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Kirsten Gillibrand on the Campbell Conversations

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Kirsten Gillibrand
Kirsten Gillibrand

Program transcript:

Grant Reeher: Welcome to the Campbell Conversations, I'm Grant Reeher. My guest today is United States Senator Kirsten Gillibrand. She's been representing New York in the Senate since 2009. Senator Gillibrand, welcome to the program.

Kirsten Gillibrand: Thank you so much.

GR: We appreciate having you. Let me just start, I know that for a long time now you've been out in front on issues of sexual assault and gender and women in the military and also the military justice system. Tell our listeners what's been the nature of your recent work in that area and have there been any significant accomplishments that you'd want to share?

KG: Well, yes, last year, we finally, after about ten years of work, passed a fundamental change to how we address sexual violence in the military. We are now taking those crimes, along with murder or other harassment related crimes, other violent related crimes out of the chain of command and giving the review of that crime to a trained, independent military prosecutor. And they will review the claims and decide whether it's a prosecutable offense. That was passed into law last year as part of our defense bill and now my job is to make sure we actually implement it. We are training the lawyers, we are - I think their requirement is to have everything up and ready by January. And starting January, all new cases will go through this independent legal system. So I am hopeful that this independence and professionalism gives more hope to survivors that they can report these crimes and that justice is possible, that the rigor and professionalism of this new system will allow for more investigations and hopefully more convictions.

GR:  And you've also done work on sexual assault in the civilian workplace, I believe. So, tell us what you've been able to change there in that regard.

KG: So, in the civilian world we realized, because we heard a lot of stories about workplace violence and workplace harassment, and I had a meeting with a woman who worked at Fox News, and she, Gretchen Carlson, she said, I can't tell you the details because I had to sign a nondisclosure agreement and I'm forced into this nondisclosure agreement by the employment contract that I signed on my first day. I'm also forced into mandatory arbitration by an employment contract I signed my first day. And so we looked into it and everybody signs an employment contract that basically says if you have any lawsuits or litigation with the company you're working for, you have to go to mandatory arbitration. You have to sign a nondisclosure agreement if that's settled. Well, in the issues of sexual violence and harassment, you might have a serial harasser like they did at Fox News, a serial assaulter at Fox News. And she couldn't even tell her colleagues, beware of this guy, he's going to lock you in his room and he's going to take advantage of you or he's going to, she couldn't warrant anyone and she certainly couldn't call out what happened publicly. So I worked with Lindsey Graham across the aisle on writing laws to say you don't have to go to mandatory arbitration. You can sue in a court of law and if you want to name your harasser in that trial, you can. And so now if you're harassed or assaulted on the job anywhere in America, you can go to a jury trial and you could name out your harasser and are not confined. That changed 60 million employment contracts overnight. And now, because Lindsey and I had such a big success, I said, how about we do this for all types of litigation, for gender discrimination, race, religion, LGBTQ status, disability, age. And Lindsey, while wanting to be bipartisan, agreed to just do protections for older people and so we are now doing age discrimination. And so the nature of bipartisanship is you have to take your partner and where he can meet you and you pass common sense good laws in that common ground area. And so while we would love to apply to everyone, we will now apply it to age discrimination, hopefully, and get a vote on it this Congress.

GR: Well, it sounds like a significant change and it's also a good story about working across the aisle, which is tough to do these days. So, I also want to come back to the military, and I understand that you've also been active in trying to bolster benefits for the veterans of Afghanistan and Iraq and also going back to Vietnam. So tell us a little bit about those efforts.

