On Martin Luther King Jr. Day, after a trip to Iowa, Kirsten Gillibrand returned to her home state to pay tribute to the man she said she "looked to for inspiration," this time as a candidate for president in a primary that had, that very morning, changed dramatically.
Back in Iowa, Gillibrand made cookies for the press corps following her, drank a citrusy beer in front of a packed rally inside a brewery (“How’d you know I like grapefruit?”), and told attendees of Iowa’s Women’s March that “now is our time.” Gillibrand declared that the refrain defining her campaign, still in its early stages, that she would fight for other people’s children as hard as she would for her own, is a matter of practicality. “Because if you start from that shared value,” she said, “you can build anything.”
In a speech Monday at National Action Network's House of Justice, though, Gillibrand used the metaphor of light to cast her candidacy as a mission rooted less in practicality than in spirituality.
Making her first impassioned remarks on the subject of her personal faith as a candidate for president, Gillibrand tied the broad themes of King’s legacy to her personal sense of duty. She called herself a person of “deep faith” and described the fight for social justice as a “battlefield.” She mentioned the “golden rule” and alluded to scripture that reveals the “faith’s mighty powers.”
“We put on the full armor of God so that we can stand our ground when we take on the rulers, the authorities, and the powers of this dark world,” she said.
The result was a slight twist on her early theme.
“I am going to run for president of the United States because as a person of faith and as a mother, I cannot sit idly by and not fight for your children as hard as I fight for my own in a time such as this.”
Gillibrand huddled with various leaders, activists, and community organizers after her speech for about 45 minutes.
Her appearance followed news that was not unexpected, but immediately changed the shape of the 2020 race: Sen. Kamala Harris announced Monday morning that she would run for president, a move she said she was honored to make on MLK Day. If Harris were to win the Democratic nomination, she would be the first black woman to be nominated for president by a major party. Gillibrand referenced Harris's decision in a tweet.
In a brief interview following her speech, Gillibrand said it was important for her to carry a more spiritual message on Monday because it epitomized what King stood for.
“I believe that only light can drive out darkness,” Gillibrand told BuzzFeed News. “This was a call to action to ask Americans to fight for what they believe in and for their democracy. Because what President Trump has spewed is deeply dark and deeply troubling and it’s the kind of hate and division that I think we have to fight against.”
Gillibrand, who is a devout Catholic and attends a weekly Bible study on Capitol Hill when she’s in Washington, said in her speech, “I think this is a moment for all of us to ask ourselves what we are called to do. I believe we are all being called right now to fight for our great nation. Only what's right can defeat what's wrong, and I feel very called at this moment to make that difference, to help people, to listen to people, and to help them.”
Last year, Gillibrand told Politico, “It’s not specifically about the president. It’s about ideas that are evil. It’s about darkness, which is rooted in hate. There’s a lot of ideas right now that are in this county that are dark ideas: building walls, dividing this country, marginalizing trans military members who are troops, marginalizing kids who are transgender, not supporting DACA kids, literally polluting our air and our water.
“In the civilian world, you would just say those are horrible, outrageous things that we should fight against because they’re harmful and they hurt people. And so we don’t really talk about good and evil in our day jobs, but we certainly talk about policies that harm people and are hurtful and are cruel, and a lot of the policies that this president has put forward are harmful and cruel. And if you want to call it evil you can.”
In a run that got the most applause from Monday’s crowd, Gillibrand spoke about health care as a “right and not a privilege,” her belief that the quality of public schools should not be determined by location, and her pitch for job training for “anybody who wants to work hard” to boost them into the middle class.
“But to get any of this done, we have to take head on the corrupt systems of power that make this impossible — institutional racism, corporate greed, and corrupt special interests,” she said, echoing what she said on The Late Show With Stephen Colbert last week when she announced her campaign. "We have to have an honest conversation about the systemic, institutional, and daily individual acts of racism in our country that hold people and their families back for generations."
Gillibrand she said felt “very called” to “make that difference, to help people, to listen to people, and to help them” — and asked her audience to join her.
“Dr. King’s life should push all of us to think about this question,” she said in the speech. “What am I doing with my own time here on this earth to serve others?” Because Dr. King taught us that serving others is the greatest purpose in life. As he said, ‘The time is always right to do what is right.’ He taught us the power of love over hate. He asked us to be the light of the world and the salt of the earth, and help others.”