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10 questions for Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand

 Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand sitting at a cafe table
Jacob Walsh
Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand sat down with CITY to discuss a wide-range of topics, from rising gun violence to the economic strain of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand has evolved over her years in federal office.

When she defeated three-term House Rep. John Sweeney in 2006, she called herself a Blue Dog Democrat. At the time, the Blue Dogs were a more moderate to conservative wing of the House Democrats. Gillibrand then was a fierce gun rights supporter who, by her own admission, slept with two rifles under her bed. She also backed withholding federal funds for “sanctuary cities” that had enacted policies directing their police officers not to cooperate with Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

But the Gillibrand of 2022 is the author of legislation that would stiffen penalties for gun trafficking and wants to ban assault rifles. She is also behind the idea of New York becoming a “sanctuary state” where local and state law enforcement officers do not share information about people in their custody or enforce federal immigration law.

Gillibrand sat down with CITY at the Arnett Cafe during a stop in Rochester on Monday. Throughout a wide-ranging interview in which she answered questions on a variety of topics, she wove in a pitch for the Build Back Better bill, a $2.2 trillion package of tax cuts and spending on programs related to health care, child care, education, housing, and addressing climate change that are on President Joe Biden’s wishlist.

Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia has held up the bill over the price tag and some of its provisions. Democrats across the country, from local committee members to high-profile elected leaders, are pressuring him to support President Joe Biden’s signature proposal.

Below are excerpts of our interview, which have been edited for brevity and clarity.

CITY: The eviction moratorium in New York ended Jan. 15 and Gov. Kathy Hochul has said she hopes the federal government provides more funding for rent relief. What’s the likelihood of that happening?

Gillibrand: One of the provisions of the Build Back Better billthat we're working on is money for affordable housing and for eviction assistance. One of the things that was so important during COVID relief was keeping people in their homes. Build Back Better is supposed to provide long-term investment to do the same thing to keep people in their homes and to create more housing stock for affordable workforce housing. And so that bill is very important.

What do you think the odds are that the federal rent relief program would be reopened?
New York received $2.2 billion in emergency rental assistance funds provided by the federal government through COVID relief packages. We're trying to reopen that and I joined a delegation letter to do that. I think it's going to be reopened. We cannot allow people to become homeless.

Rochester received $202.1 million through the American Rescue Plan. Of that money, $13 million is going toward renovations at a downtown hotel and $150,000 is going toward a tour boat. Is that a reasonable way to spend that money?
I need to know the details of both, but they could have been, for example, money that was applied for as business loans or business recovery loans. So any small business, whether it's a hotel or tour company or tourist industry, were eligible for COVID relief, because they couldn't obviously offer tourism during COVID.

You couldn't have people come and go on a tour boat ride or stay in your hotel during COVID because people weren't traveling. So there was relief available for any tourist industry, any small business, any restaurant, any hotel, and I don't think that's the bulk of where the resources went. The bulk of resources that came to Rochester went to hospitals, for direct care for COVID patients, and for hospital relief. It went for housing relief for people so they wouldn't be evicted from their homes. Through the moratorium on eviction, it went through state and local governments so that they could pay workers so that people wouldn't be without paychecks.

Most of the COVID money went towards triage, the most urgent issues first. Frontline workers, health care, state and local employees that had to be working. And then it went to businesses that were going out of business so that people could keep being paid.

So I don't know the details of those two, but I would imagine it was one of those buckets.

Is there anything that you would have done differently from President Joe Biden in regards to the COVID-19 pandemic?
You know, hindsight is 20/20. There's a lot of things that we could have done differently, as a nation and as a federal government. I think getting resources out immediately was extremely wise. I think we could have explained to people the science of COVID better. And I think the biggest things that could have been done differently were under President Trump.

Last year, a bill was introduced in the state Legislature that would make New York a “sanctuary state” where state and local law enforcement officers would be prohibited from asking a person’s immigration status, from turning subjects over to ICE, and from enforcing federal immigration law. Would you support legislation like that?
I would, and I'll tell you why: I support comprehensive immigration reform.

