By Lois Romano
Washington Post Staff Writer
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.
Said House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Charles B. Rangel (D), who represents Harlem: "Lyndon Johnson wasn't the most compassionate man when he was in the Senate. But when he was elected president, he took a leadership role on civil rights."
But others are still skeptical. Rep. Carolyn McCarthy (D-N.Y.), who was elected as an ardent gun-control advocate after her husband was killed in the 1993 Long Island Rail Road massacre, was so incensed over the appointment that she immediately announced she might challenge Gillibrand in 2010. Lawrence O'Donnell, a Democratic activist who favored Kennedy, said Paterson "has chosen someone better at representing cows than people."
Meanwhile, Gillibrand's allies are pushing back. "We're pretty sophisticated up here," says her mother, Polly Rutnik, of Albany. "This is not Montana. . . . New York is a state of divergent opinions. We're not ruled by New York City."
Called Tina by her family and friends, Gillibrand is the youngest member of the Senate and the mother of a 5-year-old and an infant, whom she nurses twice a day at the congressional day-care center.
She is known for her hard work and sharp elbows, and her quick path to the Senate may not be as curious as it seems. She grew up in Albany in a well-connected Democratic family. Her parents, now divorced, are lawyers. And her grandmother, Polly Noonan, was a well-known activist who was close to the legendary Albany mayor Erastus Corning II.
Gillibrand entered politics after she graduated from law school at the University of California at Los Angeles and took a job as a corporate lawyer in Manhattan. She became a skilled fundraiser but wanted more. She tried Clinton's 2000 Senate campaign, but "I couldn't get my foot in the door because I didn't know the right people," she says.
She attended an event in New York that same year at which Andrew M. Cuomo, then housing and urban development secretary, was speaking on the virtues of public service. She approached him, explaining her difficulties landing a job in the public sector. And he hired her, a story confirmed by others.
Gillibrand worked at HUD until the end of the Clinton administration. Within a few years, she began laying the groundwork for a congressional run in the district adjacent to her home town. She upset the Republican incumbent in 2006.
While House Democrats were delighted to have that seat, and understood she couldn't always be on the same page with them, they found some of her votes baffling. For example, she voted against the economic bailout twice last fall -- votes seen as going against Wall Street and thus the fiscal health of her state.
Since her appointment to the Senate, however, it has been her stated positions on guns and immigration that have brought her the most grief. "Let me say it in my own words," she says when pressed to explain her stances. "I will always protect hunters' rights. Always. I will always protect the Second Amendment. I will make sure every American has the right to own a gun. . . . That's very different from how do we protect our communities from gun violence, how do we reduce gang violence, how do we make sure we have a strong trafficking law to make sure criminals don't have access to guns?"
She says critics are "up in arms that I am supported by the NRA. And so they equate me with the NRA. I do not support the NRA's agenda. I support my constituents' agenda."
On immigration, Gillibrand has been against amnesty, in favor of declaring English the official language and for requiring local police officers to take on immigration enforcement duties. But she says she has learned a lot in the past few weeks. For instance, she has backed down from her belief that local police should be permitted to conduct raids. Constituents have described scenes in which toddlers have seen guns being drawn on their parents. "No child should have to witness that," she says.
Chung-Wha Hong, executive director of the New York Immigration Coalition, was encouraged after meeting Gillibrand. "She said she was willing to make a clean break with her past and voting record," said Hong, an initial skeptic.
"She is going to be able to evolve without being seen as a flip-flopper," said New York's senior senator, Charles E. Schumer (D). "When I was a congressman, I never voted for a farm subsidy. Now I do because I have constituents who have farms. That's what the system is about."