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01.18.10

Gillibrand Fights Back

Under attack from Tennessee transplant Harold Ford, Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand returns fire—explaining her own position changes, tiptoeing around bank bonuses, and taking a swat at Lloyd Grove.

“I really am wonky,” Kirsten Gillibrand, New York’s appointed junior senator, tells me. We are meeting in her midtown Manhattan office, the same one formerly occupied by Hillary Clinton. “I’m a bit of a geek,” Gillibrand adds with a laugh.

At 43, she is a blond, piercingly blue-eyed mother of two in a navy pinstripe suit and dark blue hose, the corporate uniform of the efficient multitasker, accented by two muted strands of faux pearls around her neck. She wears blue-velvet flats, and is keen on setting me straight about published reports that she likes to go shoe-shopping. “No, that was not accurate,” she says. “I do like shoes because you do need to wear them.”

“You have not read my record!” Gillibrand exclaims, punctuating her eruption with a brisk swat to my kneecap.

The only visual extravagance is the bright yellow sofa on which we both sit, a holdover from the previous occupant. “Secretary Clinton likes yellow,” Gillbrand explains. “I like blue.”

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Scott J. Ferrell / Getty Images

The senator was a little-known two-term congresswoman from an historically Republican pastoral district in upstate New York when Gov. David Paterson famously bypassed Caroline Kennedy to pluck her out of obscurity in January 2009. A year later she’s gearing up for her first statewide campaign, the special election to fill the seat vacated by Clinton, who left to become President Obama’s Secretary of State.

So far Gillibrand, who is married to a British-born financial services consultant, has one declared opponent, perennial Republican candidate Bruce Blakeman. Former governor George Pataki has been exploring his options and former Democratic congressman Harold Ford Jr. of Tennessee—who left Memphis and moved to Manhattan after losing his 2006 home-state race for Senate—has been making hostile noises.

“If he wants to move from Tennessee and come to New York and run for Senate, I welcome the challenge,” Gillibrand tells me with an edge to her voice. “I’m looking forward to running on my record. I’m looking forward to debating the issues. And I’m not going to take a back seat to anyone in fighting for New York.”

Both Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and New York’s senior senator, Chuck Schumer, Gillibrand’s mentor and protector, reportedly advised the defiant Ford to stand down. She’s happy to have the help.

“I think politicians, advocacy groups, leaders in the community, have every right to articulate who’s best for New York,” Gillibrand says. “That’s what politicians do. They always state their preferences and give guidance to voters,”

The 39-year-old Ford—who in 2001 was named one of People magazine’s “50 Most Beautiful” humans on the planet and enjoyed a reputation as a ladies’ man before settling into his recent marriage—last week gave what was widely considered a disastrous interview to the New York Times, offering himself as a caricature of a politically expedient, out-of-touch elitist who breakfasts daily at the Regency on Park Avenue, flits around the city in a helicopter and Town Cars, and treats himself to regular pedicures.

It was a big break for Gillibrand, and she’s making a herculean effort not to gloat. “Um….[pause, intake of breath]….I think that interview was revealing,” she says with calculated blandness, “And I think it was what he wanted to say about himself, and that’s what was reported.”

I ask her some of the same questions that the Times posed to Ford:

Has she been to every borough in New York City?

“Yes.”

Did she travel by car or helicopter?

“By car. When I lived in New York for about 10 years [when she was a young associate working for a blue-chip law firm], we would go by subway.”

Yankees or Mets? Jets or Giants?

“I have to say, I’m a mother of two sons. I love both my sons. I love all New York sports teams.”

Gillibrand—who spent her professional life as a corporate lawyer before entering public service—grudgingly acknowledges that if she had it to do all over again when she was an associate at Davis Polk & Wardwell in the late 1990s, she wouldn’t have worked on behalf of Philip Morris to help the tobacco giant withhold internal company lab results showing cigarettes’ link to cancer. The issue has come up in every one of her campaigns, with adversaries noting that her law firm had a policy of allowing associates to refuse cases that caused moral problems.

