TROY, NEW YORK — The signage for the warehouse that sells tractor supplies was barely visible behind the throng of national media that Kirsten Gillibrand addressed Wednesday for the first time as a candidate for president of the United States. Nearby, an American flag with its colors faded quivered in the crisp air. And perhaps for nostalgia’s sake, the sign to the place next to the frozen pond that Gillibrand’s campaign says is her family’s “go-to” on the weekends simply read DINER.
Gillibrand called it a “very special place for us.”
Later, someone asked why she didn’t put her campaign headquarters in a “bigger place.”
“‘Cause Troy’s awwwweeesommme!” she said, channeling Oprah. “Why wouldn’t you put your headquarters in Troy?”
The last time a New York politician ran for the Democratic presidential nomination, she based her campaign in Brooklyn, a hub for young progressives that has become its own brand that signals something hip and new. Gillibrand is going in the other direction, centering her campaign in a place she defines as a microcosm of America, in a county where Donald Trump barely edged out Hillary Clinton in 2016. Gillibrand’s Troy is a representation of the values that demonstrate the kind of leader she believes she’d be.
“I wanted to be here because this is where I’m from,” she said in a more serious tone. “It’s my story. This is who I am. This is where I first ran for Congress. This is where I grew up. And my family’s here. And...”
“Troy’s a lot like the rest of America. We work hard. We were part of the Industrial Revolution — we made things here. And from there we’ve had ups and downs like a lot of places all across America. But we continued to work hard. We started new businesses and saw new growth. We’ve seen an amazing renaissance in Troy and other places in upstate New York. And that’s a lot like the rest of the country. We don’t give up — we never give up. Where do you think I learned never giving up from?”
The setting for Gillibrand’s first press availability as a candidate for president was a whole world away from the Ed Sullivan Theater, where the night before she had declared why she was running and who she was running for on The Late Show With Stephen Colbert. Gillibrand’s team had been working on the launch for weeks. She defended her record Wednesday as a fighter and as someone who could appeal to swing voters, saying she won her 2-to-1 Republican district in this county because people wanted someone who was going to fight for health care.
At one point during the press conference outside the diner, she asked an aide if they wanted to “call on people” because she said she didn’t want to be “unfair.” She said people want someone who has the conviction to take on battles and who understood their problems. To a predictable question about her vow to serve her full six-year Senate term after winning reelection last year, she said she’d “continue to fight for New Yorkers as I’ve always done,” but that she believes “that the urgency of this moment now is we have to take on President Trump and what he’s doing,” which she described as “literally ripping apart the fabric of our country.” Other early presidential candidates, like Sen. Elizabeth Warren, have not been that direct in talking about Trump at the outset of their campaigns.
After saying that she intended to connect with people who voted for Trump, she was asked what she was going to do differently from Clinton in 2016. “I think every candidate is different and we have to all speak from our hearts about who we care about, why we care, and what we plan to do to make [things] better.”
She asked voters who may be suspicious about her change in positions, such as on gun control, to “look at my heart.” When asked about Al Franken — whom she called on to resign from the Senate over misconduct allegations, resulting in both Franken’s resignation and months of anger from Franken’s progressive supporters — she said she’d “stand up for what I believe in, especially when it’s hard.” She called the ordeal “sad for many people,” but said the allegations were credible and that she couldn’t stay silent. “If that makes some wealthy individuals angry, that’s on them,” she said.
Inside the diner were about 50 longtime friends, family members, and supporters who mostly played along with the idea that this was a warm-up for her trip this weekend to Iowa. She thanked friends for being there for her. She asked one man, Solomon Dees, to pray for her. She whispered the word “protection,” hovering her hand around her upper torso.
“Fancy seeing you here!” someone shouted.
“Fancy seeing you here!” replied Gillibrand.
“Troy’s amazing! We were just downtown!” a young man at the table said.
“Troy’s awesome, right?” Then she lowered her voice to the appropriate timbre of a cynical reporter. “They said, ‘Why are you doing your campaign headquarters in Troy?
“And the answer is ’cause it’s awesome!”