Portraits of Hope From Kirsten Gillibrand’s 2020 Campaign Kickoff Outside Trump’s Hotel

Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand announces her presidential candidacy in New York outside of the Trump International Hotel on March 24, 2019.

Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand announces her presidential candidacy in New York outside of the Trump International Hotel on March 24, 2019. Jason Bergman

After three months of exploratory campaigning and ranch dressing run-ins in Iowa, Senator Kirsten Gillibrand joined the crowded field of Democrats running for president by announcing her candidacy on Sunday in New York City with the premise of “Brave Wins.” Under blue skies, supporters filled the block outside the Trump International Hotel on Central Park West for a symbolic show of strength to rebuke the president outside one of his signature properties.

Opening speakers such as Annie Clark, co-founder of “End Rape on Campus” and Lisdy Contreras-Giron, a DREAMer and immigration advocate, told the audience about Gillibrand’s bravery and earnest desire to do the right thing, even in times when it may have not been politically beneficial. Her longtime friend, actress Connie Britton, warmed up the crowd with stories of their lasting friendship and drove home Gillibrand’s history of “being brave” even before joining the political world.

Actress Connie Briton speaks before Kirsten Gillibrand announces her presidential candidacy.

Actress Connie Briton speaks before Kirsten Gillibrand announces her candidacy in the 2020 presidential race. Jason Bergman

When she got to the stage, Gillibrand wasted no time going after President Donald Trump. She referred to the shiny gold building behind her as a “shrine to division, greed and vanity.” In her most stinging remark, Gillibrand said: “He puts his name in bold on every building. He does all of this because he wants you to believe he is strong. He is not. Our president is a coward.”

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With her record in the Senate of voting against Trump appointees and policies, Gillibrand has made a show of force in her distaste for the man in the White House. However, she acknowledged that just being the anti-Trump candidate isn’t the only way to win in 2020, and that she is “not running for president because of who I’m fighting against. I’m running for president because of who I’m running for.” Despite a small contingent of pro-Trump supporters a block away, shouting and waving large MAGA flags during the entirety of her speech, Gillibrand made sure to not just focus on Trump. She went on to detail the policy priorities that will be her focus in the coming months: the release of the Mueller report, legalizing marijuana, raising the minimum wage, universal pre-kindergarten and passing Medicare For All, among many others.

Supporters came out in droves for Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand's 2020 campaign kick-off on March 24, 2019.

Supporters came out in droves for Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand’s 2020 campaign kickoff on March 24, 2019. Jason Bergman

Gillibrand faces a tough race, and she made sure to highlight her progressive bonafides and policy positions as a way to stand out in a crowded field. We talked to supporters and undecided members in the crowd about their thoughts on Gillibrand’s history and whether she has what it takes to get to the top of the ticket.

William Ferrante, 24, from the East Village and Zaheen Sarker, 24, from the Upper East Side

at the kickoff for Kirsten Gillibrand's Presidential Candidacy in New York on March 24, 2019.

William Ferrante (L) and Zaheen Sarker (R) at the kickoff for Kirsten Gillibrand’s presidential candidacy in New York on March 24, 2019. Jason Bergman

What brought you out today?

Zaheen: I think it’s really important that we have someone that champions women’s rights, as a woman. I think Senator Gillibrand has an incredible track record with supporting women. On top of that, she has all the progressive policies that I support. And she has a great energy about her.

William: She’s been pretty consistent with her own track record, especially as a senator from New York. She represents a lot of the values that I hold true. Also, like what Zaheen said, I appreciate her youth and energy that she brings to the race, which is something that is kind of a contrast to what we have right now.

Zaheen: I think actually, on top of that, I know we talk about this a lot. She also has the power of bringing together a lot of people. New York state is pretty diverse. Obviously you have the liberal center that are all the urban centers, but a lot of New York is rural and red-leaning, so the fact that she’s been able to be elected senator in a state that is diverse like this is another really appealing point for her.

Right. She went from having an “A” rating from the NRA to an “F” rating with the NRA and she’s fully embracing it.

William: I’m originally from upstate. She can definitely represent the entirety of New York, where she has appeal in the rural, conservative areas but she also has appeal in the more liberal urban centers here. With respect to the NRA rating, she is able to learn from past policy decisions and kind of take from her own experience as an elected official and understand how her own policy decisions can change over time. I think it shows that she has the ability to learn from decisions that might not be so good to having better policies in the future.

