DENISON, Iowa — Kirsten Gillibrand sizes up her crowd and then gets right to the point: “I’m going to tell you why I’m running and why I’m going to win. Does that sound OK?”
The Democrats assembled in the back room of Cronk’s Café nod their head in approval. She’s off to a good start.
The senator from New York is on a classic presidential candidate Iowa tour. She starts the day at a Mexican restaurant in Harlan, then on to the iconic Cronk’s in Denison, over to the community college in Carroll and ending at a bistro with the young set in Ames. Her campaign theme is “Be Brave.” She says in Carroll, “Our best moments in our history were when we dared to do things that were hard. We dared to be brave. I’m not afraid to go through fire for what’s right. I’m a fighter.”
Probably the most valuable part of her political background for Democrats, in terms of appealing to winning a general election, is her first winning race for Congress in 2006, where she won in a district that had elected Republicans at a 96 percent clip since 1913. “The district was 2-1 Republican and nobody thought I could win except my mother,” she tells the people at Cronk’s. “But I won. My opponent didn’t take me seriously. He treated me like I was just another pretty face. I said, ‘Oh, thank you,’ and then I talked about the issues.”
In Harlan, Gillibrand’s poise — and mettle — is put to the test right from the start of her tour. During the question-and-answer session, a lady sitting 3 feet away asks her how she can possibly defend a controversial new abortion law in New York. The two go back and forth for a while (Gillibrand: “That doesn’t happen actually, it’s a false statement.” Lady: “That’s not true.” Gillibrand: “I promise you it isn’t.” Lady: “That’s not true either.”) until Gillibrand reshapes the encounter, saying, “Let me tell you what I believe. I am a Christian and I share your faith. When it comes to life and death decisions about your family, those have to be intimate decisions that you make. God does not want people to be forced to believe in him. He wants people to come to him.”
Later, in Denison, I pressed her specifically on how she could appeal to Kansans and other Americans who usually vote Republican. She said the first thing she’d do is pay attention to them, then work on bipartisan solutions.
“Bills that would help your farmers and manufacturers in Kansas. Money for rural broadband, money for startups and entrepreneurs in small towns and rural areas.” She says that’s a key theme of her campaign: “I’m running for president because we need someone who can bring this country together.”
She also tells me that the country needs someone who knows how to get results. “You actually have to be able to get things done, and that’s what I’ve shown the past 12 years in Congress. Even in the last Congress, with a Republican House, Senate and president, I passed 18 bills.”
Gillibrand’s style is full-steam ahead, and she doesn’t shy away from policy stances:
• Health care: “Health care is a right, not a privilege. But today it’s a commodity. I like Medicare as a platform to buy into, at 4 percent of your income. I think that’s the way to do it. Buy into it like social security.” She asserts that she has a unique idea to solve the problem of high drug prices on drugs such as insulin. “If you have a drug that doesn’t have a generic, then have the National Institutes of Health produce it.”
• Immigration and asylum seekers: She supports comprehensive immigration reform with a 10-year path to citizenship that includes paying taxes and fulfilling other requirements. On the asylum seeker border crisis, she says, “I can’t stand what [Trump] is doing at the border. I think it’s immoral,” and says she would do two things: “One, I’d make sure we had real immigration judges, which we don’t have right now, they are appointed by the attorney general. Second, I would have lawyers appointed so that when you do seek asylum, you actually believe you have a valid case.” Gillibrand also says that the border is a big-picture issue and, “You have to look at what’s happening abroad.” She argues that “When you don’t care about suffering worldwide, it comes back to us.”
• Marijuana: “I support full legalization for two reasons. The medical side is urgent to any mother whose kid has a seizure disorder. The only legal drug in a state like Kansas would be a barbiturate that would knock a kid out. So they need this. The second reason is criminal justice reform. I would decriminalize it and make sure anyone who has been convicted for cannabis use would have that sentence eviscerated.”
• National Public Service: “One year of public service gets you two years of community college paid. Let’s broaden the idea of public service to first responders, green jobs, health care workers and education work, like Americacorps.
Of course, Gillibrand gets asked how she would pay for these new government programs. “How do we pay for things? Donald Trump’s tax cuts were $1.5 trillion and $1 trillion went to the wealthy. That’s $100 billion a year for 10 years! That can fund clean water, clean air, job training and infrastructure.” She also says she would like to see a transaction tax for buying stocks and bonds that would “only affect flash sales,” bringing in, she estimates, $77 billion a year.
For Gillibrand’s last event in Ames, she has changed into a red shirt that reads, “America Needs Love.” She bounds out of her SUV, pop music blaring, and is greeted by woman who asks her a question in Mandarin Chinese. Gillibrand’s eyes open wide and she answers — in Mandarin Chinese. I ask the lady later how her Mandarin was. “Pretty good,” she says, “Especially for a presidential candidate.”
Gillibrand says she is a fighter, but so does every politician. Yet, in the scores of candidates I’ve traveled with in Iowa since 2004, she’s the only one that has proved it. In Ames, she gives her talk and then finishes her day in an arm-wrestling contest with an Iowa State University student. Face grimacing, muscles flaring, she yells, “She’s so strong! She’s 20, I’m 52, it’s not fair. I’m dying!” The two battle mightily, but then Gillibrand triumphs and says, “I was not going to give up. I do not give up.”