How Kirsten Gillibrand Shed Her Past on the Way to Liberal Stardom

New York’s junior senator was once a rural populist. Now people call her the next Hillary Clinton. How she got from there to here.

National Journal
Ben Terris
Oct. 24, 2013, 5 p.m.


In 2009, two days be­fore Gil­librand was sworn in to the Sen­ate as Hil­lary Clin­ton’s suc­cessor, the 100-year-old Span­ish-lan­guage news­pa­per, El Di­ario, splashed her pic­ture across their cov­er with the head­line: “Anti In­migrante.” The piece quoted Peter Rivera, an As­sembly mem­ber and now New York’s com­mis­sion­er of labor, as say­ing her “hard-line stance” of op­pos­ing am­nesty for un­doc­u­mented im­mig­rants “bor­ders on xeno­pho­bia.” At the same time, a slew of House mem­bers, such as Reps. Car­o­lyn Malo­ney and Car­o­lyn Mc­Carthy, threatened to run against her in 2010 be­cause of her con­ser­vat­ive re­cord on guns.

But Gil­librand was already work­ing to court pro­gress­ives. One of her earli­est moves in the Sen­ate was to hire the Mir­Ram Group, a pub­lic-af­fairs con­sult­ing com­pany with ties to the His­pan­ic com­munity, in­clud­ing then-As­sembly­man Rivera. Mir­Ram set up meet­ings throughout New York City between Gil­librand and His­pan­ic lead­ers in or­der for her to “listen and learn” about pri­or­it­ies with­in the Latino com­munity.

She met with Rep. Nydia Velazquez, D-N.Y., a meet­ing in which Gil­librand would of­fer her sup­port on the Dream Act, the pro­posed le­gis­la­tion that would grant leg­al status to some chil­dren of il­leg­al im­mig­rants. For someone who had once op­posed Eli­ot Spitzer’s plan to provide un­doc­u­mented res­id­ents with driver’s li­censes and who sup­por­ted cut­ting aid to sanc­tu­ary cit­ies, it was more than a ton­al shift. Gil­librand sat down with policy ex­perts like Muz­af­far Chishti of the Mi­gra­tion Policy In­sti­tute, who told Na­tion­al Journ­al he was “ex­tremely in­trigued by how quickly she changed her stance.” She also met with El Di­ario.

“I was stressed out,” Lu­is Mir­anda of Mir­Ram said about the en­counter. “But she was such a good listen­er and so em­path­et­ic that she im­me­di­ately dis­armed people. Just take a look at the cov­er­age from be­fore the meet­ing, and how it ended in just a couple of weeks.”

It was all right out of the Hil­lary Clin­ton play­book; 16 months be­fore her own elec­tion to the Sen­ate, Clin­ton traveled the state on her own “listen­ing tour.” Gil­librand says today that her evol­u­tion makes sense, as she now rep­res­ents an en­tire state in­stead of just one con­gres­sion­al dis­trict. For that trans­form­a­tion to be cred­ible, however, Gil­librand needed to un­der­take what Clin­ton had be­fore: an ob­serv­able peri­od of “edu­ca­tion,” even if it was one that was no­tice­ably brief. (Ac­cord­ing to The New York Times, Schu­mer even had to tell her to “slow down” so that it didn’t look quite so blatantly polit­ic­al.)

Take her stance on guns. When Gil­librand was in the House, rep­res­ent­ing her up­state dis­trict, she voted with the NRA 100 per­cent of the time. She sup­por­ted a bill lift­ing gun re­stric­tions in the Dis­trict of Columbia, co­sponsored le­gis­la­tion that would make it more dif­fi­cult for law-en­force­ment agen­cies to ac­cess gun-trace data, and was called by the Daily Beast a “bizarro ver­sion of Sarah Pal­in.”

But the day after she was ap­poin­ted to the Sen­ate, Gil­librand made her way to a rally in Har­lem held by the Rev. Al Sharpton. She told the crowd she could po­ten­tially be flex­ible on the is­sue of gun con­trol, and left to a stand­ing ova­tion. She spent the next few weeks talk­ing with ad­voc­ates and vic­tims of gun vi­ol­ence.

