What do you think ladies; will you stand up together to join the senator’s demands or do you think she has this completely wrong?
Bernie Sanders is known for sticking to his guns — literally — and that might be his undoing in big, bullet-strafed states like New York.
Sanders, a paragon of political consistency who has almost never flip-flopped on a major issue, enters Tuesday’s critical primary here lagging badly behind Hillary Clinton among black voters. A significant drag on his popularity in violence-ravaged African-American neighborhoods remains his refusal to back a Democratic bill that would hold weapons manufacturers liable for gun violence. Clinton, fairly or not, is painting a solid small-state progressive as a callous gunslinger carrying the NRA’s ammo against the interests of black urbanites.
His option? Change positions. That’s what Kirsten Gillibrand, a proud, passionate turncoat on guns, urges her Senate colleague from Vermont to do for the sake of his politics and, you know, his immortal soul. New York’s junior senator, a passionate Clinton backer and feminist, broke down during an emotional sit-down here for POLITICO’s “Off Message” podcast when I asked her about her own conversion from an upstate House member with a 100 percent NRA rating (who once stored a shotgun under her bed) to an upper-chamber anti-gun crusader.
“I was somebody who was not as focused on this, as I should have been, as a House member. Meeting these families devastated me, broke my heart,” said Gillibrand, when I suggested she switched positions as a matter of political expediency in a deep-blue state where most Democrats favor stringent gun restrictions.
Gillibrand, a 49-year-old mother of two young sons not prone to public expressions of emotion, began to cry in mid-sentence. “It’s so crippling — I mean, I sat down with a mother last week in Brooklyn, and she lost her 4-year-old baby … she took her kid to a park,” she said. “Every mom takes their kid to a park. And she took her kid to a park and the kid was killed, a baby, a 4-year-old. … [Sanders] doesn’t have the sensitivity he needs to the horror that is happening in these families. I just don’t think he’s fully getting how horrible it is for these families.”
Her reaction took me by surprise, in part because I’d covered her appointment to Clinton’s vacated Senate seat in 2009 by feckless then-Gov. David Paterson, when she was known for her conservative, Blue Dog Democratic politics. Barely 40, she also had a reputation as a young-woman-in-a-hurry — and I co-authored a story quoting an unnamed congressional colleague calling her “Tracy Flick,” the scheming high school presidential candidate from the movie “Election.”
Gillibrand embodies the changing politics of guns as well as anyone, having run for Congress in 2006 as part of class of candidates recruited by then-Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee Chairman Rahm Emanuel geared at pulling the party back to the center. She won her right-of-center district on a platform that included her opposition to amnesty for undocumented immigrants, her commitment to balancing the federal budget and, above all, her vow to protect gun rights.
Her critics (some of them envious members of the state’s uniformly liberal congressional delegation) suggested her wedding with the gun control movement was of the shotgun variety.
But Gillibrand says her whipsaw transformation was genuine. Her mostly white, semi-rural district outside the state capital closely resembles Sanders’ Vermont, and Gillibrand says she’d simply never seen the impact of guns in big cities. She took her first step away from the NRA by introducing a gun-trafficking bill at the behest of former Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s police commissioner, Ray Kelly.
Whatever her initial motivations, Gillibrand possesses the zeal of the converted and sees guns as the issue that will allow Clinton to generate the kind of enthusiasm for her candidacy — especially among women — that has thus far been missing from her candidacy. “This debate is relegated to the men. It’s about hunting? It has nothing to do with hunting,” she said. “Nothing in this debate has to do with hunting, and nothing in this debate has to do with the Second Amendment rights. Nothing. … I think — I see the world in the lens of women’s issues. I’m making everything a woman’s issue. I want guns to be a woman’s issue.”
Clinton, who has been campaigning with African-American mothers whose kids were killed in gun crimes, isn’t going quite far enough, Gillibrand says. She wants a “women’s crusade” on the issue, adding that Clinton “might not have made that connection in her own mind. I’ve made that connection.”