Zaheen: It’s important to be able to learn how to evolve with what your constituents think because at the end of the day, she is a representative of us and she should reflect our views.

In the past couple of years, she has been the “anti-Trump” senator. Is that one reason why you came out today? Are you worried that may just be a one-note thing?

Zaheen: I don’t think it’s just a one-note thing. I know she’s known as one of the senator’s who has been really vocal against Trump. Honestly, I really laud her for that. There are many senators on the other side of the aisle who aren’t necessarily doing that. I feel like someone needs to speak out against him. I think that’s honestly a plus point for her, but I don’t think that’s the only thing that defines her. She’s running as a candidate whose really big on family policies, which is something that her colleagues on the other side of the aisle are not really helping her with. I think she will be known as someone who is multifaceted, not just the anti-Trump side of her.

What are you expecting to hear from her today?

Zaheen: I’m just really excited for a candidate who can pump up a ton of people and get people excited to vote. I’d love to hear new policy. I think what’s really important is that we have a primary that is policy oriented. Otherwise, we have another sort of “cult of personality” which is so not what we need. Hopeful for new policy. Right now, for a campaign launching, I think just really revving people up and getting people ready to volunteer, vote and all of that, that’s important.

William: I’ve listened to her do a few interviews in the past, and one of the things she does really well is give a thoughtful explanation to her policy ideas. I think it’s so important that we have a primary that is focused on policy over personality, but at the same time, with her energy, she can get us excited to vote for her, and you know, bring a bunch of people together to support her and her ideas. I hope to hear a lot about what she has to say with her policies.

So you’re not excited about Beto is what you’re telling me?

Zaheen: Don’t get us started… no, Beto’s great. I think it’s great having more voices in the primary field, but my girl Kirsten, come on!

Kamau Cush from Long Island

Kamau Cush at the kickoff for Kirsten Gillibrand's presidential candidacy in New York on March 24, 2019.

Kamau Cush at the kickoff for Kirsten Gillibrand’s presidential candidacy in New York on March 24, 2019. Jason Bergman

What brought you out today? Why Senator Gillibrand?

Kamau: Her position on issues such as forgiving student loan debt, restoring democracy to the United States, basically bringing America back to normal in regards to observing our constitutional safeguards and our constitutional guidelines. I’m definitely in her corner when it comes to that, and she’s very clear about that. She’s unabashedly unafraid about tackling very, very serious issues. I was particularly impressed with the stand she took, at tremendous risk to her as senator, for calling on Senator Al Franken to step down because of his allegations with sexual abuse.

It’s been interesting watching that play out. She didn’t make him resign, but she can’t seem to shake that.

Kamau: We need political leaders who are prepared to take bold actions, to take bold initiatives, regardless of the political consequence. We’ve had enough of these candidates who pretend to be one thing, and then they get into office, they shift and they adjust to the political winds. We don’t need that. We need bold leaders, aggressive leaders who are going to move forward aggressively and boldly on the issues of the day. That’s what has kept America moving forward. We need leaders who are very clear in terms of their fealty to the Constitution of the United States. What I think has been happening in the Trump era has been a move away from the support and defense of the Constitution of the United States.

Obviously with where we are today and with her voting record, are you worried her anti-Trump stance is going to define her candidacy and overshadow her actual policies?

Kamau: I’m not. In fact, going back to the Al Franken issue, that had nothing to do with Donald Trump. That was her position, her principal position in terms of standing up for victims of sexual assault, violence, that kind of thing. Donald Trump is just one other factor, but I do not think her candidacy is defined solely by her opposition to the presidency of Donald Trump.

What are you expecting to hear today?

Kamau: I’m looking for specific policies. I’m not interested in this kind of kumbaya, let’s bring everyone together and hope and pray. I’m interested in specific issues that can move the country forward, that will put America back on it’s democratic trajectory. That is what has kept America together and enabled America to survive as a nation. Commitment to democracy, it’s constitutional democracy. I’m interested in hearing what Senator Gillibrand has to offer in terms of specific proposals, specific bold proposals in putting America back on it’s democratic track.

Aaron Netsky, 32, from the Upper West Side

Aaron Netsky at the kickoff for Kirsten Gillibrand's presidential candidacy in New York on March 24, 2019.

Aaron Netsky at the kickoff for Kirsten Gillibrand’s presidential candidacy in New York on March 24, 2019. Jason Bergman

What brought you out today? Why Senator Gillibrand?