“There aren’t a lot of drive-by shoot­ings or any­thing up in her old dis­trict,” says Jack­ie Hilly, who at the time was ex­ec­ut­ive dir­ect­or of New York­ers Against Gun Vi­ol­ence, and who or­gan­ized sit-downs with the sen­at­or. “Once she star­ted talk­ing to all the vic­tims and see­ing that side of the dev­ast­a­tion, she was pretty much open right away to sup­port­ing dif­fer­ent kinds of bills.”

With­in months, Gil­librand came out and op­posed one of the very bills she had co­sponsored in the House. She, in­stead, ad­ded her name to a bill to fight gun traf­fick­ing with Rep. Mc­Carthy, the same con­gress­wo­man who had been threat­en­ing to chal­lenge her in a primary. Her grade from the NRA tumbled to an F, something that a spokes­man said he couldn’t re­mem­ber see­ing dur­ing his dec­ade at the or­gan­iz­a­tion.

And yet Gil­librand’s re­versal has not been com­pletely per­suas­ive to the gun-con­trol crowd. “If people change their po­s­i­tions, even if it’s in the dir­ec­tion you like, you also have to think how com­mit­ted are they to it,” says Arkadi Ger­ney, who was the polit­ic­al dir­ect­or of May­ors Against Il­leg­al Guns at the time of Gil­librand’s as­cen­sion and who now works at the Cen­ter for Amer­ic­an Pro­gress.

Part of the prob­lem is that Gil­librand has not been a per­fect ally for the gun-con­trol move­ment. While Con­gress was in the midst of an epic struggle to pass a bill on back­ground checks, gun-re­form ad­voc­ates were do­ing whatever they could to pull vul­ner­able mem­bers off the fence. When Gil­librand brought up her bill on gun traf­fick­ing — a bill that would make it a fed­er­al crime for straw pur­chasers to leg­ally buy weapons in states with loose gun laws and sell them to people in oth­er states with stricter laws — some wor­ried that the back­ground-check bill, one of deep im­port­ance to Schu­mer, would suf­fer.

“The back­ground-check bill was both the biggest policy fix and the most sal­able,” says one Wash­ing­ton gun-re­form ad­voc­ate who be­lieved that Gil­librand was more in­ter­ested in build­ing her brand than ush­er­ing in suc­cess­ful le­gis­la­tion. “Neither of those facts was per­suas­ive to Gil­librand, who was so eager to in­tro­duce the first bill with bi­par­tis­an sup­port that she screwed Schu­mer by rush­ing out a traf­fick­ing bill. It was watered down, it was polit­ic­ally low-hanging fruit, and it gave mem­bers in both cham­bers an ex­cuse to say they sup­por­ted something. It let them off the hook way too easy.” The back­ground-check bill has yet to make it to a vote.

Na­tion­al Journ­al‘s vote rat­ings help tell the story of Gil­librand’s polit­ic­al jour­ney. In 2007, after her first year in Con­gress, NJ ranked her as the 185th most lib­er­al mem­ber of the House. By 2010, one year in­to her Sen­ate ten­ure, she had be­come Schu­mer’s ideo­lo­gic­al twin, tied with him as the 10th most lib­er­al mem­ber of the cham­ber. The fol­low­ing year, she sat atop those rank­ings, along with Ore­gon’s Jeff Merkley.

SYRA­CUSE, N.Y. — It’s closer to break­fast than lunch, but Kirsten Gil­librand — wedged between five bulky men at a red-and-white-checkered table — nev­er­the­less smiles un­til her eyes crinkle as a ham­burger smothered in blue cheese and spin­ach is placed in front of her. She digs in, first with her fin­gers, then with a knife and fork, skip­ping the bun en­tirely. Bur­gers be­fore 11 a.m.? Sure. But not even on home soil will the Demo­crat­ic sen­at­or eat carbs.

Rick Lazio’s re­fus­al to eat a Gi­an­el­li’s saus­age here at the New York State Fair dur­ing his Sen­ate race against Hil­lary Rod­ham Clin­ton in 2000 may have had something to do with why he lost. It was “akin to push­ing away a kiss­able baby on the stump,” the New York Daily News said. Gil­librand knows bet­ter than to turn away a baby. There’s a ham­burger-cook­ing con­test to judge.

