If Democrats want to take back the White House in 2020, they need to be able to reach the kind of voters who previously pulled the lever for Bill Clinton and Barack Obama, but who in 2016 opted for Donald Trump.
That was the message of New York Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand to local Democrats during a stop in Columbia on Friday. And the latest entrant into the presidential race thinks she’s the woman to do it.
“My path is different because I came from a ‘red’ place,” she said of the Upstate region of New York she once represented in Congress. The day after the 2016 election,“All of the Upstate was red... People there feel left behind. They don’t feel like anyone had their back.”
Gillibrand used her background in the area to build a statewide appeal after she was appointed to replace Hillary Clinton as New York’s junior senator in 2009, and was so successful that she boasts one race gave her the highest statewide vote total in New York’s history.
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“That’s because I do well in red, blue and purple places,” Gillibrand told a welcoming crowd at the Columbia home of former state party and Democratic National Committee chairman Don Fowler.
Friday’s appearance was Gillibrand’s first visit to South Carolina since she announced she was running for president, following in the footsteps of fellow Sens. Cory Booker, Kamala Harris and Elizabeth Warren. She said she sees similarities between South Carolina and the part of New York she calls home, with concerns about health care, education and jobs.
She touts her ability to get 18 bills passed through a Republican Congress, and even her working relationship with Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, with whom she’s co-sponsored legislation.
But that doesn’t mean Gillibrand shies away from taking a progressive stance. She supports the extension of Medicare to cover Americans under the age of 65, collaborating with Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., on a bill that would allow younger people to buy into Medicare at 4 percent of their annual income during a four-year transition period.
“Insurance companies would not be able to raise rates,” she said. “If you want private insurance, you can go and find some, but this will be your back-up plan.”
She also wants to tackle student debt, offering young people two years of tuition-free attendance at a public college for each year of public service they do after high school.
That’s an attractive offer for Samantha Auerbach, a sophomore political science major at the University of South Carolina.
“Even for a middle-class family, college tuition is difficult to afford,” Auerbach said.
Gillibrand made a name for herself by shining a spotlight on sexual assault in the military, and she helped force former Minnesota Sen. Al Franken out of office due to sexual misconduct allegations. The bill she co-sponsored with Cruz seeks to combat sexual harassment.
Representing New York, Gillibrand has ties to the financial industry on Wall Street, but she pledged Friday her campaign would not take PAC money, and she reiterated her focus on issues of concern to blue-collar workers.
“The fact so many union members voted for Trump should be a wake-up call,” she said. “We need to reward workers, not just owners.”
Gillibrand will meet with voters and local business leaders around Columbia on Saturday, with stops at the Soda City Market and Kiki’s Chicken and Waffles on Parklane Road, before she heads to Greenville for an Urban League reception and Sunday church appearances in North Charleston.