CLINTON — From the Green New Deal to anti-discrimination laws, the Me Too Movement, gun violence and the current political climate in Washington, U.S. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-NY, was questioned on varied topics during a forum with students, faculty and staff at the Hamilton College Chapel Nov. 18.
Gillibrand opened the forum by addressing the audience, stating she is “always excited to be among students — our future leaders,” because young people are the debaters of today’s most pressing issues, such as taking on the National Rifle Association and gun violence, lobbying for global climate change legislation or speaking out against discrimination, hate crimes, homophobia, anti-Semitism, anti-Muslim and anti-immigration views. The senator said it was up to the youth to “stand up and demand better” from their peers, communities and leaders and work to “shut down hate.”
“You need to challenge the status quo,” she said.
Green legislation became the opening topic once questions were opened to the audience of mainly students who filled the chapel pews. The senator said she supports the creation of public policies that would create environmental jobs, invest in wind and solar energies and bio fuels, and tackle affordable, green housing at the same time, looking at all aspects of the economy.
Asked what advice she had for young people who may be considering a future in politics, despite the current climate, Gillibrand said, “Try serving anyway. If you change the players list, then you change the climate.”
She later discussed the importance of college students getting out to vote and how “precious” it is to have their voices heard. She cited her disapproval of legislation signed by Republican New Hampshire Gov. Christopher T. Sununu that requires students to have their driver’s license and registration with them on campus so that they would be eligible to register to vote — “which a lot of students don’t have.”
“It’s vital, and there’s a lot of efforts around the country to deny students their right to vote on college campuses,” Gillibrand said.
As for young people taking part even in local elections so that their voices are heard, “Your vote alone can change the outcome of an election, especially a local election where the margin may be just a few hundred votes,” she said. “Our democracy relies on the fact that people come forward to vote.”
And as for “fixing our democracy,” the Democrat said the country needs to move forward with efforts to protect against voter election interference, such as the Russian “hacking” of the 2016 presidential election and voiced her support for “clean elections” — a plan for a voter-driven public option for campaign financing. Such efforts, she said, would foil involvement with special-interest money in campaigns, citing fossil fuel giants, the NRA and New York State Pension Fund.
“I was one of the first (politicians) to sign the anti-fossil fuel pledge,” Gillibrand said.
Gillibrand said she’d like to concentrate efforts in making New York the first state where campaigns are publicly funded. She said a program already in place in Seattle, Wash. — the Democracy Voucher Program — offers state residents four $25 vouchers that they can use to donate toward the candidate they support.
“It would transform politics overnight,” said the senator. “It’s made the people participating more diverse. More women, more young people, more minorities, more low-income people…and the outcomes are different. And that’s what we want.”
On the topic of gun laws and the climate of “partisan politics,” another student asked what could be done so politicians listen to the people, rather than special interest groups and gun lobbyists. As for gun violence legislation, there is the Bipartisan Background Checks Act of 2019, that would require a background check for every firearm sale.
Gillibrand commended young students, like Emma Gonzalez, a student and survivor of the Parkland, Fla. school shooting in February 2018, who helped spearhead the March for Our Lives movement.
The senator said Gonzalez’s speech and the rally and those who stand up against gun violence — “to every politician that’s powerful,” and also recalled the incident where her friend, former U.S. Rep. Gabby Gifford, D-Ariz., was the victim of an assassination attempt when she was shot in the head with a “military-style weapon” during a public meeting with constituents back in January 2011. She suffered a traumatic brain injury while 18 others were wounded and six killed, including 9-year-old Christina-Taylor Green.
Gillibrand said leaders need to “stand up” against the NRA and “do what’s right for common sense gun control.”
“We shouldn’t be living in an America where you can’t go to a Walmart, to a movie or to school…Every day you see headlines that break your heart,” she said.
A student also asked Gillibrand about the Me Too Movement, and how young women can champion the effort while not being isolated by others.
Gillibrand said sadly, there is still much “backlash” suffered by women, and men, who come forward, and that she supports creating a climate where justice “may be possible.” The senator said polls have shown that “59 percent of people who have come forward” reported suffering some type of retaliation, such as prosecution, losing their jobs or even being shunned by their peers.
“We need more elected officials to care about this,” she said. “…And we shouldn’t be blaming women who stand up against powerful men when they’ve done something wrong. It’s benefiting others coming forward with your courage.”
The topic then shifted to the Equality Act, which would ensure civil rights protections for the LGBTQ community in the workplace.
“It’s sad that it’s dead in the Senate, which is why we’re working hard to flip the Senate,” said Gillibrand of the Democratic Party.
“Most Americans don’t support discrimination,” she said, adding that Republican Majority Leader Mitch McConnell is “standing in the way” of the legislation moving forward.
“It’s common sense legislation that makes sure” you “can’t be discriminated against, and it’s important for Americans that we support that kind of legislation,” Gillibrand said.