She awards her top vote to a bean-in­fused mush­bur­ger (“ex­tra points for be­ing healthy”), while also telling the crowd of meat en­thu­si­asts that her fa­vor­ite one might have been the one with cheese, ba­con, and an egg. (“If you just keep adding enorm­ous amounts of cho­les­ter­ol, it makes any­thing de­li­cious!”) 

The crowd ap­proves. She feels like one of their own. “My hus­band told me I could come to this event only be­cause it was Gil­librand,” an apple farm­er re­coun­ted to me after the cook-off. “If it had been [Chuck] Schu­mer, he said he would have to di­vorce me.”

Gil­librand is good at hav­ing it both ways, and not just when she’s split­ting the dif­fer­ence between look­ing healthy and au­then­t­ic at Beef Day. This up­state nat­ive who once bragged about keep­ing shot­guns un­der her bed also raises more money from the fin­an­cial sec­tor than any of her Sen­ate col­leagues (her haul in­cluded $89,700 from Gold­man Sachs last cycle, the most among cur­rent mem­bers of Con­gress). Self-ad­orned with the humble goal of giv­ing a “voice to the voice­less,” she spent 15 years rep­res­ent­ing, among oth­er cli­ents, Philip Mor­ris. Once the proud own­er of an A rat­ing from the Na­tion­al Rifle As­so­ci­ation, Gil­librand watched her grade plum­met to an F after she was ap­poin­ted to the Sen­ate and began sup­port­ing bills to curb gun traf­fick­ing. She has shif­ted her stance, too, on im­mig­ra­tion, mov­ing away from the hard-line po­s­i­tions she ad­op­ted as a mem­ber of the House of the Rep­res­ent­at­ives.

In short, she is now much more like Sen. Schu­mer than at­tendees at the fair might sus­pect. “She is an ex­traordin­ar­ily bright politi­cian,” says Rep. Steny Hoy­er of Mary­land, the No. 2 Demo­crat in the House. “And I use ‘politi­cian’ in a good way.”

A less­er tal­ent might be torn between her two selves: the rur­al cent­rist from the closest thing that New York has to “real Amer­ica”; and the Wall Street-fin­anced, cor­por­ate law­yer who’s ap­peared in fash­ion shoots for Vogue magazine. But after a rocky start in a polit­ic­al ca­reer that has las­ted less than a dec­ade, she has a found a way to turn the di­cho­tom­ies to her ad­vant­age. Kirsten Gil­librand is de­term­ined to have it all — and, along the way, per­haps give Demo­crats their next bright, young na­tion­al star.

“My own view is that I think Gil­librand is one of the people in the United States of Amer­ica that I think can be pres­id­ent of the United States,” Hoy­er says.

It’s a stretch to ima­gine Gil­librand run­ning for pres­id­ent any time soon: There’s a Hil­lary-sized shad­ow hanging over 2016, and Gov. An­drew Cuomo also ap­pears above her on the New York depth chart. But this is a Demo­crat­ic Party des­per­ate for new blood and new tal­ent. At 46, Gil­librand fits the bill per­haps bet­ter than any­one — and she has be­gun to build a na­tion­al per­sona that can match her am­bi­tions. Her battle against the Pentagon over sexu­al as­saults in the mil­it­ary has won her head­lines and praise. At the same time, she’s a stun­ningly ad­ept fun­draiser who earns loy­alty from her col­leagues the old-fash­ioned way — by dol­ing out money. It’s telling that when po­ten­tial wo­men pres­id­ents are men­tioned, the list tends to be­gin and end at Clin­ton. There is op­por­tun­ity there.

But to reach that place in the firm­a­ment, Gil­librand will have to pull off what many politi­cians be­fore her have had to do: re­con­cile her past polit­ic­al iden­tit­ies with her present ones. Gil­librand isn’t the first Demo­crat from a rur­al, cent­rist back­ground to try to build a bridge to the pro­gress­ive wing of the party. (See: the oth­er Clin­ton, Bill.) And of­ten, it can be easi­er to ac­com­plish than those lib­er­als try­ing to con­vince rank-and-file voters that they are one of them, as both Barack Obama and John Kerry be­fore him struggled to do. But that doesn’t mean she won’t have some ex­plain­ing to do on what can be po­litely termed her evol­u­tion.

