U.S. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., sits down for a chat with Jeanette Hopkins, center, and Chloe McClure, right, at the Pierce Street Coffee Works cafe' in Sioux City, Iowa, Friday, Jan. 18, 2019. Sen. Gillibrand is on a weekend visit to Iowa, after announcing that she is forming an exploratory committee to run for President of the United States in 2020. (AP Photo/Nati Harnik)

Gillibrand, in Iowa, bills herself as fighter for families

January 18, 2019 - 2:48 pm

SIOUX CITY, Iowa (AP) — Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand introduced herself to Iowa Democrats on Friday as a common-sense fighter for family, and especially children's, issues, in her first visit to the early-voting state as a 2020 Democratic presidential prospect.

Unlike some of her potential rivals, the New York senator was starting from scratch in a state where few Democratic activists have a strong impression of her and where some say she's known more for criticisms of her.

"We have to take on these systems of power that destroy our hopes" for better lives for families, Gillibrand told a dozen Sioux City Democrats at a coffee shop in the western Iowa city. "That's why I'm running, and that's what I think we have to fight for."

Gillibrand, who announced her intentions to run on "The Late Show with Stephen Colbert" on Tuesday, wasted little time getting to the state where the 2020 caucuses launch the Democratic presidential selection process.

Sioux City Democrat Linda Santi was impressed by what she saw in Gillibrand.

"She showed a soft-spoken passion," said Santi, a consultant for a nonprofit group. "I felt like she was listening."

What little Sandi O'Brien, co-chairwoman of the Woodbury County Democrats, knew about Gillibrand was criticism on social media. "I don't know a lot of detail," O'Brien said, as Gillibrand entered the coffee shop, where news media outnumbered Democratic activists. "I know people have been critical that she's changed positions on immigration and gun control."

Gillibrand initially positioned herself more in line with the conservative House district she represented before 2009, when she replaced Hillary Clinton as New York's junior senator. Gillibrand has explained her shift leftward on guns and immigration as a product of learning more about the issues.

She told "60 Minutes" last year after meeting families affected by gun violence that she "was wrong" about gun control, and she has now called for retooling the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency.

Democrat Cindy Paschen said some Democrats in her political circle in the liberal-leaning college city of Ames, Iowa, are angry that Gillibrand was the Senate's first public advocate for Minnesota Democrat Al Franken to resign. Franken resigned his seat in December 2017 after allegations by women that he had groped them.

But Paschen, who plans to meet Gillibrand when she visits central Iowa on Saturday, said the senator's position on Franken was "the right thing to do."

"I totally support her calling him out," she said.

On Friday, Gillibrand chatted for 45 minutes with Iowans and the entourage of press in the coffee shop. She was scheduled to meet Sioux City Democratic donors at a private home Friday evening and headline a variety of appearances Saturday, including coffee-shop and brew-pub talks in Ames and Des Moines, as well as speaking at the Women's March in Des Moines.

She will also be meeting privately with party leaders and influential Democratic activists along the way.

Gillibrand's Iowa trip is the beginning of her journey to introduce herself to more Americans outside New York, which she has represented in Washington since 2006, first as a congresswoman and then as a senator. She has distinguished herself in the nation's capital with her outspoken opposition to President Donald Trump and her forceful advocacy for victims of sexual assault and harassment.

Unlike several of the more than a dozen Democrats who have signaled an interest in running, Gillibrand did not visit Iowa in 2018, when Iowa Democrats picked up seats in the U.S. House and the state Legislature in the November midterm elections.

New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker, for instance, wowed hundreds of party activists at the Iowa Democratic Party's annual fall fundraising banquet in October. Likewise, California Sen. Kamala Harris lit up a crowd in Iowa City and met with influential female candidates and activists in suburban Des Moines.

Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren beat a path to the state quickly this month after announcing the formation of an exploratory committee Dec. 31. Gillibrand's announcement and quickly planned Iowa trip followed what influential Iowa Democrats agreed was a productive trip for Warren, who drew hundreds to events in western and central Iowa.