Unlike some of her potential rivals, Gillibrand was starting from scratch in a state where few party activists have a strong impression of her and where some say the lawmaker is known more for the criticism she's received.
"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 Friday. "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 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 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. "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 U.S. 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 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 Democrat Al Franken of Minnesota to resign from the Senate. Gillibrand has faced withering criticism from Democrats who said Franken, who resigned 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 Trump 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, said the senator's position on Franken was "the right thing to do."
"I totally support her calling him out," she said. Gillibrand was one of the few prominent 2020 Democrats who attended a Women's March event this year as the movement faced anti-Semitism charges that have plagued its national leadership team. But the senator said the controversy wouldn't disrupt her commitment to the march's broader mission.
Gillibrand also praised Iowa voters for sending two women represent the state in Congress. "This is what changing the face of leadership looks like," she said Saturday. "The truth is if we change who's at the decision-making table, we change everything. Now is our time to reclaim our power. Now is our time to raise our voices," she told activists gathered at Iowa's Capitol.
Gillibrand's Iowa trip was the beginning of her journey to introduce herself to more Americans outside New York, which she has represented in Washington since 2006. She has distinguished herself with her outspoken opposition to 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. 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.
Associated Press writer Juana Summers in Des Moines, Iowa, contributed to this report.