Friday, December 24, 2010

Some Of Her Best Friends by Liz Benjamin - Capital Tonight

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Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand finds herself gracing some very prominent real estate this morning: The front page of the NY Times. Above the fold, no less.
The story, accompanied by a photo of the junior senator, focuses on her unlikely and rapid rise from a relatively obscure upstate congresswoman to an influential senator who played a big role in two major lame duck session victories this week: The repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” and passage of the 9/11 health care bill.
In the piece, Gillibrand says she’s long been a supporter of gay rights. Writes David Halbfinger:
(I)n an interview, she said she had realized from an early age that discrimination against gays was wrong.
Her mother – a black belt in karate who the senator said “did things differently her whole life” – worked in the arts and surrounded herself with gay friends. During the height of the AIDS crisis, Ms. Gillibrand’s sister, a playwright and actress, volunteered to help children with AIDS.
And when Ms. Gillibrand was a young associate, working long nights at the law firm Davis Polk & Wardwell, she recalled, “the straight men found time to date and get married and have kids and went home at six every night, and the only ones left were the women and gay men.”
So she wound up vacationing with gay colleagues on Fire Island and in the Hamptons, and forging lifelong friendships. “A lot of them are now having children,” she said. “And it never occurred to me that they should not have every benefit that I have.”
One of the first things Gillibrand did in the 24 hours after news broke of her selection by Gov. David Paterson to replace Hillary Clinton in the US Senate was to promise the Empire State Pride Agenda she would support the legalization of gay marriage.
This was a big switch for the former Blue Dog congresswoman, who had previously supported civil unions – much like Sen. Chuck Schumer (although he has since changed his position, too) and President Obama, who now says he’s still struggling with this subject, but his views are evolving.
Gillibrand later said she had always personally supported gay marriage, but thought the question of legalization should not be dictated by the federal government, but rather left up to individual states to decide. (New York, thanks to the state Senate, has so far failed to pass a same-sex marriage bill).
The newly-minted senator quickly latched on to the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” issue, becoming an outspoken champion for its repeal. Gay advocates were wary of Gillibrand’s zeal, wondering if her newfound activism had more to do with political expediency and a need to curry favor with the left than an ideological shift.
Richard Socarides, a former aide to President Clinton and founder of Equality Matters, a gay advocacy organization, told the Times he was initially skeptical of Gillibrand, too, but was won over by her tenacity.
“If she has decided she’s going to get something done,” he said, “don’t get in her way, because you will get run over.”
So, Gillibrand has managed to turn something that was once viewed as a character flaw and political liability – her absolute refusal to take “no” for an answer – into a big plus.
At yesterday’s Zadroga press conference, Schumer said some of his colleagues contacted him to beg for mercy, asking him to get Gillibrand off their respective cases. He recalled, “I said: NO! And the result of all that hard work we see today.”
“What a great victory for a new legislator,” Schumer continued. “Isn’t that fabulous? For any legislator, but for someone this new to do so much so soon is utterly amazing.”