KG: So, as you know, I worked for the past decade, a decade and a half on the 9/11 Health Bill to get health care for first responders. And what we found is that the diseases that these first responders have been getting are horrible lung cancers, stomach cancers, throat cancers, brain cancers, because the toxins that were released when the towers fell that were lit on fire by jet fuel, were just this horrific mass of toxins. And we started learning from veterans that they were getting the same diseases. And we realized that a lot of our veterans were exposed to burn pits, which were just like the 9/11 towers falling. It was all things being burnt and set on fire by jet fuel, from human waste to medical waste, to electronics to wood to building materials, all the kinds of things that happened on 9/11. And as a result, the coalition that we put together for 9/11 came back together. Jon Stewart, John Feal, a lot of our first responders, we all work to getting these protections and health care for veterans exposed to burn pits. And we did, we did it in like two years. It was just unbelievably in its speed but it was such a bipartisan issue when it was voted on the Senate it got 88 votes. So it was very bipartisan. I teamed up with a number of different Republicans. Marco Rubio was my lead in my first bill on this. And so, common sense, thoughtful, important and any now and my bill was burn pits. We added it to a larger bill that was any environmental exposure in your service, including nuclear sites, including Vietnam era, anybody who wasn't covered in the Agent Orange. I also covered the Blue Water Navy vets a few years ago. But it's for all exposures. And so we passed the bill and it's magnificent for the for the burn pit survivors. It's going to affect 3.5 million veterans. And we have to get the word out. So far, only, I think only 500,000, yeah, I think only 500,000 of the 3.5 have signed up for health care and to get those benefits. So please, anyone who's listening to this radio show, if you know a veteran who served anywhere in the last 20 years, any part of the war on terror, they were likely exposed to burn pits. They are now covered. And any veteran, you know who is denied coverage, they can now resubmit and they will be covered. So it's really important that New Yorkers know that this benefit is now there for them.

GR: I have a friend who just relatively recently started getting the Agent Orange benefits and the person that the VA had to encourage him to do it…

KG: Yes, because they’ve denied for so long.

GR: …but he wasn't he wasn't aware of it.

KG: Yeah.

GR: You're listening to the Campbell Conversations on WRVO Public Media, I'm Grant Reeher, and I'm speaking with U.S. Senator Kirsten Gillibrand from New York. So I want to ask you a question about something that is currently occupying most of the headlines, and that's the Israel-Hamas war. And your public statements on that I think I've been very direct and very clear regarding your support of Israel and its right to protect itself, but not all members of your party have been equally clear on that. And I wanted to ask you first, do you think that being a representative of the state, you already mentioned 9/11, but being a representative of the state that suffered the most during 9/11, and also in this instance, a state that has such a large Jewish population, do you think that gives you a particular perspective on this issue?

KG: Well, it does. And I also sit on the Armed Services Committee and the Intel Committee, and I've been focused very intently on issues of anti-terrorism and counterterrorism. And so there's multiple reasons why I am standing with Israel. The attack on October 7 was heinous, it was brutal, it was barbaric, it was a level of terror that Hamas has never been able to conduct. And it is absolutely necessary that Israel stop the terrorist attacks on Israel. They have to as a nation, you have to defend your borders, you have to root out terrorism as best you can, you have to keep your people safe. So I think we must stand with Israel and the fact that they took 240 hostages, I mean, it's incalculable the pain, the terror, the unbelievable suffering that so many Israeli citizens and U.S. citizens and Jewish Americans are feeling and facing. And then the exponential rise of anti-Semitism has been truly horrific. So yes, we must stand with Israel. It doesn't mean we cannot also stand to protect innocent Palestinians and communities that are in the crossfire. Hamas uses innocent Palestinians as human shields, that is why they are a terrorist organization and they locate their bombs and their rockets and their munitions in civilian neighborhoods, in hospitals and schools. And so this is a very difficult anti-terrorism effort by Israel to conduct effectively and safely for innocent people. It's very hard. And the United States is going to stand with Israel to support them and to help them. We had our own challenges in responding to 9/11. We had 20 years of war that did diminish al Qaeda and ISIS considerably. But al Qaeda and ISIS left. They reformed, reconstituted in Africa and other parts of the Middle East and it's hard. So I think it's important that Israel work with the United States and our allies on how to prosecute a war against a terrorist organization as effectively and with the protection of innocents as much as possible. It's hard.

