If you’re unsure of how Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.), who announced that she’s entering the 2020 presidential race, might lead, just look to her grandmother.
Dorothea Noonan, known as Polly, was a little-known power broker in the Democratic Party. She used to zip around the New York State Capitol, where she was the mayor’s special assistant, on roller skates. Noonan, who died in 2003, brings into sharp focus the senator’s distinctive, and sometimes polarizing, approach to political combat, as well as her early electoral ambitions and acumen. It is also a parable of female organizing and influence, with lessons for a campaign tethered to the #MeToo movement.
From a penchant for fiery language to the desire to mobilize women in politics, Gillibrand carries on much of Noonan’s legacy. That was clear even as she announced her candidacy.
In laying out her presidential ambitions Tuesday night, Gillibrand, the 52-year-old mom of two, told late-night host Stephen Colbert:
“I have no power,” Noonan said of her political status, according to a 1985 book about Albany, in clear contrast to the authority she exercised as a confidante to the longtime mayor and as the president of the Albany County Democratic Women’s Club. “I’m just a full-time grandmother.”
Even as she refused to acknowledge her power, Noonan taught her granddaughter how to exercise it, according to Gillibrand. Noonan did, after all, help elect scads of Democrats across her city and her state. She was a linchpin in the Democratic machine that ruled Albany for much of the previous century.
Noonan, born in Albany in 1915, skipped college and married at age 20, taking a job as a secretary at the state capitol two years later. She darted down Albany’s august hallways on roller skates after complaining that all the walking was “killing,” according to a 1962 report in the Democrat and Chronicle. In a photograph documenting the unusual workplace activity, Noonan stands in white skates and a knee-length dress, reams of paper in both arms.
Eventually, she leaped from the state legislature to the mayor’s office, where her influence grew under Corning, who towered over city politics for four decades, beginning in the 1940s and ending with his death in 1983. Her role made her an indispensable part of the Albany machine, led for more than 50 years by political boss Daniel P. O’Connell.
“You needed a pothole filled or your uncle needed a job raking leaves because it would just kill his spirit to be out of work?" Gillibrand wrote. “You called somebody who knew somebody — and, before long, the person you called was my grandmother.” Meanwhile, Noonan organized Albany’s women to stuff envelopes, make phone calls and go door-to-door — the unglamorous work of political campaigning.
Gillibrand has cultivated a reputation for pugnacity — among the traits she inherited from her maternal grandmother. Her broadsides are laced with curse words. But her language is tame, compared with how her grandmother spoke.
“Polly never backed down from an argument she knew she could win, and that was pretty much all of them,” Gillibrand wrote in her 2014 book, “Off the Sidelines: Raise Your Voice, Change the World.” Her grandmother, she wrote, was a “spark plug.” She stood just over 5 feet tall and “told dirty jokes to forewarn men who underestimated her because of her size. She could rattle off strings of expletives as long as a string of Christmas lights — five, eight, even ten in a row, never the same curse twice.”
She has frequently trained her fire on President Trump, calling on him to resign because of the allegations of sexual misconduct against him, which he denies. Just over a year ago, the president maligned Gillibrand on Twitter using language that struck observers across the political spectrum as sexualized and demeaning, to which she responded with a message that doubled as a rallying cry of the female-led resistance to his administration. The question is whether Gillibrand, who boasts the most anti-Trump voting record of any senator, according to FiveThirtyEight, can turn antipathy to the president into a winning national campaign.
“I learned from my grandmother that my voice matters, and my advocacy and grass roots activism can really make a difference,” Gillibrand said before she entered the Senate in 2009, tapped by then-Gov. David Paterson to fill the vacancy left by Hillary Clinton when the Democratic presidential aspirant was nominated as secretary of state.
Gillibrand called Noonan her “greatest political hero,” crediting her with beginning a “political movement” that inspired women of her generation and the generation that followed to get involved in politics.
“Democratic women to meet,” announced a headline in the Post-Star, a newspaper serving Glens Falls, N.Y., anticipating a meeting in June 1983 of the county’s Democratic Women’s Club. The speaker would be Polly Noonan. “She has helped the organization of Democratic Women’s Clubs throughout the state,” the story noted.
In her book, the lawmaker described how her grandmother’s role shaped her upbringing in Albany, where her parents worked as attorneys. Growing up “steeped in political stories,” Gillibrand aspired from an early age to be a senator — “not that I knew what a senator did, exactly, but I knew it sounded accomplished and important.” Each March, the senator marks Women’s History Month by paying tribute to her grandmother. Last year, she wrote on Facebook that her grandmother was “an outspoken advocate in a time when women just weren’t part of the conversation.”
For all her shrewd judgment, Gillibrand’s grandmother refused to recognize the role of the machine. “It’s not a machine! It’s a well-oiled organization,” the New York senator quotes her grandmother as saying. “A machine has no heart.”
Gillibrand has shown less group fealty, a fact that endears her to some while enraging others.
She stepped out in front of her Democratic colleagues by saying in 2017 that former president Bill Clinton should have resigned the presidency because of his sexual impropriety — a statement that led a longtime Clinton aide to label her a “hypocrite." And she was the first in a string of Democrats to tell their own colleague, former senator Al Franken of Minnesota, to step down over allegations that he had acted improperly toward women. He heeded their calls at the end of 2017, to the dismay of some party bigwigs, who blamed Gillibrand.
The senator’s grandmother didn’t dare buck the party brass in that way. And her devotion served her well, even when it led to accusations of tussling at party headquarters.
“We’ll have a party on Tuesday night,” Noonan told the Daily News in the fall of 1982, anticipating Cuomo’s victory in the governor’s race. The special assistant trusted the judgment of the mayor, who had bet everything on the charismatic liberal many saw as presidential material. “Erastus never picked a loser in his life.”