WASHINGTON — Democratic presidential candidate Kirsten Gillibrand is trying to reassert her feminist credentials this week, seizing on high-profile moments to revive a campaign that has languished in the polls.
The New York senator defended her lead role in pushing for the resignation last year of former Minnesota Sen. Al Franken after another 2020 Democratic presidential hopeful, Mayor Pete Buttigieg of South Bend, Indiana, suggested the episode had hurt Democrats and was a move the GOP wouldn’t make.
Gillibrand’s latest comments follow a Fox News Channel town hall Sunday when she caused an online stir by saying, “We want women to have a seat at the table.” Fox moderator Chris Wallace interjected, “What about men?” and she shot back, “They’re already there. Do you not know?”
Gillibrand hopes such encounters generate enough momentum to jump-start a presidential bid overshadowed by candidates who entered the race with less experience and far lower public profiles but have so far generated far more buzz — including Buttigieg. Her vocal defense of women’s rights comes as she remains one of the most vocal Democratic presidential candidates denouncing far-reaching abortion restrictions recently approved by Republican-controlled state legislatures.
“Eight credible allegations of sexual harassment, two since he was elected senator, and one from a congressional staffer. That is not too high a standard, regardless of how the Republican Party handles this behavior, and worse,” Gillibrand said Monday, after Buttigieg said of Franken on MSNBC: “I think the way we basically held him to a higher standard than the GOP does their people has been used against us.”
When pressed by host Chris Matthews, Buttigieg added: “I would not have applied that pressure at that time before we knew more,” though he also said, “I think it is not a bad thing that we hold ourselves to a higher standard.”
Gillibrand was the first Democratic senator to call for Franken’s resignation in December 2017, amid a series of sexual misconduct allegations. She now says her vocal stance hurt her with 2020 donors, pointing to that as a key reason she’s yet to reach the 65,000-donor threshold needed for a spot in the first Democratic presidential debate in Miami later this month.
Gillibrand says she qualified for the debate stage based on her standing in polls, even though she badly trails perceived front-runner Joe Biden and others.
She further noted Monday night that Franken ultimately decided on his own to resign, but “for many senators, including myself and others in this primary field, that was not too high of a bar to raise our voices and make clear we value women.”
Other senators now seeking the presidency, including Elizabeth Warren, Cory Booker, Kamala Harris and Bernie Sanders, followed Gillibrand in calling for Franken’s resignation. Sen. Amy Klobuchar, who represented Minnesota in the Senate along with Franken, condemned his behavior but has said she didn’t publicly call on him to resign because she felt she had a different role “as a colleague.”
But Gillibrand has faced by far the most questions about it. In Iowa, which kicks off the presidential nominating process, Franken was popular and hailed from a neighboring state — and many voters say they’re still angry over what happened to him.
“I really loved Al, and I think he made a mistake, but I think he was railroaded. And I have an issue with that,” said Tanya Burgess, a 43-year-old ice-skating coach from Cedar Rapids, who said Gillibrand was “overly harsh” just to further the #MeToo movement.
“She needed an example to be made,” Burgess said, “and Al Franken was it.”
Gillibrand nonetheless has repeatedly said she has no regrets. During the Fox News town hall, she said, “If a few Democratic donors are angry because I stood by the eight women … that’s on them.”
The Franken fallout comes after Gillibrand flew last month to the Georgia statehouse and rallied with abortion providers and women who had undergone the procedure while promising that, as president, she’d seek to write into law the U.S. Supreme Court’s landmark Roe v. Wade ruling.
Georgia passed a law seeking to effectively ban abortions at around six weeks of pregnancy.
The issue came up during the Fox News town hall, too, when Gillibrand accused the network of running hours of coverage on “infanticide,” which she said doesn’t exist. Wallace suggested that criticism wasn’t “frankly very polite when we’ve invited you to be here.” Gillibrand’s campaign has since begun selling $20 tote bags online emblazoned with “Frankly, not very polite.”
Associated Press writer Alexandra Jaffe contributed to this report from Des Moines, Iowa.