How she nav­ig­ates those ques­tions will say a lot about her read­i­ness for the grand stage.






So far, Gil­librand’s in­con­sist­ent re­cord hasn’t dam­aged her. Even when her op­pon­ent in the 2012 elec­tion, con­ser­vat­ive law­yer Wendy Long, tried to make an is­sue of it, it didn’t get much trac­tion. “People don’t like flip-flop­pers, but it was hard to make the case be­cause she was not com­ing out to en­gage,” Long says. “And it was less of a polit­ic­al li­ab­il­ity since she had aligned her­self up to fit in with one of the bluest states.”

Not only did her re­cord not hurt, but in a sense hav­ing mul­tiple per­son­al­it­ies may be, in an odd way, a boon to Gil­librand’s long-term pro­spects. Sure, her haters have plenty to glom on to. (“I re­gard her as be­ing one of the worst kind of politi­cians I can think of,” says Roy Beck of the anti-im­mig­rant group Num­ber­sUSA. “Her flip-flop­ping is just in­dic­at­ive that she’s just com­pletely in it for her­self,” Long grouses.) But most of her con­stitu­ents get the op­por­tun­ity to see in her what they want to see.

“She un­der­stands that even when she takes po­s­i­tions that might be seen as re­strict­ive to gun en­thu­si­asts, she can talk to them and ex­plain her po­s­i­tion and her back­ground,” says Demo­crat­ic strategist Joe Trippi. “It dis­arms people”¦. That sounds bad in that con­text, but that’s what she does.” In oth­er words, if she no longer votes like a cent­rist, she still knows how to com­mu­nic­ate like one.

Nev­er mind that she spent 15 years as a Man­hat­tan law­yer; to up­staters, she’s the closest thing to one of them they can hope for in the Sen­ate. It’s why at a press con­fer­ence, held just hours after the ham­burger cook-off, on in­vas­ive spe­cies harm­ing the Fin­ger Lakes — one in which Asi­an clams, not Re­pub­lic­ans, were the en­emy — she could say this: “I was just read­ing the Farm­ers’ Al­man­ac, and it’s go­ing to be one of the most bru­tally cold win­ters.” And no one laughed at her. Schu­mer could nev­er pull off a line like that. That could partly ex­plain Gil­librand’s strong show­ing last year: She got 72 per­cent of the vote, a high­er per­cent­age than the seni­or sen­at­or has ever garnered.

“It’s a pretty con­ser­vat­ive area around here,” says Robert Hard­ing, a loc­al re­port­er who was cov­er­ing the event. “And there’s this really pess­im­ist­ic view of New York City. You’ll hear people talk­ing down about New York City politi­cians all the time, but you don’t hear that about Gil­librand.”

Gil­librand’s cred­ib­il­ity up­state has been built up over gen­er­a­tions. Her ma­ter­nal grand­moth­er, Dorothea “Polly” Noon­an, paved the way for her in Al­bany. She was a plain-speak­ing dy­namo of a wo­man who wiel­ded in­flu­ence be­hind the scenes. She worked as the right-hand wo­man for Erastus Corn­ing, the so-called May­or for Life of Al­bany, for years. The only job Noon­an was ever able to hold for him was sec­ret­ary, but the title be­lied her im­port­ance.

“She was as power­ful as they let wo­men be in that era,” says Paul Grondahl, the au­thor of May­or Corn­ing: Al­bany Icon, Al­bany En­igma. “She was a power broker who could get out the wo­men’s vote, help en­force re­tali­ation against those who went against the ma­chine, and wasn’t afraid to spout pro­fan­it­ies and go toe-to-toe with the men.”

Nat­ur­ally, Noon­an was an “in­spir­a­tion” for Gil­librand and, two gen­er­a­tions later, the young, as­pir­a­tion­al wo­man took that same drive and ad­ded a little big-city pol­ish to it. And Gil­librand’s own am­bi­tion is well-known. Early in her con­gres­sion­al ca­reer, her col­leagues went so far as to call her Tracy Flick, a ref­er­ence to the blond, lad­der-climb­ing char­ac­ter from the film Elec­tion.

