Focus On Women, Families Propels New York's Sen. Gillibrand Democrat Kirsten Gillibrand is introducing legislation with other lawmakers Thursday that would change the way the military prosecutes sexual assault cases. It's the latest high-publicity move for a senator who was almost unknown four years ago when she was appointed to fill Hillary Clinton's seat.
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Focus On Women, Families Propels New York's Sen. Gillibrand

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Focus On Women, Families Propels New York's Sen. Gillibrand

Focus On Women, Families Propels New York's Sen. Gillibrand

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Another controversy involves the U.S. military. Yesterday, we learned an Army sergeant who ran a sexual assault program is under investigation for sexual misconduct. Weeks before, an Air Force officer in charge of sexual prevention was charged with sexual battery.

New York Democratic Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand is among those proposing a change in the law now. She wants to remove sexual assault cases from the chain of command, allowing victims to report their assaults to a prosecutor. It's the latest high-publicity move for a senator who is in Hillary Clinton's old Senate seat. NPR's Ailsa Chang has this profile.

AILSA CHANG, BYLINE: Kirsten Gillibrand has a soft voice that takes on a certain earnestness when she gets angry. Two months ago, she ripped into military officials for letting commanders decide which sexual assaults to bring to trial.

SEN. KIRSTEN GILLIBRAND: But if the convening authority is the only decision-maker of whether a case goes to trial or proceeds, and the only decision-maker about whether to overturn a case, well, then all that training and all those excellent lawyers and prosecutors you have don't mean a difference. It doesn't make a difference.

CHANG: Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid once called Gillibrand the hottest member of the U.S. Senate. But friends say the woman has scary grit, precisely the kind of person who can go head-to-head with the military about how they're handling sexual assault. Just ask former Congresswoman Jane Harman of California, who watched a very pregnant Gillibrand work through a committee session while enduring 12 hours of pre-labor pains. Gillibrand was in the House then.

JANE HARMAN: So as self-appointed mama-in-chief, I said, Kirsten, go to the hospital. Oh, no, she said. I'm fine. This is my second child. I'll be fine.

CHANG: Only hours later did Gillibrand finally leave the Capitol, and ended up giving birth to her second son in the middle of the night. When former Governor David Paterson of New York first announced in 2009 he was appointing someone from Upstate farm country to take Clinton's Senate seat, there was a collective what from a lot of New Yorkers.

Gillibrand didn't have the star power of Clinton, or of a Caroline Kennedy, who was briefly interested in the job. But she says she just kept her nose down and worked as hard as she could to prove her detractors wrong.

GILLIBRAND: I'm very ambitious. I'm very aggressive. But I do it in a really nice way. But I - you need that passion if you're going to get anything done. If you're not willing to fight for someone or fight for an issue, it's not going to happen.

CHANG: Steny Hoyer of Maryland, the second-highest ranking Democrat in the House, was one of the people who had pushed for Gillibrand to get the Senate job. Hoyer says he was impressed with the way she worked a crowd. It's the kind of quality that helped Gillibrand raise more than a million dollars last election cycle for more than a dozen other female candidates.

REP. STENY HOYER: I think she also is very disciplined and focused and understands politics. She understands, for instance, who she represented in the House. She understands who she represents in the Senate.

CHANG: When she moved to the Senate, for instance, she quickly revised her position on guns. She had high ratings from the NRA when she represented her rural House district, but became a vocal supporter of gun control as a senator. What supporters like Hoyer see as just good politics, her critics see as a lack of conviction.

But Gillibrand says if you look at her legislative priorities, you would see a common thread: women and families. She'll be introducing legislation for better paid family leave, equal pay for equal work and affordable daycare.

GILLIBRAND: Sometimes people say, well, why do you just focus on women's issues? Well, why do you focus on issues that pertain to 52 percent of the population? It's pretty important. And women are such the untapped potential in this economy.

CHANG: But is this self-branding enough to be a presidential candidate? Hank Sheinkopf, a longtime Democratic strategist, says those presidential whispers are way premature.

HANK SHEINKOPF: The problem here in New York is that if you said to someone who's this U.S. senator, they would say Chuck Schumer. Is she captivating? She's smart. Is she overwhelming? No. Is it a nice dream? Yeah. But could anything happen? Sure.

CHANG: Last fall, Gillibrand won her first full Senate term with 72 percent of the vote. That's better than Chuck Schumer has ever done. Ailsa Chang, NPR News, the Capitol.

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