even helpful to the economy, it starts to make sense to them. But it’s going to take time. We’ve just begun the national debate. I personally am very optimistic. All issues of civil rights take time, and then they can start to snowball. Look at gay rights, when we began to focus on “don’t ask, don’t tell,” there was nothing going on. But as states are implementing it, it’s giving us data.  My goal is to find some Republican support, some Republican allies…

There were no Republicans who supported it last time around…

Well, we didn’t even really start to convince all of our Democratic colleagues. This is something that starts with a national debate. We’re trying to create it, grass roots up, so people are saying, “Gosh, this would really make a difference in my life.” That’s how we’ll eventually get Republicans and Democrats.

Do you have any hope as you’re meeting your new Republican colleagues that there might be any who would support this?

I’m meeting with every new Republican colleague, having coffee or lunch with them over the next month, I’ve done four already, and of the four…well, no. But I still have nine more to go and I’m still hopeful. I’m going to see what they’re interested in, where there might be common ground. Now, areas of common ground tend to be defense, and cyber, the harder issues, but you never know. I have talked to a lot of Republicans who I believe will run for president, and there’s some interest in these policies with them. I will look for allies everywhere. I think it is something that’s achievable.

Are you working with Secretary Clinton? A lot of us were very shocked at her answer in that CNN conversation last June, where she said she didn’t support a paid federal leave act because she didn’t think we could get it politically.

She definitely supports it. She may be less optimistic than I am, but I have been fighting these wars, from gay rights to women’s rights, and I see how national debate really does drive outcomes. What’s happened politically in the last six years is remarkable – we went from no support for a “don’t ask, don’t tell” repeal, to a Supreme Court almost ready to declare marriage equality as a civil right.

When I was talking to advocates about “don’t ask, don’t tell” repeal, at first they said, “There is no legislative solution, you can’t change this legislatively.”  I was unwilling to accept that. I wasn’t willing to leave that law on the books. I don’t know who the next president will be. I don’t know if this is something they’ll enforce or not enforce.  I’m of the school of what’s possible – that everything is possible. I have a very different perspective.

Well, if you don’t ask for it, you’ll never get it…

And if you don’t create the will….

I wanted to ask you a political question. After the 2014 election, I thought some of the stupidest commentary centered on how the Democrats went too far with the “war on women” stuff, how Sen. Udall became “Senator Uterus,” and all that. It was like, “Ladies, you had your chance and you blew it.”

Sen. Udall’s performance among women was among the highest in the country, so it actually worked. Women appreciate when someone talks about issues they care about. So I disagree with any Monday morning quarterbacking saying we talked to women too much.

But you heard that too?

Well, I heard it once, and I slapped it down so fast: “That’s outrageous! And disgraceful! And incorrect and sexist!” and everything else. I think it’s flat wrong. I think Democrats shouldn’t pander to women, but this issue isn’t just a woman’s issue. If they ask those eight of 10 families where the wife is working, if they ask the husbands if their wives deserve equal pay, or if they deserve affordable day care, I can guarantee you they would say yes. So it is something that applies to the vast majority of all Americans.

Last question, something I think about a lot: Since you’re worked on gay rights issues so much, I wonder if you’ve thought about why, in this same period where we’ve had so much progress on gay rights, why have women’s rights become stalled or at least more controversial than they were?

That was the whole point of my book: that women don’t understand how important their voices are, that they’re not actually being represented well in Washington, that they’re underrepresented, that their ideas aren’t making the top 10 lists in government. It’s partly because we’re not at the table, but it’s also that we don’t ask for anything, we have to start being more transactional, and say, we think these things are important and we want you to represent our values.

A lot of women will say – this is anecdotal – “Oh, I’m sure someone’s already doing that, someone is working on that,” and the answer is, no, no one is fighting for that, no one is doing that, and if you don’t do it, no one’s going to do it. So we need a wakeup call, we need a Rosie the Riveter call for our generation. When women were asked to join the workplace in the war industries, 6 million more women joined the workplace by the end of World War II. I want 6 million more women to become vocal and active in politics, asking for what they want.

I also think that what happened in the gay rights movement was specific to male Republicans, who really started to put their money where their mouth is, and demanded a response, and it worked. Men, by nature, by historical precedent, have been very good at translating what they want into activism. They’ve been very transactional: I want this support, for this! It’s not surprising to me, at all, that once LGBT Republican men became more aggressive, we’ve seen much more progress in the gay rights movement, and I think it’s been great. I welcome them under the banner. I just need to find some Republican leaders who will help us on this economic agenda.

Joan Walsh

Joan Walsh is the author of "What's the Matter With White People: Finding Our Way in the Next America."

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