Her up­state roots are genu­ine: Born in Al­bany, Gil­librand stud­ied at an all-girls school in Troy be­fore at­tend­ing Dart­mouth. She in­terned with Re­pub­lic­an Sen. Al D’Am­ato, at­ten­ded UCLA law school, and from 1991 to 2000 worked at the Man­hat­tan white-shoe firm of Dav­is Polk & Ward­well. Her work with the cor­por­ate firm in­cluded rep­res­ent­ing Philip Mor­ris in the Justice De­part­ment’s probe in­to the to­bacco in­dustry, a role doc­u­mented at length by The New York Times. But if Gil­librand’s work would have alarmed loc­al Demo­crats, her ef­forts at rais­ing money and or­gan­iz­ing wo­men on be­half of Hil­lary Clin­ton’s sen­at­ori­al cam­paign more than made up for it.

“She just wouldn’t ever take no for an an­swer,” re­mem­bers Kar­en Fin­ney, a former Demo­crat­ic Na­tion­al Com­mit­tee spokes­wo­man, who along with Gil­librand helped form a group of young pro­fes­sion­al fe­male fun­draisers. Gil­librand began to seek out an op­por­tun­ity to run for of­fice her­self. Be­liev­ing that the city was already over­crowded with qual­ity can­did­ates, she asked her hus­band, Jonath­an, how he felt about rais­ing kids up­state, and they moved the fam­ily to Hud­son.

Itch­ing to get in­to a race for the 20th Dis­trict, an area that gave 54 per­cent of its vote to George W. Bush in 2004 and which runs from the Up­per Hud­son Val­ley north in­to the Ad­iron­dacks, she toyed with the idea of run­ning in 2004, only to be told by Clin­ton that 2006 would be a bet­ter year for her. Demo­crats gained 31 seats in 2006, and with the help of old Clin­ton hands like Howard Wolf­son, Gil­librand would be one of them.

It was a nasty elec­tion — the kind that would have made her grand­moth­er proud. Dur­ing the cam­paign, present-day pho­tos cir­cu­lated show­ing her op­pon­ent John Sweeney at a fra­tern­ity party; ques­tions were raised about money he re­ceived from dis­graced lob­by­ist Jack Ab­ramoff; and a po­lice re­port was leaked in which Sweeney’s wife said her hus­band was “knock­ing her around the house.”

Sweeney tried un­suc­cess­fully to paint Gil­librand as just an­oth­er New York City car­pet­bag­ger, but Gil­librand’s con­nec­tions to the area were evid­ent. Many of the cam­paign staff spent the cam­paign liv­ing in Noon­an’s old house. Gil­librand won with 53 per­cent of the vote.

Once in Con­gress, she joined the Blue Dog Co­ali­tion of con­ser­vat­ive Demo­crats, voted against the bank bail­out, and earned sup­port from good-gov­ern­ment types for pub­lish­ing her sched­ule on­line. The Times her­al­ded her de­cision to of­fer a level of trans­par­ency “simply un­heard of in Con­gress.”

When Clin­ton was ap­poin­ted sec­ret­ary of State, Gil­librand — with her con­ser­vat­ive dis­trict and vot­ing re­cord — may have seemed like an odd choice to re­place her. But des­pite be­ing a re­l­at­ive un­known, Gil­librand had power­ful sup­port­ers — most not­ably Schu­mer. Even with her stances on gun con­trol and im­mig­ra­tion, New York’s seni­or sen­at­or lob­bied New York Gov. Dav­id Pa­ter­son to ap­point her. “I un­der­stood that people do grow and evolve,” Schu­mer told me when asked why he sup­por­ted Gil­librand. “And she has.”

Did she give him any as­sur­ances that she would change her tune?

“She didn’t have to,” he says. “I just used my judg­ment.”


In the Sen­ate, Gil­librand made a name for her­self quickly, fight­ing for com­pens­a­tion for 9/11 first-re­spon­ders and for re­peal of the mil­it­ary’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy. (She ul­ti­mately was on the win­ning side of both battles.) The vic­tor­ies earned Gil­librand a re­spect from the lib­er­al base and a repu­ta­tion for tenacity.