Aaron: Well I’m undecided. I’m giving them all equal consideration, but none of the others are going to make their formal announcements in my neighborhood, so I figure this is a good chance to have this experience of going to the launch of what may be the next president.

Are you worried her anti-Trump stance is going to define her candidacy and overshadow her actual policies?

Aaron: I think a lot of her policies are the antithesis of the Trump policies, so I think it’s all part of the package. I remember in 2004, the people running against George W. Bush were all anti-Bush and all of their policies, maybe not all of them, but that is how they differentiate them.

Are there any specific policies you are expecting to hear about today?

Aaron: What I would like to hear is how she introduces herself and gives me an impression of what’s important to her. What’s important to me: global warming, climate change, equality among whoever is not being treated equally. I’m not assuming that if she doesn’t mention somebody that she’s anti-somebody. She’s got a lot of stuff, so I mostly want to hear what she wants to tell me.

Are you looking at any other candidates?

Aaron: Literally all of them. Some of them less than others, which is why I wouldn’t name the ones that don’t stand out to me. It’s an abundance of riches, what we’ve got going on our side. It’s nice to hear the positivity and the things that they’re saying, so I’m just enjoying the wash… eventually it will get into the weeds. I’m enjoying the promise.

Is there anything with her track record that gives you any pause? A lot of people have criticized her for being close with the Clintons and the Al Franken issue keeps coming up on the campaign trail.

Aaron: People change over time, everyone changes, candidate or not. I’m more interested in what she says she’ll do than what she has [done in the past]. Like she’s had questionable gun policies in the past, I don’t blame her for where she was before. I want to know where she’s going and where she wants to bring the rest of us.

In the last campaign, Trump, for better or worse, broke down that wall of, it kind of doesn’t matter about the past. It seems like a new era in what the race can be.

Aaron: I’m not sure I would compare her evolution to his and what he made of the country, but you’re right to an extent. Maybe there is some good to breaking down that barrier. I think that is a different animal.

Christy English and Gabe Wright from Cape Coral, Florida

at the kickoff for Kirsten Gillibrand's presidential candidacy in New York on March 24, 2019.

Christy English (L) and Gabe Wright (R) at the kickoff for Kirsten Gillibrand’s presidential candidacy in New York on March 24, 2019. Jason Bergman

What brought you out today? Why Senator Gillibrand?

Christy: Honestly, we were just walking around and didn’t know it was happening and just saw it. We decided we’d come out and listen to her.

Is there anything about her specifically? Are you looking at other candidates?

Christy: We know who she is, we’ve seen some of her things and like her. Like I said, we’re undecided.

Are there any policies specifically important to you?

Christy: We’re interested in health care and keeping Obamacare. Immigration, we want everything to change from the way it is now.

With her voting record, are you worried Gillibrand’s anti-Trump stance is going to define her candidacy and overshadow her actual policies?

Christy: I think that’s how it’s going to be for the campaign in general. I think as we go down the road a little bit we’ll hear more policy.

Is there anything specifically you’re hoping to hear today?

Christy: We’re also interested in hearing what she’ll do with student loans, because they’ll be coming up on college soon [points to children], we’ll see if she has anything to say on that.

Michael Sharpe, 31, and Candie Paulson from New Haven, Connecticut

at the kickoff for Kirsten Gillibrand's presidential candidacy in New York on March 24, 2019.

Michael Sharpe (R) and Candie Paulson (L) at the kickoff for Kirsten Gillibrand’s presidential candidacy in New York on March 24, 2019. Jason Bergman

What brought you out today? Why Senator Gillibrand?

Michael: I don’t think we’ve made a decision as to which Democrat we want to support, but I think it’s important to support a wide range of candidates right now to foster a discussion of ideas.

Candie : I think mostly we were excited that there was something local we could attend. We’ve watched a lot of the town halls going on, but they’re not in places we can easily get to. This was something that was accessible to us and we wanted to make the point of coming out to support.

With where we are today and with Gillibrand’s voting record, are you worried her anti-Trump stance is going to define her candidacy and overshadow her actual policies?

Michael: I’m not particularly worried about that. I think it’s important to stand up to bigotry and authoritarianism, and I think he is authoritarian. I’m not a fan of Trump at all.

Is there anything with her track record that gives you any pause? A lot of people have criticized her for being close with the Clintons and the Al Franken issue keeps coming up on the campaign trail.

