“Off the Sidelines”: Is Kirsten Gillibrand Ready for Prime Time?

Off the Sidelines, Kirsten GillibrandI’ve never wanted to run for political office. Partly it’s because I am not fascinated by the ins and outs of posturing and vote getting, and partly, I think, I really don’t want a job that’s 24/7, having to balance my family against the needs of the needy. I’ve always been very comfortable letting other people represent me.

U.S. Senator Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) does, in fact, represent me, along with 20 million other New Yorkers. We are the richest (with 56 billionaires) and the poorest (the South Bronx is the lowest per capita income congressional district in the United States). We are productively rural and impossibly urban, and if it’s one thing you can say about a New York state resident, well, there’s really not one thing you could say that could possibly encompass us all. The unifier right now? We all share Kirsten Gillibrand as U.S. Senator – and when she ran for office the last time, she won 60 out of 62 counties in this state.

So, she is pretty, certainly, with very nice blond hair. She is successful by many determining factors. It’s a nice package and it’s the one she describes in this new autobiography, Off the Sidelines. She is respected as a lawyer and lawmaker, and she’s mom to two young boys who are pictured on the back of her book’s dust jacket along with her very photogenic husband. Hers is a book that’s part history and part admonition to women reading it to throw their own hats into the political ring, to get involved, to make a difference. And to be successful, do it in the company of other women.

The books starts with family history. Senator Gillibrand describes her grandmother, Polly, and she makes the point that she was untypical of women for her time. As much as her grandmother was engaged in local, grassroots action, from housing needy pregnant girls to stuffing envelopes when Mario Cuomo ran for governor in 1982, she valued the time needed to keep her family running smoothly too. “Polly’s greatest joy was being a grandmother” – and this is the theme, the thread that runs through the book. Be involved, but value your role as wife, mother, or grandmother. And ultimately, she describes both her mother and grandmother like this: “My mother, … learned to be exactly herself from her mother, and in turn I learned from her.”

In effect, the book is set up to explain – sometimes in embarrassing detail, as in the stories Gillibrand tells about her weight and her pregnancies – how to be “yourself.” It’s refreshing that someone with her obligations would take the time to bring that message across so forcefully, so directly, and lots of young girls reading this would get a good sense of what it takes to become a United States Senator. Don’t apologize, don’t shy away from “being yourself,” and don’t let anyone tell you something cannot be done – and the best example out there is Gillibrand herself.

What intrigued me, beyond wondering why she keeps her family in the front of the picture when I expected her to step out a bit more by herself, was why she felt so compelled to run for office in the first place. In the book, she mentions wanting to live in a congressional district in New York she thought she could win, but she does not mention some issue or platform that brought her to want to do that. She never mentions an issue particularly important to that district either. If I found that the needs of some group or some pressing issue were not being addressed adequately by the elected representatives in New York, I could see supporting a campaign to bring about that necessary change, but I can’t for the life of me imagine moving into a new district simply because I wanted to be that go-to “guy” who voters come to with their problems, that one voters would trust. Senator Gillibrand does an amazing job in her book of disassociating herself from any controversy and, other than wanting more women in decision making in general, I couldn’t pin her down to one issue. And that’s not a bad thing if you want to keep winning elections.

This is not to say she doesn’t make a fine go-to “guy.” She does. Gillibrand is really smart, unbelievably well-educated (Dartmouth magna cum laude undergrad, UCLA Law), and grounded in her faith and family – it’s almost too perfect. She can quote the Bible.

And she is fortunate to have Hillary Clinton on her side, penning the forward to the book. She believes that women must support each other so that women will sit at the table, making decisions alongside men. It’s interesting that she has a history of seeking out women’s groups, women’s support networks, even a women’s Bible study class instead of being the lone woman at that all-male table. Her modus operandi has been to collect women, convince them to come along with her, and use that collective female strength to get things done.

In the end, it wasn’t clear to me what exactly she has done; other than win that first long-shot congressional election and then convince New York’s then-Governor David Paterson to appoint her to fill then-Senator Clinton’s vacant seat once she was appointed Secretary of State by President Obama. She’s not famous for health care topics or working families or raising the minimum wage, although it is clear she supports them all. She’s done good work to try to take sexual assault allegations in the military out of the chain of command so that victims could get more fair hearings, but she was thwarted by the current state of the State and the inability to move very much of anything through Congress even on a good day.

So why write the book? And, more importantly, why now? Hillary Clinton might be the answer: her name comes up again and again as Gillibrand’s role model, mentor, and supporter. Gillibrand quotes Sylvia Ann Hewitt who argues that mentors give, sponsors act. But, ultimately, it pays to be willing to step up when you get a brilliant chance to do so. Gillibrand credits Hillary Clinton with taking the time to listen to her when Gillibrand first wanted to support Clinton’s bid for president in the 2008 race and Clinton let her host a fundraiser.

Gillibrand wants women to come together, to be active and engaged in the political process, and she tells women readers to “put yourself in the best possible position to take advantage of your circumstances. If something good happens, you need to be ready for it.”

I’m not clear on what that “good” something is for her right now, but I’m convinced of two things — she’s smart and she’s ready.

Anne Born is a New York-based writer who has been writing stories and poetry since childhood.  While her children were enrolled in New York City public schools in the late 1990s, she edited and published The Backpack Press, and the CSDIII News, a monthly newsletter covering all public schools on Manhattan’s Upper West Side.  She blogs on Open Salon and her writing focuses on family and life in a big city after growing up in a small one.  She is the author of “A Marshmallow on the Bus” and a photographer who specializes in photos of churches, cemeteries, and the Way of St. James in Spain.  Most of her writing is done on the bus.  www.about.me/anneborn. You can follow Anne on Twitter at @nilesite.

Image via offthesidelines.org

(The Broad Side was provided with review copies of Off the Sidelines. All views expressed here are the author’s own. No other compensation was provided).

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