Rep. Gillibrand Chosen For Clinton Senate Seat

President Barack Obama has telephoned his congratulations to U.S. Rep. Kirsten Gillibrand, chosen by New York's governor to fill the state's newly vacant Senate seat. Video by AP
By Keith B. Richburg
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, January 24, 2009

NEW YORK, Jan. 23 -- Gov. David A. Paterson bypassed a couple of better-known contenders yesterday and appointed Kirsten Gillibrand, a low-profile congresswoman from the rural, conservative Hudson Valley, to New York's open Senate seat, potentially boosting his own prospects for election in 2010 but sowing new divisions in the state Democratic Party.

Caroline Kennedy, the only surviving child of president John F. Kennedy, and Andrew M. Cuomo, the state's popular attorney general, were considered the early front-runners for the seat vacated by Hillary Rodham Clinton, who became secretary of state. In choosing Gillibrand, Paterson may have gained allies among women and Upstate voters. But he has also angered backers of Kennedy and Cuomo, alienated some key constituencies, and made it more likely that he and Gillibrand may both face primary challenges next year.

The Gillibrand appointment, which came after an excruciating and at times haphazard two-month selection process, may have been the most high-profile decision to date for Paterson, who is in many ways an accidental governor, coming to office last year after Eliot L. Spitzer resigned because of a sex scandal.

"Everyone in town is furious with him," vented one Kennedy friend, who called the selection process, which included Kennedy's mysterious eleventh-hour withdrawal for unspecified personal reasons, "a fiasco."

Gillibrand's centrist voting record sets her at odds with most of her Democratic colleagues in New York. She boasts a perfect favorable rating from the National Rifle Association, in a state with some of the strictest gun laws in the country. She has supported tighter measures against illegal immigrants in a state generally known for sanctuary. And she was the only New York Democrat to vote against the $700 billion federal financial bailout plan, which was considered a fiscal lifeline for New York City.

Her selection immediately drew criticism from gun-control advocates and immigrant-rights groups.

"I think she's just a really bad choice," said Jackie Hilly, executive director of New Yorkers Against Gun Violence. "She has wrapped herself in the NRA flag. She's been really walking with the NRA and walking out of step with the rest of New York."

New York Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg, who had encouraged Paterson to appoint Kennedy and who has made stricter gun legislation one of his signature issues, was also critical of the Gillibrand selection. "She has actively opposed the efforts of New York City, and cities around the state and nation, to enact common-sense measures that keep illegal guns out of the hands of criminals," he said in a statement. "For instance, she has voted to keep critical data needed to track illegal gun traffickers from law enforcement, has voted to tie the hands of the ATF, and has also voted to protect dealers who sell guns illegally."

Rep. Carolyn McCarthy, whose husband was among six people killed by a gunman rampaging on the Long Island commuter train, said she will run against Gillibrand in the Democratic primary for the Senate seat in 2010 if no one else challenges her. "She is the NRA's poster child, and that does not represent New York state," McCarthy told MSNBC moderator Chris Matthews on the "Hardball" show.

The New York Immigration Coalition said in a statement: "During her tenure in the House, Representative Gillibrand took positions on immigration that are deeply troubling, to say the least." She supported giving local police the power to enforce immigration laws and backed a fence along the U.S. southern border, but opposed any path to citizenship for illegal immigrants already in the country, the group said.

"Simply put, these are positions that put her at odds with the majority of New Yorkers, whose values reflect our state's history of welcoming immigrants, as well as with President Obama, who supports a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants," the coalition said in a statement.

But others argued that Paterson had made a savvy political move. Choosing Gillibrand for the seat "has some wisdom to it," said one longtime Democratic Party strategist who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss the matter more candidly. He said Paterson's primary goal was to shore up his own position and balance the Democratic ticket for 2010, which will see the governor, the appointed senator, and the state's senior senator, Charles E. Schumer, on the ballot. (Gillibrand must run for the remaining two years of Clinton's term.)

Paterson had also let it be known over the two-month process that he would like to select a woman to replace Clinton.

Campaign funding was another likely factor; the governor wanted to appoint a senator who would be able to raise at least $30 million required for the 2010 race, and an equal amount two years later when the seat must be defended again. That amount could soar if there is a Democratic primary challenge. Gillibrand was considered a formidable fundraiser upstate, where she raised $4.7 million for her House run and most Democrats struggle to make inroads.

Paterson said he had settled on Gillibrand before Obama's inauguration on Tuesday. But that revelation deepened the mystery surrounding Kennedy's abrupt withdrawal from consideration. There was speculation that she pulled out to avoid the embarrassment of being passed over, but Paterson's aides insisted that Kennedy was never told she was not the choice. "Maybe she was trying to read the tea leaves," said a source close to the governor.

Gillibrand, 42, a lawyer, gained attention in her first run for office, in 2006, when she defeated an entrenched Republican in a conservative-leaning district near Albany, during the Democratic sweep that took back control of the House. She won reelection handily last year.

Gillibrand seemed to recognize the challenges she faces as she steps into the Senate seat. "I realize that for many New Yorkers, this is the first time you have heard my name, and you don't know much about me," she said. But she promised: "Over these next two years, you will get to know me, but, much more importantly, I will get to know you."

© 2009 The Washington Post Company