'Carer-feeder': Gillibrand plays up motherhood in 2020 race

Posted at 3:17 PM, Feb 17, 2019
and last updated 2019-02-17 15:17:25-05

WASHINGTON (AP) — Kirsten Gillibrand had a flurry of pots on the stove and steak, haddock, peas, steamed vegetables and rice on the menu.

She had a cable news appearance coming up in a few hours, but for now, her 10-year-old son entertained the family goldendoodle, Maple, a few feet away.

The New York senator was game to talk about motherhood, leadership, her policies and her pursuit of the nation's highest office, she told a reporter. But first she needed to save dinner.

"I need to focus, because I'm about to burn the fish," she said. "I've reached my point of capacity."

As she cranks up her presidential campaign, Gillibrand isn't trying to hide her working-mom juggle -- she's running on it. More than any other contender in a field crowded with women, the mom of two is using her dual roles of mother and candidate to pitch herself to Democratic voters.

She opens her standard campaign speech vowing to "fight for your children as hard as I would fight for my own." She's floated the idea of making an RV trip through Iowa this summer, to be able to prepare meals for her family while she travels to meet supporters. During her first week as a candidate, she baked cookies with a voter, dismissing any complexity in the symbolism. And on a recent Tuesday evening, she even invited a reporter into her Capitol Hill home for dinner with her family.

It's all a far cry from the not-so-distant past, where being a mother of young children was viewed as much as a complication as an asset in politics.

"There was a time when a mom with young children absolutely couldn't run for an executive office. People wondered who would come first, the kids or us," said Celinda Lake, a Democratic pollster. "But things have really changed. For Gillibrand, it's not just that 'I'm a mom.' It's a metaphor. It's a way of talking about the future, a way of talking about her orientation."

Gillibrand isn't the only Democratic candidate whose campaign has reflected this shift in attitude. In her campaign launch speech, Elizabeth Warren talked about potty-training her now-grown daughter. Amy Klobuchar often tells the story of the text message her adult daughter sent her the night that Trump was elected, seeking reassurance. Kamala Harris wrote in her recent memoir that her step-children affectionately refer to her as 'Momala.'

But none in the group is going as far as Gillibrand to highlight her role as caregiver. She often tells voters in early states how, when she looks at issues like immigration, she imagines what it would be like if her own family were separated. She campaigns on her support of policies like a national paid leave program, universal pre-K and more accessible, affordable childcare.

The strategy is a clear appeal to young, working women with families, a coveted and energized part of the Democratic coalition. Women voters helped drive victories that led Democrats to reclaim control of the House last year, responding to candidates who talked openly about daily struggles and parenthood.

There is "overwhelming evidence from the midterms that being yourself and talking to voters about your genuine concerns about the future of our country, and our children, is a major asset," said Gillibrand spokeswoman Meredith Kelly.

In the kitchen of her home on Capitol Hill, a model White House made of Legos perched on the window sill, Gillibrand talked about how she hoped to balance the demands of a campaign and parenting 10-year-old Henry and 15-year-old Theo.

Her husband, Jonathan, a business consultant, is taking time off to support her campaign, she said. He will soon be "in charge, many more days than he would have been," she noted. Jonathan and Henry made their campaign debut on Friday. Theo, who attends boarding school, did not go.

Gillibrand said she thinks voters see motherhood as a clear strength. "I think the country recognizes that a mother will go through fire for her children," she said. "If (a mother) needs to lift a car to save her child, she will find that superhuman strength at that exact moment she needs it. It's the story of our country, it's the story of women, it's the story of who we are."

While Gillibrand views motherhood as a powerful credential for the White House, it's still unclear whether the electorate agrees. Research released in 2017 by the nonpartisan Barbara Lee Foundation found women are held to a different standard than men when it comes to running for office and having a family. Drawing on focus groups held across five cities in March and April 2016, as well as an online survey, the study found it was more difficult for women candidates to reassure people that they can balance work and family.

The clearest precursor to Gillibrand's approach may be a Republican one. In 2008, vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin introduced herself to the world as a "hockey mom." The Alaska governor and mother of five — including an infant — immediately set off a fierce debate over whether a mother with young children should put them through the rigors and public scrutiny of a national campaign. No one raised those questions about Sens. Ted Cruz or Marco Rubio, who were each raising young children during their 2016 presidential bids.

Despite the GOP loss that year, Palin "was a big force in shifting how voters think about mothers running for office, because she really centered motherhood in her campaign, and got some more conservative voters to see that motherhood can be a powerful motivator for women to have a political voice," said Jill Greenlee, a Brandeis University professor and the author of "The Political Consequences of Motherhood."

No woman in politics has more publicly wrestled with her dual roles than Hillary Clinton. In 1992, she caused a firestorm by sarcastically saying she "could have stayed home and baked cookies and had teas" rather than had a legal career. She later tried to soften her image and spoke frequently about being a mother and grandmother during the 2016 campaign. But by the end, she reclaimed the cookie-and-tea dig, blasting the quote from a screen at a campaign rally, celebrating the scars of her feminist battles.

Gillibrand, for her part, is clearly more comfortable with cooking -- and cookies.

She dropped into a kitchen boutique in Des Moines' East Village on a recent January campaign trip. The New York senator rolled chocolate cookie dough into balls as she described herself as the "carer-feeder" in her family.

"If I know I can buy all the groceries and know exactly what they're going to eat for the next few days, I just feel like I'm doing my job better," Gillibrand told reporters. "It's the service I give to my children, I want to cook for them. ... I like to feed the people around me." Minutes later, she offered a batch of freshly baked cookies around the room.

After dinner with a reporter, Gillibrand said she hopes to talk to Clinton about her presidential bid but hasn't yet. She said she sees a "generational difference" between the 1992 cookie dustup and now. She feels she is part of the first generation of women who were told their potential was limitless, so long as they worked hard, Gillibrand said.

"It's a freedom that I feel like my generation has that perhaps Secretary Clinton's generation did not have," she said.