Gillibrand, Clinton's Successor in Senate, Has No Shortage of Critics
Sunday, March 1, 2009
It's 10 minutes into the interview, and New York's junior senator hasn't stopped talking. She is gesturing eagerly in the Senate dining room and the table is shaking, water splashing from the glasses, as she argues that she is misunderstood.
"Folks don't know me well," she says, "and they need to know who I am, what I believe in."
Appointed to fill Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton's former Senate seat after serving only one term in the House, Kirsten Gillibrand (D) has been under siege ever since -- by colleagues who say she is too inexperienced, by New York tabloids that say she is suddenly flip-flopping on issues and by advocates who say her long-standing positions on gun control and immigration are out of step with the majority in their Democratic state.
But she is determined not to allow her critics to define her.
"Before this happened, I had very strong relationships with, I believe, all of my colleagues, and I am quite hopeful that I will have very strong relationships . . . going forward," says Gillibrand, whose former Upstate district surrounding Albany is largely white and solidly Republican. "They have far more legislative experience than I do . . . and I think they are just disappointed."
"Disappointed" is certainly one way to look at it. New York Gov. David A. Paterson (D) infuriated many state Democrats in January when he chose Gillibrand after a messy process that embarrassed perceived front-runner Caroline Kennedy and passed over more-seasoned politicos.
Democrats worry that the doubts about Gillibrand have created a cloud of uncertainty over the seat, once held by icons Daniel Patrick Moynihan and Robert F. Kennedy. Gillibrand faces a special election in 2010 to fill out Clinton's term and, if successful, another campaign in 2012. Threatened challenges from within her own party as well as from Republicans ensure she will be fighting for her political survival, which some fear could undermine her ability to be an effective Senate player.
Even her father, Doug Rutnik, noted jokingly: "She has a lot of rowing to do."
Benefiting from Clinton's stature, Gillibrand was assigned to three high-profile committees: Environment and Public Works; Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry; and Foreign Relations. But she has spent considerable time just trying to calm critics.
New York Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg (I) sees curbing gun violence as a high priority in his city and was not comforted by Gillibrand's 100 percent approval rating from the National Rifle Association. She has tried to assure voters -- and colleagues -- in Harlem, the Bronx and Brooklyn that a lawmaker from a rural GOP House district can represent a broader, more urban constituency.
While she says her views aren't necessarily changing, there is no question that she is tweaking them as she goes.
Gillibrand thinks she has persuaded some critics to give her the benefit of the doubt. Last month, she met with Bloomberg in Washington, and afterward the mayor said they would work together.