Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D)
Elected: Appointed Jan. 2009, term expires 2010, 1st full term.
Born: Dec. 9, 1966, Albany .
Education: Dartmouth Col., A.B. 1988, U.C.L.A., J.D. 1991.
Family: Married (Jonathan); 2 children.
Elected office: U.S. House of Reps., 2006-09
Professional Career: Practicing atty, 1991-2006; Special counsel, HUD, 2000.
Democrat Kirsten Gillibrand is New York’s junior senator. She had been in the House for just one term when Democratic Gov. David Paterson in 2009 appointed her to the Senate seat vacated by Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton. Gillibrand (JILL-uh-brand) hails from a politically sophisticated family. Her father, Douglas Rutnik, is an attorney and lobbyist who had close ties to Zenia Mucha, a top aide to former Republican Gov. George Pataki. Her grandmother, Polly Noonan, was a prominent Democratic activist in Albany and longtime companion of Albany Mayor Erastus Corning (1942-83). Her grandmother used to bring Gillibrand along with her on the campaign trail. Gillibrand attended the all-girls Emma Willard School in Troy and graduated from Dartmouth College, where she majored in Asian studies. She traveled widely, worked as a summer intern for Republican Sen. Alfonse D’Amato, graduated from law school at the University of California (Los Angeles), and did a United Nations internship in Vienna, Austria. After law school, Gillibrand clerked for a Reagan-appointed federal Appeals Court judge and served briefly as special counsel for Housing and Urban Development Secretary Andrew Cuomo. She then joined a major New York law firm, Boies, Schiller & Flexner. Gillibrand raised money for Clinton’s first Senate campaign in 2000.
|Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-Ind-WF)||3,008,428||(67%)||($34,358,255)|
|John Spencer (R-C)||1,392,189||(31%)||($5,660,688)|
|Hillary Rodham Clinton (D)||640,955||(84%)|
|Jonathan Tasini (D)||124,999||(16%)|
Prior Winning Percentages: 2008 House (62%), 2006 House (53%)
In 2005, she launched a quixotic campaign against four-term U.S. Rep. John Sweeney, a rising Republican star with a seat on the Appropriations Committee, who had never faced a serious re-election challenge. With hard work but also a lot of luck, Gillibrand won the seat. Although Sweeney was a strong incumbent, he developed some serious vulnerabilities during the campaign. He missed several weeks of House votes after he was hospitalized in February 2006 for the treatment of vasculitis, an inflammation of the blood vessels. He got negative press about a fundraising event in Utah that included a ski vacation and dinner at the home of a pharmaceutical lobbyist. In April 2006, there were more negative news stories, including accounts of Sweeney’s visit to a college fraternity party. He denied college newspaper reports that he had been intoxicated. The state Democratic Party issued a press release asking, “What is a 50-year-old congressman doing at a frat party at 1 a.m.?”
Still, as late as August, polls showed Sweeney with a solid lead. He called Gillibrand a carpetbagger who lived not in the Hudson Valley-based congressional district but in a Manhattan high-rise. He also accused her campaign of making anonymous and intimidating phone calls to his wife. He emphasized his independence from the unpopular Bush administration and contrasted his working-class background with Gillibrand’s prep-school pedigree. Gillibrand did plenty of negative campaigning of her own. She demanded that Sweeney release police reports from two arrests in 1977 and 1978 and from a 2001 automobile accident; he called on her to release her income-tax returns. In October, it was revealed that Sweeney had traveled to the Northern Mariana Islands with Tony Rudy, an associate of disgraced lobbyist Jack Abramoff, who pleaded guilty to conspiracy charges in a scandal that involved several congressional junkets to the islands. Then, one week before the election, the Albany Times Union reported that Sweeney’s wife had called local police in December 2005 to complain that the congressman was “knocking her around.” Sweeney’s campaign at first insisted that the police report on the incident was “false and concocted by our opposition,” but he eventually conceded that state police were called to his home.
Sweeney had spent $3.4 million to Gillibrand’s $2.6 million. But in a year when Clinton and Democratic Gov. Eliot Spitzer were heading to landslide statewide victories and Republicans were dragged down by Bush, Gillibrand won 53%-47%.