GR: Do you think that this war could become an issue that divides and hurts Democrats politically? There's been some speculation about that.

KG: I think it's dividing America right now. I think that TikTok, particularly, is an app that a lot of our young people use, and they don't realize that it's a platform for the Chinese Communist Party to spread misinformation, to mislead people, to divide people. A lot of our social media platforms are used to create misinformation. And I think for a lot of the people who profess to be pro-Hamas, they don't know a lot of information about why that is such a dangerous position and why, in my opinion, is a very wrong-headed position. Hamas is a terrorist organization, they are not freedom fighters. And Israel has a right to exist, the world community decided that after World War II, after 6 million Jews were eviscerated. It is essential that we recognize that this is a commitment by the world, by America to protect the state of Israel. And so when you say things like from the river to the sea, you're saying Israel doesn't have a right to exist and all Jews should be eliminated. That's what they're saying. And I don't know that they all realize that’s what they're saying. I don't know that they all realize that they're calling for genocide of Israelis. So we have to do more to educate our communities, our children, young people on what's really at stake here and that the real enemy is Hamas and terrorism.

GR: You know, there was a Republican presidential debate recently, and there was a lot of talk among those candidates of federal funding for universities being cut off, depending on what that university was doing in terms of allowing this kind of pro-Hamas type of rhetoric to be put forward. Do you have any thoughts about that?

KG: Well, I called on the professor from Cornell to be fired because he celebrated terrorism. He celebrated the capture and taking of children and older people and civilians. He celebrated the beheading of babies and the slaughter of innocent people at kibbutzes. It's like, there's just no place for that on a college campus. You're given a position of authority and privilege to be a college professor. I just thought that was so more than uncalled for, more than inappropriate. It was deeply irresponsible. And that's why I don't think there is a room for celebration of terrorism ever and celebration of death of innocent people, ever. I think it is important that we talk about the real challenges of terrorism in our world, how it felt to be attacked on 9/11, how it feels if you're an Israeli or a Jewish American to see what happened in Israel on October 7th. And so I think it's real. And I think we do have to have accountability for people in authority, particularly people who are teaching our next generation.

GR: You're listening to the Campbell Conversations on WRVO Public Media. I'm Grant Reeher and I'm talking with U.S. Senator Kirsten Gillibrand. She's been representing New York in the Senate since 2009. I understand that you were pivotal in getting provisions to make gun trafficking a federal crime and have that included in the 2022 gun regulation package that went through Congress and was signed into law. Now, this came as a bit of a surprise to me because I would have assumed that gun trafficking would already be a federal crime.

KG: Yeah.

GR: Tell me why it wasn't and why is this change important?

KG: Well, it wasn't a federal crime because the NRA didn't want it to be a federal crime. The NRA doesn't support hunters, the NRA supports gun manufacturers and gun dealers. So they want more weapons sold and used and it's all about money. They like to use hunter’s rights as a shield but it's not true. They just want more gun sales and they want proliferation of weapons. And they want proliferation of all weapons, even weapons that aren't appropriate for hunters or gun enthusiasts like assault weapons. So one of the things that we recognized was that in New York State, most of the weapons used in crimes came from out of state, and almost all of them were illegal. So it was just really frustrating that we could have common sense gun laws in New York, but that a gun dealer in Georgia could just send up 100 weapons in the back of a truck and sell them directly to gang members in the Bronx or in Brooklyn or in Buffalo. And so when I was first appointed to the Senate, I went to meet with a community in Brooklyn who had just lost a young girl who was about to graduate and was on her way to UPenn and had her whole future in front of her. And she was killed with a stray gun bullet from gang violence. And I met her parents and I met her classmates, and I decided that this was the one thing I was going to try to do to get these illegal guns off the streets because it was hurting so many innocent people. I mean, gun deaths every day. And so I wrote legislation to make gun trafficking a federal crime so that law enforcement could go after these bad gun dealers. It’s only 1% of them, but they're bad, and go after these straw purchasers and traffickers. These are criminal networks. And we got a pass last year and we paired it with a great deal of money for mental health because a lot of our public safety issues in New York are mental health related. The obvious mentally ill man who pushed a woman, an Asian woman to her death in the subway. We've seen mental health crises absolute metastasize in every community, resulting in violence, a lot of petty crime. We also have seen a rise in youth crime, and that is largely mental health related. So this bill will have billions of dollars for violence disruption, mental health investments. We can spend that money in our schools for school counselors, for after school programing, summer school programing, keeping kids from going down rabbit holes of the internet to become shooters themselves. Kids, you know, prevent them from committing suicide or substance use disorder. So it's very meaningful. We've already charged about 150 traffickers in the country and we've confiscated over 1100 weapons since that bill was passed. And it's going to keep growing because law enforcement now sees these tools are working and they know they can use it. And it's really good for anti-crime, anti-gang violence, anti-disruption in our communities. So it's working.

