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Sen. Gillibrand on Justice Jackson, Ukraine, postal banking, and what "The True" misses about her grandmother

Senator Kirsten Gillibrand at ANCA in Saranac Lake
Pat Bradley/WAMC
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Senator Kirsten Gillibrand at ANCA in Saranac Lake

Joined by three Republicans, New York Senator Kirsten Gillibrand was one of 50 Democrats to vote to send Ketanji Brown Jackson to the Supreme Court on Thursday, where she will become the first Black female justice. In an interview with WAMC Thursday, Gillibrand discussed that vote, the war in Ukraine, and much more.

Let's start with the historic vote for Kentanji Brown Jackson. Of course, you were one of the Democrats voting to send her to the Supreme Court. How come?

I voted for Judge Brown because she is extremely highly qualified. She's a woman who had more experience than any other Supreme Court nominee in recent history. She exhibited steady temperament, legal expertise, extraordinary dedication to equal justice during the hearings. Judge, Justice Jackson, now, also made history in more than one way. Not only is she the first Black woman on the Supreme Court, but she will also be the court’s first former public defender. And I believe that in this moment, her experience and perspective could not be more needed. I was really honored to cast my vote for her to confirm her and to watch her lead in the future and build a strong and long distinguished career as a jurist.

Were you surprised that she got so little Republican support?

I think three Republican votes is not little Republican support. I think that was great in this moment of division, I think earning the votes of Susan Collins, Lisa Murkowski and Mitt Romney was really important.

A lot of people have noted that people like Justice Scalia and Ruth Bader Ginsburg were overwhelmingly supported by senators of both parties. And that's in contrast to today.

Absolutely. But those were a long time ago. And unfortunately, the politics of division have really changed how voters see these kinds of votes. So there's probably a number of Republicans that are in tough primaries against ultra-conservative Trump candidates, and they are looking for no votes. And so I think the political space to be bipartisan is just constantly shrinking. And so something as high profile is this is harder for Republicans, particularly those in primaries, to vote yes. But I believe that her record will shine. And I think that getting those three votes is very meaningful.

Let me shift gears with you. You held a hearing on suicide in the military this week, and also wrote to Defense Secretary Austin about the issue. In your view, what is not being done that could be to prevent this problem?

So I think that one of the biggest challenges we've had is that there is so much…what’s the right word. It's not possible for service members to come forward if they have mental health problems. There's a lot of backlash.

Stigma.

There’s some kind of stigma attached with coming forward, too much shame coming forward. And so many service members don't think they can ever seek support or advice. And when they do, they often say that they are not received well. And so we have to get rid of this stigma. Interestingly, today, we had a hearing in the full committee with General Milley as well as Secretary Austin.

And in the opening statement, Secretary Austin made a statement about how important mental health is an issue of readiness, and that there should not be a stigma for reporting the need to have support. There's a lot more we can do, though, and what our hearing brought about what those things are, making sure access to care is readily available, making sure that care can be received confidentially, making sure that we can use telehealth and other modern apps to really test whether somebody is in crisis at the moment. A number of anecdotal stories about commanders saying, Oh, you'll be fine, just shake it off in a few days. And those members did not have a few days. They committed suicide before they ever got to see anyone who would listen to them and hear their concerns.

Let me turn to the war in Ukraine. The leader of Ukraine, Volodymyr Zelensky, has basically been begging the U.S. and then the UN for more assistance. Do you think we're doing enough to support Ukraine's resistance efforts right now?

I believe we are standing shoulder to shoulder with Ukrainians and our NATO allies to give the Ukrainians the tools they need to defeat Russia, we have given them all of the anti-aircraft missiles, all of the anti-tank missiles that they've used effectively. We've given them body armor, we've given them bullets and ammunition, we've given them literally the hardware that they have needed to stand their ground. And I'm very grateful that Congress is standing in support of the Ukrainian people. President Zelensky has been so admirable and so inspiring, because he's still in Ukraine, he's not evacuating, he's gonna stay on there till the end. And I think that is exactly what the Ukrainian people needed.

And so we're gonna continue to stand with them and help them as much as we possibly can. We want to continue to tighten the noose on the sanctions, we want to make sure that all of the oligarchs, all of the elite generals, and inner circle around Putin are cut off from the financial system, that we can begin to take away their yachts and their houses and all of their resources that are tucked away in places around the globe. We have continued to add to the sanctions list to create that pressure against Putin. We want the people around him to stand against Putin. And the way to do that is make it unbearable that they are letting him continue this invasion of Ukraine.

Senator, are there any circumstances in which you would support sending American troops to fight there?

No, I think the result of that is World War III. And if we start World War III, you'll see missiles coming to America, you'll see nuclear missiles being used, and we don't want a bomb going off in New York City or any other place around the country, which would certainly be among the first targets. So no, we do not want to start World War III and directly fighting on behalf of the Ukrainians against Russia will be a declaration of war against Russia, and it will have terrible consequences. We'll see millions of people dying not the several thousand that we've seen to date.

You've been pushing for more funding for cybersecurity, given the heightened threat from Russia, amid the sanctions and the invasion. What would you like to see?