“You know, it’s a hypothethical, so it’s really unfair,” Gillibrand says. “Of course I wouldn’t have worked on the case! But as a young associate who was learning how to be a good lawyer, I did not pick and choose my cases. I worked on every case I was asked to work on.”

In a political environment where the sound bites normally leave tooth-marks, Gillibrand seldom makes sharp pronouncements when the soothing balm of boilerplate will do. She tends to speak in talking points, and isn’t easily knocked off message—even when I challenge her with the derisive nickname that some of her House colleagues called her behind her back: “Tracy Flick,” a reference to the ruthlessly competitive high school politician played by Reese Witherspoon in the movie Election.

“I think it’s from people who don’t know me very well,” Gillibrand says evenly. “I’m fundamentally a very kind person, and the reason I’m in public service is I want to make a difference. I want to help people. I have two young children at home. My lens on public policy is very different.” And then she launches into a well-starched laundry list of all the family-friendly legislation she supports, everything from early childhood education to protecting kids from E. coli bacteria in hamburgers.

When I ask what she thinks about the rampant profit-taking on Wall Street—a perfect opportunity for a more theatrical politician to channel populist rage—she instead delivers a nuanced and lengthy disquisition on the pros and cons of different types of compensation at investment banks.

Gillibrand—who as a House member voted against the 2008 federal bailout of the financial sector—tells me: “Many people throughout this country are rightly focused on compensation because we have the highest unemployment in near-memory.”

But people aren’t “focused on compensation,” I point out—they’re just mad.

“I’ll explain that,” Gillibrand says calmly. “People are worried about losing a job, they’re worried about a family member losing a job. There’s enormous economic insecurity. So when the American people read about financial institutions giving out bonuses in the millions of dollars—institutions that were at the brink of collapse a year ago and only survived because of the largesse of the taxpayers—they are rightly angry…I think there is significant concern across the state and the country. And I understand it.” Lloyd Blankfein couldn’t have said it better.

The only time the senator gets steamed is when I suggest that—much as Harold Ford has tilted leftward on social issues to accommodate his new zip code—she has tailored her positions on gay marriage and gun control to reflect that she no longer represents just the conservative 20th Congressional District.

“You have not read my record!” Gillibrand exclaims, punctuating her eruption with a brisk swat to my kneecap. “I have always been for repealing ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’! I have always supported gay marriage! And I’ve always supported gun control! So there’s a massive misperception of what my record actually is.”

While Gillibrand—like Clinton and Obama—previously had endorsed civil unions, she came out explicitly for same-sex marriage only after her Senate appointment. She has also conspicuously adjusted her position on guns, reflected in the fact that she is supported by gun-control purists like New York Democratic Rep. Carolyn McCarthy (who once vowed to run against her), and she no longer votes in lockstep with the National Rifle Association. According to an NRA spokesman, Gillibrand won’t receive anywhere near the gun lobby’s A-rating that she previously enjoyed as a member of the House.

But Gillibrand insists she hasn’t changed her views. “It’s much more a broadening of focus,” she says.

She now says she was mistaken when she promoted legislation in the House to make English the “official language” of the United States. “That term is used in a very divisive way,” she says, “and, yes, I didn’t understand how divisive the term was… I did expand my views on immigration, mostly because I did not have a large immigrant community in my district. I never supported ‘English only.’ What I didn’t realize is many people equate ‘English as an official language’ with ‘English only.’ It’s a subtlety that I was not aware of as a congresswoman from upstate New York. I’m very aware of it now.”

Meanwhile, Gillibrand says she’ll dance with the one that brung her—and is endorsing beleaguered Gov. Paterson, another appointed public official, who is facing a tough primary race against his undeclared opponent, Attorney General Andrew Cuomo.

“I’m supporting the governor,” she says with unnuanced simplicity. The senator adds with a laugh: “Now that was a short answer!”

Lloyd Grove is editor at large for The Daily Beast. He is also a frequent contributor to New York magazine and was a contributing editor for Condé Nast Portfolio. He wrote a gossip column for the New York Daily News from 2003 to 2006. Prior to that, he wrote the Reliable Source column for the Washington Post, where he spent 23 years covering politics, the media, and other subjects.