GR: I always remind our listeners any time this topic comes up and you just alluded to it, that two thirds of all gun deaths in the United States are suicides. A lot of people find that surprising. We just had an off year election. The quick take from the pundits was that it was a good election for the Democrats. I wondered if you discerned any particular political tea leaves of note in these recent off year elections.

KG: Well, nationally it was a great day. Boy, it was, I mean, there was so much affirmation that this country believes in equality and want to protect women's rights, reproductive freedom, bodily autonomy. The win in Ohio alone was unbelievably inspiring. In Ohio, I think the voter turnout was something like 85% of young women turned out or young people turned out with some extraordinary number. And I don't know it for sure, but you can look it up and tell us. But it was a huge voter turnout amongst young people. And as you know, they're not our regular voters. Our best voters are typically older people who are higher information voters and really know why their basic civil rights are so important. But to have the young people turn out in Ohio, I was so happy and so excited because it's their lives. Because what the Dobbs decision said is, if you have reproductive years and you are female, you do not have a right to privacy. So, so overreaching. And so a lot of these red states have used that to say you don't have rights to privacy in the mail. So you can't get your mifepristone in the mail. You don't have a right to privacy to talk to your mother on Facebook about what you should do if you're pregnant and can't take that pregnancy to term. You don't have the right to privacy to take your child who is ten years old who's been raped across state lines. And I think that story alone was one that Ohioans really was most outraged about that, that there was no protections for all these circumstances, that we need health care and that you have this right to privacy. You have this right, basic civil right and civil liberty to make decisions about bodily autonomy and whether you're going to do something that you might die. I mean, these are life and death decisions. So that was the best part for me. We also had some other successes about who's in charge and why. Our governor in Kentucky won, Beshear, which I thought was pretty impressive it's a very red state, but they liked him. And in Virginia, we had a bunch of local elections that we won that so that we could have a bulk word against ultra-conservative policies by their current governor. So I think that people voted on record numbers in these key states where it really was a life or death matter. New York, we didn't have as many victories, but we had a few really good ones that I was happy about. We did well in the Hudson Valley, which is an important battleground area for next year's House races. A local D.A. in Columbia County won, which I thought was terrific. We also had some other local election successes in Syracuse and other places around the state. The part that was pretty red was Long Island. So I think we have more work to do on getting our vote out and making sure people are inspired by the work we're doing to address these challenges that people are facing. So all in all, it was a great, great day nationally and some real bright lights in New York as well with the landscape of what work we still have to do.

GR: If you've just joined us, you're listening to the Campbell Conversations on WRVO Public Media and my guest is United States Senator Kirsten Gillibrand. You ran for president in 2020, did you learn anything about politics through that experience that you didn't already know from being a member of Congress or a United States Senator? What surprised you?

