11.26.08

The Woman Who Won Hillary's Seat

Why Kirsten Gillibrand, a relatively obscure upstate congresswoman, may be the pick to succeed Clinton in the Senate.

The New York Times reports that as Caroline Kennedy withdraws from the New York Senate sweepstakes, Gov. David Paterson is "leaning toward selecting" Rep. Kirsten Gillibrand. Why the upstate congresswoman might just be the best choice not named Kennedy.

As New York Gov. David Paterson prepares to pick to the successor to Hillary Clinton in the Senate, Democratic sources say a top candidate is a relative neophyte, Rep. Kirsten Gillibrand. Who is Gillibrand and why is she being mentioned as a Senate contender alongside heavyweights like Andrew Cuomo?

"My personal feeling is that [Gillibrand] has the inside track for several reasons," said Doug Muzzio, a professor of public policy at Baruch College. "She is a woman, she is smart, she's an up and comer, and, probably most importantly, she's not from New York City or the metropolitan area but a true upstater."

You might call Gillibrand a bizarro version of Sarah Palin: she proudly touts her 100 percent rating from the National Rifle Association.

Indeed, geography is considered central to Gillibrand's appeal. The 20th District of New York borders Connecticut, Massachusetts, and Vermont. New York City and its surrounding areas currently hold a monopoly on every statewide office from governor down. Appointing an upstater could help boost both Gov. Paterson's re-election chances and give the Democrats a wider base as they face the prospect of defending the seat in a special election in 2010, as well as again in 2012. Moreover, as a woman and a Catholic, Gillibrand could help solidify two key Democratic constituencies.

Politically, Gillibrand, who is 41, is a conservative Democrat and a member of the Blue Dog caucus, which might make her more palatable to some of the more right-leaning areas outside the city. You might call her a bizarro version of Sarah Palin: she proudly touts her 100 percent rating from the National Rifle Association, and has two young children, aged 4 years old and six months old.

Although Caroline Kennedy, Robert Kennedy, Jr., and New York City Council Speaker Christine Quinn have all been discussed as possibles, Andrew Cuomo, New York’s attorney general, stands as her primary competition for the seat. Cuomo has strong statewide name recognition and, as a potential gubernatorial rival for David Paterson in 2010, he could appeal to the governor’s instincts for political self-preservation. However, Democratic observers say that it’s unclear Cuomo would want the job—he has become a star as attorney general. Moreover, his outsized reputation could clash with that of the state’s other U.S. senator, Chuck Schumer, who is regarded as one of the most powerful legislators in the country. Gillibrand, an attorney, was a former special counsel to Cuomo when Cuomo was Bill Clinton’s Secretary of Housing and Urban Development.

The bigger problem for Gillibrand may be Rudy Giuliani. According to Democratic consultant Joseph Mercurio, Gillibrand's status as a relative unknown could threaten her in a 2012 race against, say, a former high-profile mayor who is looking for his next job.

“Giuliani might not be strong now against an incumbent governor [if were to challenge Paterson], but against somebody who's never run statewide, who is not an incumbent...he could really cut into the Democratic vote in New York City if he ran,” Mercurio said. “That's the danger.”

However, Democratic strategist Hank Sheinkopf suggested that Gillibrand might play especially well against a big name Republican opponent.

“I think New Yorkers love the lion versus the lamb or David versus Goliath scenario,” he said. “They're kind of enchanted by it. So it might in fact work.”

Gillibrand was a member of the class of 2006 that swept the Democratic Party to the majority in Congress. It would have been easy to regard her defeat of the 20th district’s incumbent Republican, John Sweeney, as a fluke. Sweeney was in the process of a political implosion in which he turned up—acting strangely—at a college frat party. Days before the election, The Albany Times-Union published police reports that his wife had called 911 on him during an argument (they have since gotten divorced).

But Gillibrand faced a seemingly far tougher race this year against an experienced and well-funded candidate, Sandy Treadwell, who had previously served as New York Secretary of State and as chairman of the state Republican Party. In one of the most expensive congressional races in the country, Gillibrand won in a landslide, taking 62 percent of the vote to Treadwell's 38 percent.

Now with her skills as a campaigner no longer in doubt, her fundraising strong, and her political stock higher than ever, Gillibrand may be on her way to the United States Senate.

Benjamin Sarlin covered New York City politics for The New York Sun and has worked for talkingpointsmemo.com. He is a graduate of Vassar College.