When she arrived in the House, Gillibrand began posting a “Sunlight Report” of her daily schedule, including meetings with lobbyists. She held “office hours” in grocery stores throughout the district. She got the committee seats she wanted—on Agriculture and Armed Services. On the issue of Iraq, she voted for a nonbinding resolution calling for withdrawing troops but also for a bill providing funding for the war without a timetable for troop withdrawal. She cast conservative votes on gun-related issues, compiling a 100% score from the National Rifle Association. Gillibrand said she grew up in a family of hunters and “always believed in protecting hunters’ rights.… It’s a core value for our region and our state.” She opposed driver’s licenses for illegal immigrants and voted for a controversial bill granting immunity to telecommunications companies that had cooperated with government requests for warrantless surveillance of U.S. citizens’ communications.
Defending the seat for the first time in 2008, Gillibrand did prodigious fundraising and collected $4.6 million. Her opponent was state Republican Chairman Sandy Treadwell, who spent nearly $6 million of his own money on his campaign. But Gillibrand’s moderate-to-conservative stands on issues paid off. She won 62%-38%.
After the election, she pushed for a seat on the prestigious Ways and Means Committee, ahead of the more senior Rep. Brian Higgins of New York. Her unmasked ambition raised eyebrows even in the ambition-saturated Congress, and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi turned her down for Ways and Means.
When Clinton was named President-elect Barack Obama’s choice for secretary of State, Gillibrand was not the first person to spring to mind as a likely successor to Clinton. Gov. Paterson, who had ascended to the state’s top job after Spitzer resigned amid a prostitution scandal, considered appointing New York Attorney General Cuomo, which would have removed Cuomo as a possible primary opponent to Paterson in 2010. But then, on December 3, 2008, Caroline Kennedy, the daughter of the late president, indicated she was interested in the seat. Paterson gave her selection serious thought. But Kennedy performed weakly in series of upstate public appearances and in an interview with The New York Times. Other Democrats began to hint at running against her in the primary. On January 21, 2009, Kennedy withdrew “for personal reasons.”
Two days later, Paterson announced that he was appointing Gillibrand, a surprise pick considering that several more-prominent state political figures and more-senior House members were interested. But arguing in Gillibrand’s favor was her moderate politics on some issues, which may play well statewide when she and Paterson stand for election in 2010. She has more-traditional liberal stances on other issues, like her support for abortion rights and gay marriage, which will appeal to loyal Democrats. The announcement was made in Albany, with former Sen. D’Amato and several current Democratic members of the U.S. House in attendance. Conspicuously absent were several politicians who had wanted the job: Cuomo and House Democrats Higgins, Steve Israel, Carolyn Maloney, and Jerrold Nadler.
On January 27, Gillibrand was sworn in as the youngest U.S. senator. “I realize that for many New Yorkers this is the first you’ve heard my name and you don’t know much about me,” said the 42-year-old. “Over these next two years, you will get to know me. But much more importantly, I will get to know you.” She held early meetings with Paterson, Clinton, and Charles Schumer, New York’s senior senator and a member of the Democratic leadership. Soon afterward, Gillibrand began modifying some of her positions that are out of step with the party’s liberal mainstream, particularly on gun control. “There’re a lot of concerns in many of our city communities about gun violence, about keeping our children safe, and keeping guns out of the hands of criminals,” she said. And Schumer noted that Gillibrand’s old district is “more like Montana than New York City.” Gillibrand promised to work with Democratic Rep. Carolyn McCarthy, a staunch gun control proponent, on gun legislation. But, with the vast majority of the state’s Democratic primary votes cast in New York City, an upstate Democrat such as Gillibrand, with a history of moderate votes, may well attract a serious primary opponent. On the Republican side, Rep. Peter King in early 2009 was contemplating running. Also early in 2009, The New York Times published an unflattering front-page article that said Gillibrand, as a lawyer for Philip Morris in 1996, helped defend the tobacco company against allegations that it lied about the existence of internal research on the health effects of smoking.
Gillibrand holds a seat occupied by distinguished predecessors going back half a century—Clinton, Daniel Patrick Moynihan, James Buckley, Robert Kennedy, Kenneth Keating, and Irving Ives. Moynihan and Kennedy were Democrats, Keating and Ives were Republicans, and Buckley belonged to the Conservative Party.