Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., poses for a portrait after speaking about military sexual assaults, during an interview in her office on Capitol Hill in Washington, Thursday, April 30, 2015.

Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., poses for a portrait after speaking about military sexual assaults, during an interview in her office on Capitol Hill in Washington, Thursday, April 30, 2015. AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin

The Perseverance of Kirsten Gillibrand

Whether confronting the military over sexual assault or her fellow New York senator on the Iran deal, the Democrat’s ambitions stretch beyond Hillary Clinton’s shadow.

Hillary Clinton didn’t name-drop her former-president husband or other party heavyweights at the first Democratic presidential debate, but she did give a shout-out to a junior senator: Kirsten Gillibrand.

“I see my good friend, Sen. Gillibrand, in the front row. She’s been a champion” of paid family leave, Clinton said. “We need to get a consensus through this campaign, which is why I'm talking about it everywhere I go, and we need to join the rest of the advanced world in having it.”

Clinton and Gillibrand, both New York Democrats, have long rejected the notion that pushing women’s rights and focusing on families somehow trivializes a female politician’s career. But they’ve also gone further, using their gender as a strength to become leaders in the traditional boys’ club of national security.

“My gender and my world view does inform a lot of my analysis on issues,” Gillibrand told Defense One in a recent interview in her Capitol Hill office. “I truly believe if we had 51 percent women in Congress, not only would the issues we’re debating be different, but the solutions that would be offered would be very different, and [military sexual assault] in particular would be a foregone conclusion.”

In her six years in the Senate, Gillibrand has established her own defense credentials as a tenacious advocate for those who often fall outside the focus of national security policy: gay servicemembers, 9/11 responders, military families, military sexual assault victims, and refugees. From her seat on the Armed Services Committee — and as ranking member of the subcommittee on personnel — she’s challenged entrenched hierarchies from the Pentagon to her own party leadership.

Gillibrand has become known for persistence in pursuit of her national security principles, but it's also part of a patient campaign to raise her profile, with long-term political goals in mind. For the second time in two years, her proposal to remove assault cases from the military chain of command was scratched from the final version of the annual defense authorization bill, which will be sent to the White House Tuesday. But she’s not finished, she says.

“I will keep fighting on this issue. And my strategy is to keep developing the facts, because there’s not a lot of transparency within the Department of Defense,” Gillibrand said. Noting that her measure lost 10 supporters in the 2014 midterms, she said, “That’s just the reality of it. You need to keep changing people’s minds.”

Some have speculated that Gillibrand is waiting her turn for a presidential run. She says her ambitions don’t extend beyond the Senate — for now.

“My ambition is to continue to raise issues that don’t have champions, to be a voice for the voiceless, to be a voice for people who don’t have expensive lobbyists,” she said. “Someone who is willing to take on the status quo, someone who’s willing to go up against the Department of Defense when they’re wrong. And I think those kinds of voices are very much needed in the U.S. Senate.”

‘If They Choose to Do Nothing, We Do Nothing’

This is a snapshot from a day — October 6, 2015 — in the life of Kirsten Gillibrand:

At an Armed Services committee hearing, her fellow senators began their questioning of Army Gen. John Campbell with thanks for his service. Gillibrand, however, bored in immediately on reports the U.S. military had retaliated against troops who reported that members of the Afghan security forces had sexually abused women and children.

“Our soldiers should report that up their chain of command,” said Campbell, the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan. And from there, “Sir, I mean, ma’am, we would make sure that that information got to the right authorities within the Afghan government.”

“What our policy is, based on what you just said, is to report it to the Afghanistan authorities,” Gillibrand responded after several exchanges. “And if they choose to do nothing, we do nothing.”

“No, I didn't say that, ma’am,” Campbell said.

“So what do you do if they refuse to do something?” Gillibrand asked.

“I would go back and make sure —” Campbell started, then interrupted himself. “Again, in 14 months I have been there, I have not had a case come to me.”

Shortly afterward, Gillibrand spoke to a few dozen people in the Capitol basement about the Military Family Stability Act of 2015, a piece of bipartisan legislation she’d just helped introduce. It’s intended to provide flexibility to troops when they are ordered to a new post, giving them up to six months for kids to finish school, spouses to give notice, and families to move.

“We owe it to them to pass this bill,” she said.

But after the press conference, she told Defense One that the new initiative, along with her signature push to remove decisionmaking on sexual assault cases from the chain of command, would have to wait until next year’s defense authorization bill. Later that afternoon, the Senate advanced the massive bill, and passed it the following day.

“There’s huge problems throughout the whole military justice system and we want to begin to tackle each challenge as we see them, so I’m trying to continue to develop more expertise … so I can go back to my colleagues,” she said. “Even though the Department of Defense likes to declare victory on this, you don’t see the kind of progress that you really need, and if it was your son or daughter who was assaulted, you’d want to try and get justice.”

‘Imperfect Iran Deal’

In August, amid intense lobbying by the Obama administration and congressional opponents over the fate of the Iran deal, Gillibrand came out in support of an “imperfect” agreement.

The timing was critical, just ahead of the first GOP presidential debate and a month out from the vote, with so many remaining undecided — including the senior senator from New York, Chuck Schumer, an avowed Iran hawk but the anointed next top Democrat. White House spokesperson Josh Earnest and others touted Gillibrand’s support and suggested the Democratic caucus would take Schumer’s ultimate “no” into account when deciding leadership.

Despite bucking her New York mentor and a sizeable portion of her strong Jewish constituency, when asked how difficult the decision was, she interrupted: “Not difficult.”

“I didn’t know what decision [Schumer] had reached. Last time I spoke to him, he was undecided,” Gillibrand said. “And I didn’t tell him my decision when I reached it; I just reached it … I didn’t know where votes would end up.”

Gillibrand says she weighed national security costs and benefits, leaning on the testimony of Defense Secretary Ash Carter, retired Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey, and the heads of the Intelligence Community.

Of senators who reached a different conclusion, she said, “It was a vote of conscience for each of them … I don’t think this should be a political issue in any way.”

For Gillibrand, that means being prepared to use military action. She’s also considering aid to Israel to counterbalance money Iran will receive from sanctions relief.

“You’re never going to have a perfect agreement. But this is about national security,” she said. “If you truly don’t trust Iran, and you believe they’ll continue to engage in malign activities, having that intelligence will allow us to determine when they do breach, that we’ll be able to respond much more effectively, and militarily … You have to be prepared to do that.”

First Woman Defense Secretary?

Some had speculated that Gillibrand might run for president in 2016, but there was little chance she’d challenge Clinton, her mentor and predecessor in her Senate seat. Gillibrand endorsed Clinton within days of her announcement. The senator remains an influencer; just last week she set off speculation by predicting that Vice President Joe Biden would jump into the race.

She says she wouldn’t want a post in a Clinton cabinet, though a smile cracks through when asked whether she’d accept the vice-president’s slot — a constitutional impossibility because a presidential candidate and her pick can’t hail from the same state.

“Although I of course would be on the ticket, ye-es,” she said, laughing. “Should she win, I think I can actually help her achieve her vision by being a strong voice in the Senate because she has to work with Congress. So I actually think I’m more effective here than I would be as a cabinet member.”

Not even as the first woman secretary of defense?

“Interesting,” she said, adding, “I would definitely support Michele Flournoy, who I think would be awe-some.”

Said an aide sitting in: “To be continued.”