RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
Kirsten Gillibrand has been in Congress for over a decade - first, representing New York's 20th Congressional District and now in the U.S. Senate - which is usually a pretty good resume to run on in a presidential primary. But this is no normal presidential primary. Gillibrand is 1 of 7 current U.S. senators running for the Democratic nomination, and she is 1 of 6 women in the race.
Gillibrand has struggled to break through with a message that sets her apart and has not generated enough support yet to safely secure a spot in the upcoming debates. I talked with her as part of our Opening Arguments series with 2020 candidates and asked her why that has been so hard.
KIRSTEN GILLIBRAND: The truth is it's a marathon and not a sprint. And so I believe is - if I keep traveling around this country listening to voters about their concerns and talk about my story and the fact that I got my start in a 2-1 Republican district and brought the whole state together with the highest vote percentages ever and won back 18 Trump counties in the last election, I can show that I have a history in bringing people together, finding common ground and actually passing legislation. And so I am not worried.
MARTIN: You have been talking a lot about the issue of abortion and your effort to make sure that Roe v. Wade is not overturned. But you just mentioned there that you want to be a bridge builder, you want to be someone who finds common ground. Where is the common ground on abortion?
GILLIBRAND: I think the American people already agree that Roe v. Wade is the law of the land and is settled precedent and that women should have fundamental decision-making authority over their own bodily autonomy. And so I think there already is common ground.
And I think what President Trump and these very extreme Republican legislators around the country - they are taking this country in a direction that it does not want to go. And I believe that if President Trump wants a war with America's women, it's a war he will have and it is one he will lose.
MARTIN: Worth pointing out, though - I mean, when you have talked about this issue in particular as it pertains to the states recently who have passed laws that either severely limit or outright criminalize abortion, you have talked about this as being perpetrated by men. But there are women who have been involved, as well. I mean, in Alabama, a key female state legislator actually wrote the bill that criminalizes abortion. Of course, Governor Kay Ivey signed it into law.
GILLIBRAND: Right. And everyone's entitled to their personal views. But I believe we need to elect Congress members and governors and presidents who share the moral clarity and the views of the vast majority of this country. So we just need members of Congress to represent the views of their constituents better.
MARTIN: What kind of role is this issue going to play in your campaign going forward, the issue of reproductive rights?
GILLIBRAND: Equality and reproductive freedom has been something that I have focused my time in public service on over the last 12 years. But as president, I've already made a very significant platform surrounding these issues. I will only appoint judges and justices that see Roe v. Wade as settled precedent. I will codify Roe v. Wade legislatively.
I will look to remove the Hyde Amendment, which is the law that prohibits federal money paying for abortion services in a full range of health care, particularly for poor, low-income women. I will also make sure and guarantee that no matter what state you live in, you will have a right to access full reproductive services, including abortion services, regardless of where you live.
MARTIN: There is a wing of your party that is more progressive, more vocally progressive than we have seen in a long time. Do you believe that the heart of the Democratic Party has shifted to the left?
GILLIBRAND: I don't. I think that there's a perception. But I think the truth is - certainly the party that I've been part of has been working on a lot of these issues for a very long time. But some things, the way they're talked about, seem new and seem more radical. And I don't think that's the case. And I'll give you an example - global climate change. I think global climate change is the greatest threat to humanity that exists. So I think the Green New Deal is just a platform of ideas that have been around for a long time that are already bipartisan.
MARTIN: Although you know - I mean, we just have to say - that the Green New Deal is not a bipartisan effort.
GILLIBRAND: No, it's because of the narrative. It's not because of the substance is, I guess, what I'm trying to say. And to be honest, I just see it as an aspirational goal that's not unlike when John F. Kennedy put a - wanted to put a man on the moon. He said, I want to do this in 10 years, not because it's easy but because it's hard. And it's exciting. And that's what leadership is. And it doesn't have to be partisan.
MARTIN: Is finding the middle ground a successful message for Democrats in 2020? There's a segment of your party that says, listen, Donald Trump won not by catering to the middle but by going to the right of the Republican Party on many issues and that Democrats should do the same thing. Or do you believe that Democrats, in order to find common ground - as you have talked about in this conversation - do you think they should find some message to attract disenchanted Trump voters?
GILLIBRAND: I think your frame is oversimplified and wrong. It's not about the middle, and it never has been. It's about a bold idea that you believe in because it solves the problem. And it doesn't matter if it's a Republican idea or a Democratic idea. It just matters that it's a good idea. And President Trump figured that out.
He ran on three messages - the system's rigged - that's Liz Warren's message - no bad trade deals - that's Bernie Sanders message - and build a wall - that's his own racist, horrible message that's created fear and division and a darkness across this country that we are going to have to fix. So I don't think it's about the middle at all.
It's about coming up with a bold idea to solve a problem because the truth is people do feel deeply left behind. And so the truth is we need a disruptive set of ideas that can solve these big problems and then have the moral fortitude and leadership and the bravery to actually take on the special interests that want to make all of those changes impossible.
MARTIN: But, Senator, you say Democrats have to come up with a disruptive idea, what is your most disruptive idea?
GILLIBRAND: You need health care as a right and not a privilege. That means you have to take on the insurance companies.
MARTIN: But that's what all of your colleagues are arguing, as well.
GILLIBRAND: Correct. Yeah, but this is why these are the right messages. People want health care as a right. They want better public schools. They want to know that their kids can go to college debt-free. So my idea to do that is national public service.
I believe that if you tell every young person in this country that if you do a year of public service, you could have two years of community college or state school free. We know that we have needs and lots of service industries that we're desperate for young workers. And so if you open up public service to all those industry groups and you incentivize young people to commit a year or two to that, it's going to not only create pipelines into new jobs and careers that will create economic growth, but it changes the heart of the country and the heart of these kids in a generation.
MARTIN: That was Senator Kirsten Gillibrand. I talked with her as part of our Opening Arguments series with 2020 Democratic hopefuls. We will bring you more of these conversations tomorrow and next week.
(SOUNDBITE OF NEIL COWLEY TRIO'S "KNEEL DOWN")
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