More not­able re­cently has been her quest to com­bat the scourge of sexu­al as­sault in the mil­it­ary. The Pentagon has es­tim­ated — based on an­onym­ous sur­veys — that 26,000 cases of sexu­al as­sault oc­curred in 2012 alone. Com­pound­ing the prob­lem, in Gil­librand’s view, is that com­mand­ing of­ficers take part in the ad­ju­dic­a­tion pro­cess of of­fend­ers. “The chain of com­mand has failed them,” she said in an in­ter­view, not­ing that less than 4,000 of those cases were ac­tu­ally re­por­ted. “And if you can’t trust them to de­liv­er justice, it makes it much less likely to even re­port cases.”

Gil­librand’s push to re­move sexu­al-as­sault cases from the chain of com­mand has pit­ted her against her more seasoned col­leagues in the Sen­ate. Carl Lev­in, the chair­man of the Armed Ser­vices Com­mit­tee, and Claire Mc­Caskill, a former pro­sec­utor, have whipped against it, sup­port­ing in­stead their own le­gis­la­tion that re­forms the pro­cess but keeps the chain of com­mand in­tact. They, along with Pentagon of­fi­cials, ar­gue that Gil­librand’s pro­pos­al would be det­ri­ment­al to the au­thor­ity of com­mand­ing of­ficers.

But Gil­librand has shown an abil­ity to con­nect across the aisle in a way that many of her fel­low Demo­crats haven’t. When she an­nounced her sexu­al-as­sault plan, she was flanked by two of the most con­ser­vat­ive mem­bers in the Sen­ate: Ted Cruz, from the mil­it­ary-heavy state of Texas, and Rand Paul, the tea-party stal­wart from Ken­tucky. “She made a very strong ar­gu­ment,” Cruz would say.

Gil­librand, who has been ca­jol­ing her col­leagues re­lent­lessly on the le­gis­la­tion, main­tains she is draw­ing close to a ma­jor­ity, but find­ing a fili­buster-proof 60 votes could elude her. Still, her work has drawn at­ten­tion to the is­sue — and to her. There’s been a spot on the Daily Show, a pro­file on NPR, and chat­ter in the mar­gins that she could mount a pres­id­en­tial cam­paign.

Gil­librand’s own team, however, says she isn’t act­ing like a politi­cian who wants to land on the na­tion­al radar. “If Kirsten Gil­librand was us­ing polling to de­cide what is­sues to at­tack, she would not have chosen gay mar­riage, 9/11, and mil­it­ary sexu­al as­sault,” says Je­frey Pol­lock, the sen­at­or’s poll­ster. “These are def­in­itely not go­ing to rank as top three things in av­er­age voters con­scious­ness”¦. These are is­sues that have been left for dead, and she said she wasn’t will­ing to give them up.”

That doesn’t mean there aren’t be­ne­fits. The 2012 pres­id­en­tial elec­tion saw the largest gender gap since Gal­lup began meas­ur­ing such things in 1952. Pres­id­ent Obama was able to over­come los­ing the male vote by 8 per­cent be­cause he had a whop­ping 12-point ad­vant­age over Mitt Rom­ney with wo­men. It was the first time since 1996 that a can­did­ate for pres­id­ent won by win­ning wo­men and los­ing men.

Along that line, Gil­librand has in­tro­duced a series of bills aimed at in­creas­ing wo­men’s stand­ing in the eco­nomy. The mul­ti­part le­gis­la­tion would in­crease the min­im­um wage, ex­pand paid fam­ily med­ic­al leave, provide uni­ver­sal pre-K, make qual­ity af­ford­able day care ac­cess­ible, and man­date equal pay for equal work. “These are not new ideas,” Gil­librand says. “There just has not been ac­tion on it. It’s im­port­ant to put them in the spot­light and have a na­tion­al de­bate about it.”

The best way to drive the is­sues for­ward, she says, is to in­crease the num­ber of wo­men on the Hill past the re­cord num­bers (about 20 per­cent in both cham­bers) that are there already. And when that hap­pens, Gil­librand will be a ma­jor reas­on why. Dur­ing the last cycle, she raised $1 mil­lion for wo­men can­did­ates — in­clud­ing Mc­Caskill — with her Off the Side­lines PAC. This time she has pledged to double it. That gives her lever­age in the Sen­ate that oth­ers lack.

