Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand on Tuesday did something most politicians aren’t willing to do: Unequivocally admit when they think they’ve made a mistake.
Gillibrand came into CNN’s town hall with a long list of progressive policies that she regularly touts on the campaign trail. But she also stepped into the spotlight with a record that includes conservative positions on immigration and guns, something that has followed her throughout her 2020 campaign and raised questions about her progressive credentials.
Gillibrand looked to both apologize for her past record while also using that history as proof of her ability to reach out and connect with conservative voters on Tuesday night.
The US senator from New York, who officially launched her campaign in March in outside President Donald Trump’s eponymous hotel in Manhattan, has so far failed to break out of the large and growing pack of Democrats running for president in 2020, but the CNN town hall offered Gillibrand a platform to do just that.
‘It’s really important … to admit when you’re wrong’
Gillibrand said on Tuesday that she was “ashamed” of her past conservative views on immigration, telling voters that she believes she is in the “right place” right now.
Gillibrand ran and won a House seat near Albany, New York, in 2006 by attacking her Republican opponent from the right on immigration and guns, calling securing the border “a national security priority.”
Gillibrand said her policy positions at the time did not treat people like she would want to be treated.
“I did not do that as a House member. I was ashamed,” she said.
She built on that answer Tuesday night by arguing her ability to admit she is wrong sets her apart from Trump.
“When I was a member of Congress from upstate New York, I was really focused on the priorities of my district. When I became senator of the entire state, I recognized that some of my views really did need to change,” Gillibrand said. “They were not thoughtful enough and didn’t care enough about people outside of the original upstate New York district that I represented. So, I learned.”
She added: “And I think for people who aspire to be president, I think it’s really important that you’re able to admit when you’re wrong and that you’re able to grow and learn and listen and be better, and be stronger. That is something that Donald Trump is unwilling to do. He is unwilling to listen, he is unwilling to admit when he’s wrong. He’s actually incapable of it. And I think it’s one of the reasons why he is such a cowardly president.”
Gillibrand’s more conservative record is one of the key criticisms her candidacy receives from the left, but it shows how the 2020 candidate’s early strategy is to face up to questions about her record and not run away from them, believing that embracing her story and evolution on issues like guns and immigration could win plaudits from caucus-goers in Iowa and convince them that she could win a general election against Trump by appealing to a spectrum of voters.
Past views on guns also a benefit
Gillibrand, in the same hour that she apologized for her past position on immigration, also cast the fact that she once had an A-rating from the National Rifle Association as making her better equipped to talk to gun owners about the need for gun control.
Gillibrand, a mother of two, said the way to reach conservatives on this issue is to make it about family and children.
“I think I can walk into any voter in a red state or a purple state or a blue state, gun owners, NRA members, and say, ‘You do care about a 4-year-old dying on a park bench in Brooklyn, don’t you?’” Gillibrand said. “And the humanity of each person in this country should kick in.”
She added: “And you are going to ask them to imagine that happening to their own child, their own loved one, and their own family. And I think you can change hearts that way.”
Gillibrand said earlier this year that she was “embarrassed” by her past positions on guns. She began to change her position after she became a senator and met with Jennifer Pryear and Alberto Yard, the parents of Nyasia Pryear-Yard, a young woman who was killed in a 2009 shooting in Brooklyn.
“So, I had an A-rating as a House member,” she said in Iowa earlier this year. “I only really looked at guns through the lens of hunting. My mother still shoots the Thanksgiving turkey. But when I became senator, I recognized I had a lot to learn about my state and all of the 20 million I was going to represent.”
‘I don’t know’
Rarely do you see a politician cop to not knowing something. But Gillibrand, on two separate occasions on Tuesday night, said she didn’t know the answer to a policy question and pledged to look into it more.
First, when asked about whether she would support mandatory vaccination except in the case of medical exception, Gillibrand said she had not “thought about whether I would make it mandatory.”
