Monday, February 02, 2009

New York Senate: On Second Thought, Let’s Make That Sen. Gillibrand

By Stuart Rothenberg

Kirsten Gillibrand, who was recently appointed to the Senate by New York Gov. David Paterson, is often described by reporters as “little known.” That description is accurate, but in most cases, it says more about the reporter or news reader than about the newly sworn-in Senator.

To those of us who follow Congressional races, Gillibrand didn’t suddenly appear the day that Paterson appointed her to fill Hillary Rodham Clinton’s vacant Senate seat.

I first met Gillibrand on March 8, 2006, still early into her challenge to then-Rep. John Sweeney (R). (New York’s September primary often means late-developing contests.)

The young attorney had never before run for office, which was fine, because she seemed to have little chance of upsetting Sweeney in a very Republican district located in northeastern New York.

Yes, early on Gillibrand showed unusual fundraising strength and potential, and yes, she had good political bloodlines and contacts. But the district that she was running in had “more cows than Democrats,” according to a veteran upstate political observer, and Gillibrand wasn’t at that point regarded by Albany insiders as anything more than a long shot against Sweeney, who had served as state labor commissioner and as executive director of the state Republican Party before coming to Congress.

My initial reaction to meeting and listening to Gillibrand was that she was just the kind of young woman who most people would like to have as their daughter, or their daughter’s friend, or their daughter-in-law.

Personable, attractive and well-spoken, she initially struck me as being — how shall I put it? — “nice.” I liked that. Lots of politicians who I meet aren’t nice.

At some point during the interview, I also concluded she was smart and much, much tougher than she initially seemed. Here was an accomplished woman who was thoughtful, down to earth and politically astute.

In late April 2006, after meeting Gillibrand and watching her campaign, I added Sweeney to my list of vulnerable House seats, rating it as “Leans Republican.”

Still, the Republican’s district looked almost impossible for any Democratic challenger, and Gillibrand eventually won only with the help of the Democratic wave and Sweeney, who allowed himself to be photographed at a Union College fraternity party.

Sweeney’s re-election chances also weren’t helped when, shortly before the 2006 election, local media reported that 10 months earlier, his wife had accused him of getting rough with her during an argument. Police filed a domestic incident report after being called to the Sweeney home.

Last year, Gillibrand was re-elected easily, even though the GOP nominee was experienced, personable and very wealthy. District voters — even Republican voters — liked the Congresswoman.

The new Senator has already drawn criticism from some of her Democratic colleagues who believe she is not liberal enough, particularly on gun control. Rep. Carolyn McCarthy (D-N.Y.), a strong advocate of gun control, has said she will primary Gillibrand if no one else does.

But Gillibrand has reflected her district’s views on gun-control issues, and there is no way of knowing whether she will alter her stance on that issue when she represents a different set of constituents, many of whom favor more gun control than do the residents of New York’s 20th district.

Modifying one’s views to reflect political realities and one’s constituents isn’t unheard of or immoral, and anyone who thinks Gillibrand is going to vote in the Senate the way conservative Reps. Dan Boren (D-Okla.) or Travis Childers (D-Miss.) have in the House is delusional.

Gillibrand obviously benefited from Caroline Kennedy’s inept foray into American elective politics — a bizarre and thankfully brief flirtation with a political career for which the daughter of President John F. Kennedy seems distinctly unsuited.

Like Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin (R), Kennedy simply wasn’t ready for the political stage onto which she was thrust. Gillibrand, I expect, is. The newly appointed Senator has poise and smarts, and while it isn’t clear whether she will have to win (or can win) a competitive primary in two years, she is a proven fundraiser and a proven vote-getter.

I don’t know what pressures Kennedy felt to seek the open Senate seat, but it’s easy to imagine that her uncle, Massachusetts Sen. Edward Kennedy (D), and the rest of the Kennedy clan might have pressured her into an unwise decision. And if that’s the case, it’s easy to feel sorry for her and less generous to the family members who came up with the bright idea of pushing her into a line of work that she never seemed to want.

The other casualty of the Kennedy-Gillibrand mess, of course, is Paterson, who looks about as inept as embattled Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich (D) looks crooked.

Whether Paterson wooed Caroline Kennedy for the vacancy or she injected herself into the mix — I’ve heard it both ways — the governor clearly left Kennedy to twist in the wind. In doing so, he looked weak and indecisive, and he annoyed and angered the same people in his own party that he had hoped to impress and satisfy. That can’t have been a good idea.

This column first appeared in Roll Call on January 29, 2009. 2009 © Roll Call Inc. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.