So we need an intensive investment in cybersecurity, and not only in technology, but in the people. And so there's several things that I'm working on right now. One is the cyber academy, which would be similar to West Point, or the Naval Academy or the Air Force Academy, specifically for federal workers who are expert in cyber and digital technology. It will be a feeder for NSA and CIA and DOJ and DOD and the Space Force and other federal positions where we have tens of thousands of open tech and cyber jobs that we need to fill. We need to be able to compete with the private sector, particularly the Facebooks and the Googles of the world that can offer huge salaries. And so the way to do that is to offer free college and to give five years of experience to anyone who does this. I think there'll be a way to increase diversity, to increase foreign language speakers, to increase having more women than we have necessarily going into the service academies, it will be a game changer. So we got permission to put that in the NDAA last year; they're writing a report about how to do it. I've developed a lot of support around the country to use an ROTC type program with existing institutions, great schools in New York, like RPI or any one of the SUNY tech schools. All of them are eligible to do this. Clarkson, Cornell. They are ready to create and build the cyber leaders of tomorrow through their curriculum. So that's one step. The second step is we need more cyber defense, and 80% of the internet is privately owned, in terms of networks and capabilities. And we don't have the authority to defend it on behalf of companies and the private sector. And so what we want to do is create a better relationship between the private sector and the public sector so we can put up defenses for companies that wants to help and so that's legislation I'm working on right now.

On another subject, we've been covering your efforts to reestablish postal banking for now many years.  President Biden just signed a post office overhaul bill. Does that bill get you any closer to your vision?

Well, it stabilizes the post office which is a great first step. The deal that we just signed is general reforms including not having to prepay all their liabilities, which puts it on very, very terrible financial footing. But postal banking would deliver about $19 billion a year for the U.S. Postal Service to keep it open and functioning, at least having delivery six days a week, things that really matter to people, particularly seniors and businesses. And it would create the opportunity for the 30% of Americans who are unbanked or underbanked to get basic banking.

Interestingly, your listeners might not know this, but the post office was in the business of banking from the turn of the century to the 1960s. And it helped us get through two world wars and a Great Depression. And so what we would offer is basic banking, checking, savings, the ability to wire money, which they already do, they already do about $20 billion of money wiring a year. So they already do this kind of work. And then small micro loans. Imagine being able to take a loan of even $500 at the end of the month just to pay off bills so you don't have to have high credit card charges and interest payments, it would make a huge difference for people.

So this is a win win for everyone. We've had a pilot program in the Bronx. But Postmaster DeJoy did not set it up for success. He didn't tell anybody about it. So less than 10 people signed up. And that's not reflective of the need in the Bronx. Second, he created huge fees. The whole point is to make this low cost. $5 to cash your check? That's worse than some of the predatory lenders. So unfortunately, Postmaster DeJoy's not help helping. He is set against some of these basic reforms. So hopefully we can change that dynamic sooner than later.

And just out of fairness, we did ask the USPS about that fee to use the services in the pilot branch. And they said the $5 is sort of a nominal industry standard fee.

And that is not true. In fact, if you go to an ATM to get money, you're usually charged $3 or $3.50, not $5. And five bucks to cash a check is the standard fee for predatory lenders. And we're trying to get rid of the predatory practices. So Post Office could have competed much more leanly because it is federally supported.

Just a couple more things, Senator. President Obama was recently back at the White House to celebrate the anniversary of the Affordable Care Act, which kind of coincided with when you went from the House to the Senate. What do you think of that law today and what still needs to be strengthened in terms of the American health care system?

I think the best way to complement the Affordable Care Act is to offer Medicare for anybody who wants to buy in. A Medicare for All approach creates a not for profit option that can compete with the private sector. There's many places around the country that still only have one or two providers, near monopolies. So if you just offer Medicare through buy-ins, you would create much needed competition, and much better base coverage. So I think we need to keep working on accessibility and affordability. And I think the cleanest quickest way to do that is let people buy into Medicare if they want.

One more thing, it's a personal question. A play about your grandmother, Polly Noonan, called ‘The True,’ is being performed right now at CapRep here in Albany. Have you ever seen it? Do you plan to?

I have tickets for Saturday's show. And I'm super excited. I'm bringing my cousin and I'm bringing my son and I maybe will bring my husband or a girlfriend. So we are definitely going and we're super excited. And I think, you know, using the arts to tell stories is one of the best things that I love about the arts.

I know you haven't seen it yet, but it's been in the works for a while. How accurate is it?

From what I know it is highly inaccurate because my grandmother was sewing during it. And she did not sew at all. My grandmother's best domestic capabilities were being able to paint in the house. She could paint all the walls and she loved to, like, do painting. She was a very good ironer, she liked to iron a lot. She did all the ironing for my mother because she was very good at it. And she was not a very good cook, and she had no capability sewing, so it's not accurate because they didn't get some good detail from our family. But I'm excited to at least hear from the common knowledge perspective of who she was and what she was made of. I'm really interested in seeing it and enjoying it, I think. I think it's gonna be a great opportunity for all of us to think about her and to lift up her memory. I'm excited to see it.

And at the risk of a spoiler alert, at one point in the play when she's sewing, she mentions it's for her granddaughter Tina.

Exactly. And making me culottes! I'm sure I had a pair of culottes because that was very 1970s but I promise you my grandmother never made me any culottes. But my mother is the sewer, so there was a little of the truth. My mother used to make us all our dressy dresses. And so I remember having two dresses that my mother made. One summer dress, white eyelet and one winter dress in a bright blue velvet, so my mother could have been making me culottes although she never did make me culottes. She only made me a couple of dresses.

Well, how's that for a fact check? Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, a Democrat from New York. And we thank you very much for taking the time to speak with us.

Thank you so much. God bless.

A lifelong resident of the Capital Region, Ian joined WAMC in late 2008 and became news director in 2013. He began working on Morning Edition and has produced The Capitol Connection, Congressional Corner, and several other WAMC programs. Ian can also be heard as the host of the WAMC News Podcast and on The Roundtable and various newscasts. Ian holds a BA in English and journalism and an MA in English, both from the University at Albany, where he has taught journalism since 2013.
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