Sunday, January 2, 2011

The Education of Kirsten Gillibrand by Reid Pillifant - | The New York Observer

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Originally Published on December 21, 2010

Senator Kirsten Gillibrand is having a moment.

On Sunday, New Yorkers unfurled their copies of The Times to see Ms. Gillibrand above the fold, one of the smiling faces of the push to repeal Don't Ask Don't Tell.

Last week, she broke with her benefactors in the White House, and her mentor, Senator Charles Schumer, and voted against President Obama's tax-cut compromise. And throughout the frenzied lame-duck session, she's made the cable rounds—territory where she used to tread lightly—to decry the Republicans who are holding up the 9/11 health care bill.

All of which comes on the heels of a blowout win in her first statewide campaign in November, when the perpetually "vulnerable" senator amassed 63 percent of the vote.

"She emerged from this campaign as a senator with national stature," said Robert Zimmerman, a Democratic National Committee member and a party fund-raiser.

Such assertions, even from her staunchest supporters, would have been absurd a year ago, when Ms. Gillibrand was still struggling to get her bearings as an appointed senator, and the seat was seen as low-hanging fruit for any number of big-name opponents, from Rudy Giuliani to Mort Zuckerman. And certainly, her stature and influence in the Senate's Democratic conference, where she is still very much appropriately junior, isn't necessarily advancing at the same rapid pace as her public image.

But it can at least be said that Ms. Gillibrand is beginning to carve out a distinct role for herself. Ironically, given the fact that she began life as an elected official a few years ago as a conservative Democratic congresswoman, she is staking out a role as a progressive champion for New York's liberal base.

She is essentially following the playbook designed by Mr. Schumer, the liberal Brooklyn congressman turned Pan-New York champion, but from the opposite direction. It is a program designed for, among other things, longevity.

"She's going to be there as long as she wants to," said Anthony Weiner, who has become the resident champion of the party's liberal base. "She definitely has the chops to be a great senator."

According to her aides, it was the brief but aggressive challenge from Harold Ford Jr.—a smooth-talking banking executive and former Tennessee congressman—that helped Ms. Gillibrand find her voice.

Mr. Ford, with his unabashedly pro-business positions and Wall Street-themed neckwear, provided a natural foil for Ms. Gillibrand, allowing her to stand up for traditional New York Democrats. And, after 12 months as a punching bag, she was finally able take some swings.

The execution was not always artful—"If HF were here, he would probably be sitting on the Republican side," she posted to Twitter from the State of the Union address—but when Mr. Ford eventually backed down, aides say Ms. Gillibrand hit her stride.

While she is still prone to nervous hand-wringing and the occasional long-winded answer, Ms. Gillibrand has undeniably evolved from the wide-eyed congresswoman who gave a rambling speech when she accepted the appointment, a 25-minute opus that caused her to miss a congratulatory phone call from the president.

On Sunday, at a press conference at the Capitol, she repeatedly jumped in with concise responses to questions about the 9/11 health care bill, often stepping on the words of Mr. Schumer, who repeatedly deferred, even as he towered over her.

The Sunday before, she had done the same thing to Brooklyn Congresswoman Yvette Clarke at a press conference in midtown, when a reporter wondered whether Ms. Clarke's colleagues in the House might be hurting the president with their harsh criticism of his tax-cut compromise.

"No, no, no," Ms. Gillibrand muttered as Ms. Clarke turned and ceded the lectern. "This is just a passionate issue," she said, before launching into a brief speech about how the upper income credit won't create jobs for the middle class.

Ms. Gillibrand has been reluctant to talk about her own evolution.

"I don't feel differently," she told The Observer at a stop late in the campaign, while acknowledging the steep learning curve of the new job.

"You know, I didn't know that much about erosion on Long Island," Ms. Gillibrand said. "I didn't know that much about issues of the fishing industry from Long Island. I didn't know as much about some of the trouble in large, big inner cities. But I've had a year and a half now to spend time. And I've been in every one of the 62 counties."