KG: I did. Well, what I really loved about it, and it was very short and sweet, it was only eight months, but I really learned there's far more that binds us than divides us nationally. There is so much common ground, because when I was traveling in places like Michigan and Pennsylvania and Ohio and Iowa and New Hampshire, I learned that the top three issues for everyone everywhere were the same, health care, education, jobs. And it was different versions of like what health care they didn't get. So in in Iowa, they had no maternal health in a lot of rural areas and they were closing OBGYN wings. That's happening in New York City right now. In a lot of our communities in Mount Vernon, they don't have a maternal wing anymore. And that whole group of people have to find some other health care system to meet their needs. Now, in Iowa, they had to drive an hour. That's not true in Mount Vernon, but it was still the number one issue, maternal health care, maternal mortality. I learned issues like water quality in places like New Hampshire. Number one issue was the PFAS in the water in a bunch of communities. That's true in upstate New York, that's true in the county I was living in at the time in Rensselaer County, PFAS was a huge issue. And so it really emboldened me that there's no excuse for proposing any legislation that's not bipartisan. Like, you just have to find where that common ground is because the problems are universal and we have to focus on what we can do together and to pass legislation. So I think it made me a much better senator, a much bolder leader, a much more fearless leader. I gained a lot of confidence, even though I didn't do well electorally and could never get my name out there, it really made me certain that my efforts to make a difference, to serve others, to bring people together and get things done is exactly what I should be doing. And I'm that much more excited to be a senator and running for my reelection next term.

GR: Great. So, what do you make though, of these polls that are consistently showing this is for this election cycle, 2024, that majorities of the country don't want either President Biden or former President Trump, let alone win, they don't want them to even run again. It's really quite shocking when you think about it. What do you make of that?

KG: I think it's the noise. There's so much noise in people's lives today. They can't get basic facts, they can't get basic information and almost every piece of information they receive is colored. So it's been, it's got bias in it. I mentioned on the issue with regard to Israel's war against Hamas, the potential for misinformation and misleading Americans is so real and it's ever present. It's on every social media page. Russia uses it against us, China uses it against us. Iran uses it against us. We are very soft targets, I will tell you that. And people just don't know what's what. And I think that if they heard about all the good things we're actually doing to help people, like the big bipartisan infrastructure bill that's going to rebuild all the roads and bridges and sewers that are desperately in need of repair, new airports, new ports, new high speed rail, it's exciting. Rural broadband, all that stuff. Like, that's great, that's exactly what people want to know because it's about jobs. It's about making their everyday lives better. If they knew about the advanced manufacturing we did with the CHIPS Act, bipartisan, again, Dems and Republicans working together, you know from Syracuse, MICRON is coming in. When I looked at the plans of what it's going to look like, it's something like 20 football fields lined up next to each other. I mean, it's huge, it's going to be thousands of great jobs and a great economic growth. And the gun safety bill, again, bipartisan, helping deal with public safety problems, deal with mental health problems. If people actually knew about all the good things that are happening with Democrats and Republicans, I think the country would be far less divided. I think there would be less hate and division in all of our conversations. And then the few Dem-only things we did are also really good. We got the cost of prescription drug prices down for the ten biggest drugs that older people take along with doing a cap on insulin at 35 bucks a month. That's huge, lots of people have diabetes, they really need that medication. So, I think it's that and I think that the lack of truth and the lack of, what's the word, places where people know they're getting honest information and that's being given to them so they can make decisions. We have less and less, you know, honest actors that people know they can rely on. And that's our challenge. And I'm going to work hard for President Biden to tell people that he's a great leader.

GR: Well, we'll have to leave it there. That was Senator Kirsten Gillibrand. Senator Gillibrand, I want to thank you so much for taking the time to speak with me. We really do appreciate it.

KG: Thanks, Grant, appreciate it.

GR: You've been listening to the Campbell Conversations on WRVO Public Media, conversations in the public interest.



Grant Reeher is Director of the Campbell Public Affairs Institute and a professor of political science at Syracuse University’s Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs. He is also creator, host and program director of “The Campbell Conversations” on WRVO, a weekly regional public affairs program featuring extended in-depth interviews with regional and national writers, politicians, activists, public officials, and business professionals.