Michael: I supported her in speaking out about Al Franken. I think that’s an important topic and I’m glad to see that somebody is standing up for women’s rights. I think that’s a positive.

Bennett Decker, student at Columbia University, from Philadelphia; Jess Newberg, student at Barnard College from Philadelphia; and Naava Ellenberg, student at Barnard College from San Jose, California

Naava Ellenberg (R) at the kickoff for Kirsten Gillibrand's presidential candidacy in New York on March 24, 2019.

Bennett Decker (L), Jess Newberg (M) and Naava Ellenberg (R) at the kickoff for Kirsten Gillibrand’s presidential candidacy in New York on March 24, 2019. Jason Bergman

What brought you out today? Why Senator Gillibrand?

Bennett: I don’t know who I’m voting for yet. I’m interested in what she has to say. It was right in my backyard, so why not?

Jess: Honestly, in all candor, Bennett and are in a “Public Opinion and American Democracy” class and one of the requirements is go out and actually participate in a town hall, or a rally, or something like this, so I had a lot of interest in what Senator Gillibrand has to say and what kind of policies she wants to propose. I’m not sure who I’m voting for, but this seemed like a perfect opportunity to come out and experience that.

Naava: I really want to vote for a woman. I really like Senator Gillibrand. I’m also not sure who I’m voting for, but I’ve watched her town hall and read a lot of things that she’s written, so I think hearing her in person will convince me one way or another if she’s the candidate I can vote for and throw myself behind.

Are you worried her anti-Trump stance is going to define her candidacy and overshadow her actual policies?

Jess and Navaa: Yeah.

Navaa: I was really concerned about it, especially where she’s chosen to do her announcement… I think overshadows… She’s has a lot of other great policies and ideas. [She] talks about being a mother and talks about parental leave and I feel like sometimes she thinks its more important to be like, “I’m the best person to run against Trump,” or “This is how I’ve opposed Trump.” Yes, I feel like that is a consistency amongst all candidates and what makes her special is her policies. I think ignoring them or focusing so much on Trump, especially during the primaries is kind of a mistake.

Jess: I think if we’re gonna look at the 2016 election, a lot of Hillary’s downfall was the anti-Trump rhetoric. I think that isolates a major part of the electorate. I have family from Central Pennsylvania; I was just as shocked when Pennsylvania went red. I know a lot of it had to do [with the fact] that they viewed anti-Trump rhetoric above everything else, rather than policies that would actually help them that Hillary was proposing.

Is there anything with her track record that gives you any pause? The Al Franken issue keeps coming up.

Bennett: The Al Franken thing is definitely a positive to me. I really like that she wasn’t shy about calling out sexual assault. That should be a no brainer, especially when you’re running against Donald Trump. That is definitely a plus. I don’t really care about her ties to the Clintons. I voted for Hillary Clinton in the primary, that’s not something that is particularly important to me. I think that as far as I can see, so far, there are few candidates that don’t have pluses or minuses. I’m kind of just analyzing those at the moment. She’s got some pluses with policies that Navaa was talking about and she’s also kind of failed to make the same kind of splash and resonate with the same kind of energy that some of the other candidate have resonated with. We’ll see, that’s why I’m here.

Are there any specific policies you’re hoping to hear about today?

Bennett: Climate change. To me, climate change is “the” issue. I need a candidate who will take a really strong position on climate change.

Jess: Climate change is major to me as well. Also everything that is going down with “the Wall” and ensuring that is something that never happens again. How to move forward as a country, I think that is a really, really shameful thing that’s happened. We need to work towards getting those families back together, ensuring that never happens again, and how to give reparations to those families who were impacted by that. Just immigration policy overall and how to move forward.

Navaa: I would love to hear her talk about abortion. I think it’s an issue that Democratic candidates are afraid to say the name of. I think if Donald Trump is willing to be like, “Shut down abortions.” I want a candidate to say, “You have more than the right to choose. This isn’t a shameful thing.” It’s a medical procedure that women face and should be allowed to be talked about; I think it would be really cool if she said the name of it.

Kirsten Gillibrand poses for photos after her campaign announcement in New York on March 24, 2019.

Kirsten Gillibrand poses for photos after her campaign announcement in New York on March 24, 2019. Jason Bergman

Portraits of Hope From Kirsten Gillibrand’s 2020 Campaign Kickoff Outside Trump’s Hotel