Long Island is, of course, the home of the Baileys—the fictitious family created by Mr. Schumer to personify his focus on the middle class. And while Ms. Gillibrand has followed her mentor's strategy of aggressively targeting the middle class, she arrived at the Baileys' doorstep from the other side of the upstate divide.

"Chuck had to kind of reinvent himself—skillfully—as someone who's happy and comfortable milking cows, and overcome kind of the skepticism of rural New York, and he's done that in spades," said Mr. Weiner. "She already knows how to walk the rural, upstate dairy-country walk, but she also is clearly comfortable with the downstate talk."
Mr. Schumer is satisfied with the complement.

"I think she's doing a great job," he explained to The Observer. "It's the only job where two people have the same job. And when Hillary got there, I'd only been there two years and, you know, we're both hardworking, aggressive people, but we learned quickly that it was better for us—for New York, and for us—to work together, and we did, and we formed a great team," he said.

"And Kirsten and I have become a great team, too. And, you know, it's much better to have a strong partner, and she is."

For Ms. Gillibrand, part of the challenge is not to be entirely subsumed in Mr. Schumer's shadow.

"She was very lucky Harry Reid was reelected," said Larry Sabato, the director of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia. "Because I think Schumer would have beaten Durbin for majority leader, and then she really would have been overshadowed."

As it stands, covering the left flank might help Ms. Gillibrand to find a bit of oxygen within the Schumer airspace.

After mostly avoiding the cable rounds in her first 12 months—Joe Scarborough once needled her about refusing invitations to appear on Morning Joe—she has been something of a fixture in the last couple of weeks, appearing on Inside City Hall and Fox News and MSNBC, where Hardball host Chris Matthews introduced her as "one of the stars of the Senate."

Whether Ms. Gillibrand's liberal moment will amount to much is unclear, but burnishing her image as a fighter for the left—combined with the continued support of Mr. Schumer—should help quiet any lingering chatter of a primary challenge in 2012.

"You run against someone if you have a rationale, and she was able to create a rationale for herself. And that talks to her political skills, and it also talks to her ability as a senator," said Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer, one of many rumored opponents who chose not to challenge her in the primary this year. "She was able to navigate the different constituencies downstate, and she brought to the table a real constituency upstate."

Even before this Senate session, it was difficult to see where a liberal challenger might find an angle. Mr. Stringer was speaking in the hallway of the Hotel Trades Council on the weekend before Election Day, a few minutes after Ms. Gillibrand had been chanting and clapping along to an impromptu chant of "Si! Se! Puede!"

The council's president, Peter Ward, said the union feels "very good about where she is" on the union's most important issue, comprehensive immigration reform.

A few days earlier, she had received a raucous ovation at the annual gala of the Empire State Pride Agenda, for her work advocating for gay marriage and against Don't Ask Don't Tell.

And the Brady Campaign to End Gun Violence had "enthusiastically" endorsed her back in August.

While Democrats recede, Republicans are still hoping they might find an angle, and a candidate, to challenge her from the right in two years.

"All of the senators running in 2012 will be asked a simple question: 'What did you do for the economy and how many jobs did you create?'" said Kellyanne Conway, a Republican consultant who said the national party would take a more active role in New York in the next cycle.

"Her positions on guns and abortion and gay marriage—O.K., got it, that makes for great copy—but it's just not what's driving the electorate of New York. And she'll be the most prominent New York elected official on the ticket being asked, 'What have you done for me lately?'" said Ms. Conway.

Of course, she won't be entirely alone, as she'll have President Obama one rung above her on the Democratic ticket.

"She's coming up in the right year," said Mr. Sabato. "Having said that, I still don't regard her as one of the stronger incumbents, I don't care what percentage she got."

For now, the Cook Political Report lists her seat as safely Democratic.

"I think it was a rougher start than most freshman have," said Jennifer Duffy, who covers the Senate for Cook. "But I think she's getting her arms around it and I bet that now that she has won, she'll be much more comfortable."

"For any individual who's thrust into the U.S. Senate, you either grow or you fail," said Mr. Zimmerman. "What I think really distinguished her was her ability to champion issues and the attention she got from that. It has really defined her as a real fighter for New York, and that's critical."