Unlike some of her potential rivals, the New York senator was starting from scratch in a state where few Democratic activists have a strong impression of her and where some say she's known more for criticisms of her.
"We have to take on these systems of power that destroy our hopes" for better lives for families, Gillibrand told a dozen Sioux City Democrats at a coffee shop in the western Iowa city. "That's why I'm running, and that's what I think we have to fight for."
Gillibrand, who announced her intentions to run on "The Late Show with Stephen Colbert" on Tuesday, wasted little time getting to the state where the 2020 caucuses launch the Democratic presidential selection process.
Sioux City Democrat Linda Santi was impressed by what she saw in Gillibrand. "She showed a soft-spoken passion," said Santi, a consultant for a nonprofit group. "I felt like she was listening." What little Sandi O'Brien, co-chairwoman of the Woodbury County Democrats, knew about Gillibrand was criticism she had seen on social media. "I don't know a lot of detail," O'Brien said, as Gillibrand entered the coffee shop, where news media outnumbered Democratic activists. "I know people have been critical that she's changed positions on immigration and gun control."
Gillibrand initially positioned herself more in line with the conservative House district she represented before 2009, when she replaced Hillary Clinton as New York's junior senator. Gillibrand was asked to explain the change during a gathering of party activists in Sioux City at the private home of a prominent Democrat. Gillibrand told the roughly two dozen guests that after she had become a senator, she met with the family and friends of a teenage girl who had been shot and killed in Brooklyn. "I had just felt convicted that I had done the wrong thing" by opposing gun control, she said. "And if I'm unwilling to fight for her family, I'm not doing my job."
On immigration, she has now called for retooling the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency. Likewise, she was asked why she was the first public advocate for former Minnesota Sen. Al Franken to resign. Gillibrand has faced withering criticism from Democrats who said Franken, who resigned his seat in December 2017 after allegations by women that he had groped them, had done far less than what other men have been accused of doing, chiefly President Donald Trump, though the president has denied all allegations of sexual impropriety.
"It wasn't possible for me to remain silent because what my silence meant was defending him," she said. "You have to stand up for what's right, especially when it's hard." Cindy Paschen, an Ames Democrat who plans to meet Gillibrand when she visits central Iowa on Saturday, said the senator's position on Franken was "the right thing to do."
"I totally support her calling him out," she said. On Friday, Gillibrand headlined the house gathering after chatting for 45 minutes with Iowans and the entourage of media in the coffee shop. She was scheduled to make a variety of appearances Saturday, including coffee-shop and brew-pub talks in Ames and Des Moines, as well as speaking at the Women's March in Des Moines.
She will also be meeting privately with party leaders and influential Democratic activists along the way. Gillibrand's Iowa trip is the beginning of her journey to introduce herself to more Americans outside New York, which she has represented in Washington since 2006, first as a congresswoman and then as a senator. She has distinguished herself in the nation's capital with her outspoken opposition to President Donald Trump and her forceful advocacy for victims of sexual assault and harassment.
Unlike several of the more than a dozen Democrats who have signaled an interest in running, Gillibrand did not visit Iowa in 2018, when Iowa Democrats picked up seats in the U.S. House and the state Legislature in the November midterm elections.
New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker, for instance, wowed hundreds of party activists at the Iowa Democratic Party's annual fall fundraising banquet in October. Likewise, California Sen. Kamala Harris lit up a crowd in Iowa City and met with influential female candidates and activists in suburban Des Moines.
Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren beat a path to the state quickly this month after announcing the formation of an exploratory committee Dec. 31. Gillibrand's announcement and quickly planned Iowa trip followed what influential Iowa Democrats agreed was a productive trip for Warren, who drew hundreds to events in western and central Iowa.