I think we need a federal system that creates a pathway for people to follow the rules and become citizens, and be able to pay their taxes, pay their Social Security, and buy into the system that they're part of. What ICE has done in our state has really undermined our economy and our employment structures, particularly in upstate New York in agriculture.

We've had ICE raids on dairy farms and other farms across the state over the last few years that have been crippling to our farmers. It's not a good way to have immigration policy. So I favor comprehensive immigration reform over aggressive ICE policies.

Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand represents an evolving politician, who over her political career has shifted from a more conservative mindset to an ardent liberal voice in the Senate.
Jacob Walsh
Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand represents an evolving politician, who over her political career has shifted from a more conservative mindset to an ardent liberal voice in the Senate.

Do you think that the federal government right now is doing enough to support New York’s renewable energy initiatives and the state’s approach to climate change?

Build Back Better has a huge amount of provisions in it to support renewable energy industries, and some of them are supported by Sen. Manchin. I just don't know where he's drawing the line.

We're hoping that we can get that framework passed quickly, because that will put a number of tax credits in place for renewable energy, energy efficient housing and buildings, for green energy, and for green jobs. And I think we should do much more on a federal level to invest in addressing global climate change head on and creating the jobs and economic growth that are alongside it.

I think we should offer debt-free college for anyone that goes into green energy technologies, along with debt free-college for anyone who goes into public service, like health care, teaching and cyber. And I have a new bill on Cyber Academy specifically for free college in exchange for five years of public service in cyber fields for the federal government.

The economic strain from the pandemic brought renewed attention to the issue of student loan debt and forgiveness. Do you support forgiving student loans?

I think the best approach is free college for people going into public service for five years, because we have an urgent crisis right now. We’re going to have a teaching shortage, we have an urgent crisis for healthcare workers.We need kids who go into cyber to be our cyber defenders, cyber protectors and cyber experts. And for green energy and green tech.

So I would do public service careers in exchange for that free college.

Rochester, like a lot of the country, is seeing a spike in violent crime. The city had a record number of homicides last year, most of which involved guns — handguns in particular. What are your thoughts on stemming the violence and what role does gun control play?
We should ban assault rifles and all large magazines, we should have a federal anti-gun-trafficking law, which I'm the largest author of, and we should have universal background checks. So those are the three bills that have the most likely chance of success, and we should call the vote on them.

Most of the handguns used in crimes in New York state come from out of state, most of the handguns used in crimes are illegal. If you had an anti gun-trafficking law, where you had significant penalties for kingpins and the traffickers themselves, you could reduce the number of guns that are used in crimes in Rochester and around upstate New York, because that's the typical weapon used in a crime.

Do you think that former President Donald Trump committed a crime in the way that he talked to his base in advance of the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the Capitol?

I do. That's why I voted for impeachment. I thought they established that he incited violence, that he incited that gang of individuals and the riot to take place. It was an insurgency against elected leaders who are called to count votes and count the Electoral College votes. And I think it was purposeful, and intentional.

I think the impeachment managers actually proved their case, which is why I voted for impeachment.

People who work with the homeless, local elected officials, and housing activists are very worried that over the next few months a large number of people are going to be put out on the street without a safety net. If a crisis develops, could the federal government act quickly to address it?

If we can get Build Back Better done, the money that's in there will be a good start.

I think homelessness around our state and around the country has grown exponentially during COVID. COVID has displaced so many families, and so many individuals in very different ways. But I've personally just seen an escalation of the number of homeless people as I’ve traveled throughout the state. I think the federal government needs to do much more than it's ever done to build affordable housing, to build workforce housing, to build transitional housing.

We need it to be diverse housing, it needs to be able to accommodate all types of individuals and families. I don't think hotels work and I definitely don't think that shelters work at all. And yes, you need them on an emergency basis. But the better model that I've seen is permanent housing that has the wraparound services that are used to transition people from a state of homelessness into full employment and full stability.

It takes time, it takes investment, and it takes resources. The federal government should make those investments. We should always be focused on the least among us, and that starts with homeless individuals and homeless families.

Gino Fanelli is an investigative reporter who also covers City Hall. He joined the staff in 2019 by way of the Rochester Business Journal, and formerly served as a watchdog reporter for Gannett in Maryland and a stringer for the Associated Press.