COUNCIL BLUFFS — New York Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand thinks she knows how to handle President Donald Trump, she told an enthusiastic crowd of Pottawattamie County Democrats on Thursday: like you would “any melting-down toddler.”
If he towers over her in a debate, she said, she’d point to his podium and say firmly: “Your spot is over there.”
“I think his kryptonite is a woman like me,” she said, sipping a scotch on the stairs at Barley’s in Council Bluffs while speaking to a crowd of more than 100.
Gillibrand, 52, was in Iowa this week to convince Democratic voters that she should be their nominee. And it’s a tough road — the field has already grown to 20 candidates, including no less than four other East Coast senators, and more people are likely to announce.
Gillibrand is a heavy hitter in the Senate on issues such as successfully pushing for the repeal of “don’t ask, don’t tell” and unsuccessfully lobbying Congress to remove sexual assault prosecution from the military chain of command. (More recently she’s faced criticism over how she handled a harassment complaint in her own office.) She also speaks Mandarin and serves on the Armed Services Committee.
But in the presidential race, she trailed other high-profile candidates in the latest fundraising quarter.
Gillibrand made a half-week trip to western Iowa that included a Senate hearing with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, a tour of Pacific Junction flooding and meetings with voters around the region.
Over and over, she wove stories of her family and themes of motherhood into her promises to take the fight to Trump.
Marsha Pilger of Council Bluffs said she watches C-SPAN every day and she’s been impressed with Gillibrand, though she hasn’t yet made up her mind.
“Everyone thinks she is so sweet, but she is strong. She is sharp. She knows how to get the right question,” Pilger said.
Sharon Robino-West, a Nebraskan military sexual assault survivor and advocate, said it meant a lot to her that Gillibrand took on the issue long before the #MeToo movement gained steam.
“I just really respected her for that,” Robino-West said.
Gillibrand also got cheers at the corps hearing — in her capacity as a senator, not a candidate — from a much more conservative crowd. There, she took the corps and the Trump administration to task for the recent Missouri River flooding in a series of impassioned speeches.
And she hopes her ability to appeal to rural Americans will convince Democrats that she should be their nominee.
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A lawyer, she initially was elected in a heavily Republican House district in New York — and her positions leaned more conservative.
After she was appointed and subsequently elected to the Senate, her views shifted to the left. But, she said, she can draw voters from across the spectrum, pointing to her statewide wins in even red areas of New York.
In Glenwood and Pacific Junction, Gillibrand’s more personal side came out.
At the Glenwood Resource Center, she quizzed staff on flood victims’ needs, then promised to ship a box of bedding from her New York home.
Then she gave her personal email address to two people with promises to send more things directly to them, as well as offering help navigating the FEMA application process.
“So what can I do to make your work easier?” she asked Mariann Kinart, holding her hand. “Money? Support? Housing? … Dishes? What else do you need?”
Gillibrand added: “You are strong. You can do it.”
Kinart, whose Pacific Junction home was flooded, teared up as the senator offered to send her things.
“It kind of lifted me up,” she said afterward.
Gillibrand then toured the house of Jason and Fran Parr of Pacific Junction, where the senator pointed out items that could be salvaged and offered to come back with her sons to help rebuild this summer.
At the Council Bluffs event, she laid out her support of the Green New Deal, improving access to education and labor union support.
One man took to the mic to say: “Some people say you remind them of Hillary Clinton.”
“Is it the blonde (hair)?” she quipped.
“Some people say you’re not likable,” he added.
Gillibrand isn’t the only woman running for president who’s been deemed “unlikable” — Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren, for example, has faced similar criticism, and to a lesser degree so have Sens. Kamala Harris and Amy Klobuchar.
Gillibrand launched into what sounded like a rehearsed speech about Clinton. She said she admires and respects her predecessor in the Senate, but they are also different people who have a different appeal to voters.
But first, she asked everyone who finds her likable to raise their hand.
Just about every hand went up, with enthusiastic cheers.