“I would need to think about that,” she said. “But I do believe that parents need more information about why vaccines are so essential. Parents need to know that their child could die of preventable diseases, that they could spread a preventable disease and other children could die.”
Later, when asked whether she would lower the voting age, Gillibrand said, “I don’t know.”
“I really don’t know. I like the idea of it because we want to inspire more young people,” Gillibrand said. “But I like the fact that when you turn 18, you earn this right. It’s a rite of passage. It’s a time when you’re independent of your parents as a matter of law. So, I like the simplicity of 18. But because you’ve asked the question, I will think about it.”
Gillibrand argued Tuesday that she isn’t beholden to any special interests and urged voters to look at her record if they believed she was.
After touting her voting record on standing up to drug companies, Gillibrand defended her decision to allow a top executive at pharmaceutical giant Pfizer to host a fundraiser for her 2020 campaign, using it as an example of how she can be close with certain industries while also stringently regulating them.
Sally Susman, Pfizer’s executive vice president and chief corporate affairs officer, hosted a fundraiser for Gillibrand earlier this year. Asked about the fundraiser on Tuesday, Gillibrand said her connection to Susman was personal.
“Why did you allow the Pfizer vice president to do that?” CNN’s Erin Burnett asked.
“Because she’s my friend, and she supports LGBTQ equality, she supports my beliefs,” Gillibrand said. “You don’t want to undermine an individual’s right to participate, but because you made that assumption, it’s one of the reasons we need to get money out of politics. Because it corrodes people’s belief that our democracy is strong.”
Gillibrand, in response to a question from a voter, defended her record on dealing with drug prices.
“I stand up to the drug companies,” she said. “I’ve sponsored legislation to stand up to the drug companies and I’m not beholden to donors. That’s why I’m in favor of publicly funded elections. It’s why I don’t take lobbyist money and it’s why I don’t want to have an individual super PAC. I believe if you want this in your own hands, you have to fight for public elections. I’m not beholden to any industries, and my drug record proves it.”
Not worried about relationship with Clinton
Gillibrand once wrote that Hillary Clinton, the former secretary of state, first lady and 2016 Democratic presidential nominee, changed her life inspiring her to run for office.
But that relationship did not stop the New York senator who took over Clinton’s seat when she became secretary of state to tell The New York Times in 2017 that she believes former President Bill Clinton should have resigned amid the Monica Lewinsky affair.
Asked about how those comments changed her relationship with Hillary Clinton, Gillibrand said that it had not.
“I don’t think so,” Gillibrand said when asked whether the comment cost her that friendship.
Gillibrand went on to say that she has talked to Hillary Clinton about her 2020 run and that the former secretary of state has given her advice.
“Secretary Clinton is still a role model for all of us,” Gillibrand said. “My views on her husband is very different. And I’ve said all I’m going to say about that.”
Gillibrand added: “She’s somebody who I still admire and look up to, and she’s given a lot to this country.”
Gillibrand on faith: ‘It centers me’
Although Gillibrand talks about her faith regularly on the campaign trail, Tuesday allowed the Democratic presidential candidate to describe how her faith fits into her life in front of a national audience.
“I define myself by my faith. It centers me. It’s something that is one of the reasons why I’m running for president,” she said.
Gillibrand was asked whether she believed there was room in the Democratic Party for a religious left.
“I think anyone should be able to have faith, whether they’re ultraconservative or liberal. And if you’re coming from a Christian perspective, I would say the gospel doesn’t leave anybody out,” Gillibrand said before discussing some of the social teachings of Christianity. “I would argue the Democrats are often better on those issues than Republicans. So, there’s no reason you can’t be a person of any faith in any political party.”
When she was asked if she ever felt like being a person of faith in the Democratic Party was “odd,” since conservatives in the Republican party tend to be more outspoken in their religious beliefs, she answered directly.
“No,” the senator said.