On Sunday May 26, New York State Senator Kirsten Gillibrand will deliver the 149th Commencement Address. She will be the first senator to give the keynote speech at Vassar, joining the ranks of such influential commencement speakers as Nobel laureate Leymah Gbowee and Supreme Court Justice Arthur Goldberg.
“I am excited to hear her speak,” wrote Class of 2013 President Vincent Marchetta in an emailed statement. “I do believe that her work…[resonates] with Vassar values, and as a firm supporter of the LGBTQ community she is in that regard especially appropriate for our campus this year.”
Gillibrand began her political career as a student intern in the Albany office of Republican Senator Alfonse D’Amato. In 1991, she earned a law degree from the University of California, Los Angeles; and took a short break from politics to work as a law clerk in the US Court of Appeals’ Second Circuit, and as an attorney with Davis, Polk & Wardwell.
During her time at the law firm, Gillibrand was reintroduced to politics by her connection to the Women’s Leadership Forum, a program operated by the Democratic National Committee. It was at a Women’s Leadership Forum event which featured then-First Lady Hillary Clinton that Gillibrand had her political epiphany. “She was trying to encourage us to become more active in politics,” Gillibrand told Vogue magazine in 2010, “and she said, ‘If you leave all the decision-making to others, you might not like what they do, and you will have no one but yourself to blame.’” (Vogue, “In Hillary’s Footsteps Kirsten Gillibrand,” 10.19.2010)
Gillibrand took up Clinton’s call to arms by serving as Special Counsel to Secretary of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) Andrew Cuomo during the final year of the Clinton administration. The future-senator then joined forces with her political idol in 1999 when she worked in Clinton’s campaign for one of New York’s US Senate seats.
In 2005, Gillibrand fully committed herself to politics by challenging Republican incumbent John Sweeney for New York’s 20th congressional district. She ran on a moderate platform to win, the 20th having elected a non-Republican only for four years since 1913.
After defeating Sweeney with 53% of the vote, Gillibrand had a successful first term and was reelected in 2008 by a 62% majority.
Just two years later, when President Obama appointed Hillary Clinton Secretary of State, then-Governor Paterson tapped Gillibrand to succeed her mentor as a senator from New York. At 42, she was the youngest member of the 111th Congress.
Gillibrand’s most recent electoral accomplishment came just last fall when she successfully defended her senate seat, winning 60 out of 62 New York counties and 72% of the vote. This was the largest statewide margin of victory in New York’s history.
Since joining Congress, Senator Gillibrand has shifted toward a liberal platform. She was instrumental in repealing “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” which banned openly gay individuals from serving in the military, and she also advocated for the James Zadroga Bill, which gave compensation and health care insurance to 9/11 first responders.
According to her website, Gillibrand’s top priorities for the 113th Congress include ending sexual violence in the military, and strengthening the rights and protections of victims of sexual assault. (http://www.gillibrand.senate.gov/about/biography, “A Voice for the People of New York.”)
Endorsed by The New York Times and ranked among “150 Women Who Shake The World” by Newsweek/The Daily Beast, Gillibrand maintains a strong relationship with the media for her political platform and her office’s transparency. In 2006, she began publishing her daily schedule and personal tax returns, which The Times called “a quite touch of revolution.” (The New York Times, “Congress and the Benefits of Sunshine,” 12.14.06)
“I am delighted that Senator Gillibrand accepted our invitation to give the Commencement speech this year. Congress is dealing with an incredibly important set of issues that will affect our country’s future, and Senator Gillibrand is playing an important role in these deliberations. I am very excited that she will be sharing her thoughts and perspectives with us this spring,” wrote Vassar President Catharine Bond Hill in an emailed statement.
Acting-President Jonathan Chenette echoed Hill’s sentiments, writing in an emailed statement that “[Gillibrand] is an important new voice in the Senate with a rising profile nationally…She has a lot to say as a public servant who is making a difference in the world.”
According to Assistant to the President and Professor Mathematics John Feroe, Gillibrand was invited to speak by the President’s office in consultation with representatives from the Class of 2013.
“One thing that Senior Class Council decided was important after reviewing the results of our class survey at the beginning of the year was that…the Commencement speaker be a woman,” wrote Marchetta, noting that a majority of this year’s speakers happen to be men, and Vassar’s history as a women’s college necessitates a strong female presence on graduation hill.
“I think that her approach to politics, her flexibility, the ways in which she truly seeks to represent diverse constituencies, her ability to successfully reach across the aisle, among other things, serve as a good model for this years graduates of how to successfully negotiate, have difficult but productive conversations, and navigate the often divided ‘real world,’” concluded Marchetta.