“She’s one of those sen­at­ors that if she’s not with you on something, she’s prob­ably not go­ing to be per­suaded,” says a staffer who has worked with her. “But no one will com­pletely try and shut her out be­cause she can raise so much money for you. She’s a lot of sen­at­ors’ ‘frenemy.’ “

“This is what makes her a ma­jor in­side play­er,” adds Hank Sheinkopf, a New York Demo­crat­ic strategist. “New York is the ATM of Amer­ic­an polit­ics.”


There are prob­lems that come with that. Obama, the lib­er­al pop­u­list, had to court Wall Street in his pres­id­en­tial run, was cri­ti­cized for then tak­ing it too easy on large banks, and ul­ti­mately re­versed him­self and ac­cep­ted su­per PAC funds to fin­ance his reelec­tion. In the 2012 cycle Gil­librand, the erstwhile up­stater, raised more than $3 mil­lion from the fin­ance, in­sur­ance, and real-es­tate in­dus­tries; Schu­mer, a long­time sup­port­er of Wall Street, raised $212,000. (It was, of course, a nonelec­tion year for Schu­mer. The last time he was up for reelec­tion, in 2010, he pulled in north of $5.5 mil­lion. Gil­librand came in second that year.)

Over the sum­mer, Gil­librand made the pil­grim­age to one of the holy sites for rising stars of the Left: the Daily Show. In the past, it’s been friendly ter­rit­ory for Gil­librand, as Jon Stew­art helped her achieve hero status for her work on the 9/11 First Re­spon­ders Health Fund. But Stew­art was on sab­bat­ic­al, leav­ing Gil­librand to con­tend with John Oliv­er, who des­pite his gee-whiz Brit­ish earn­est­ness, wasn’t about to give the sen­at­or a pass. “I’m un­com­fort­able about something, and, I think, I’m hop­ing that you’re go­ing to make me feel bet­ter about it,” Oliv­er said. “Help me un­der­stand the re­la­tion­ship between banks and polit­ics. Be­cause on the Venn dia­gram of that, you are right in the middle of that”¦. What I deeply want to know is, what do you have to do for that?”

It’s a ques­tion, too, that many pro­gress­ives want to know as well. As the Left con­tin­ues to push to de-con­sol­id­ate the in­dustry’s power, some say that Gil­librand’s re­cord since com­ing to the Sen­ate has been less than stel­lar.

“She’s ac­tu­ally a prob­lem,” says Bart Naylor of Pub­lic Cit­izen. “She’s not someone we go to when we want change on bank­ing re­form.”

Naylor points to a let­ter she wrote ask­ing for the delay of the “Vol­ck­er Rule,” a pro­pos­al in the Dodd-Frank le­gis­la­tion that would reign in risky trad­ing by the coun­try’s largest banks. While Gil­librand likes to say she sup­ports the rule, the lan­guage of the let­ter echoes ar­gu­ments of those in­terests that have sought a more ex­tens­ive delay.

The New York Times’ ed­it­or­i­al board also raised con­cerns about Gil­librand in Ju­ly of this year re­gard­ing yet an­oth­er let­ter she signed, in which the sen­at­or urges delay of an­oth­er por­tion of the Dodd-Frank law, this one in­volving de­riv­at­ives. In do­ing so, The Times con­ten­ded that Gil­librand was “go­ing against the cause of re­form, lob­by­ing for delays that would de­rail the law.”

“It’s im­possible to prove that the money in­flu­enced her, but all we can say is, Gil­librand gets money from Wall Street and does things as far as I can tell that Wall Street wants,” Naylor says.

In an­swer­ing Oliv­er, Gil­librand channeled the rur­al pop­u­list she once was, sound­ing far more like Rand Paul than Chuck Schu­mer. “Let me give you some con­fid­ence,” Gil­librand said smack­ing the table. “We had a very large vote about the bank­ing in­dustry — it was called the bail­out. I voted against the bail­out.”

Of course, that was a vote in 2008 — back when her con­stitu­ents all lived more than 100 miles from down­town Man­hat­tan and when she raised less than a quarter of what she did last cycle from Gold­man Sachs. Back when she nev­er had to pick between bean bur­gers and beef ones and could hap­pily boast about the guns un­der her bed. It looks like that per­son is gone for good. But should Gil­librand seek na­tion­al of­fice bey­ond New York, don’t be sur­prised if she has a second life. Or would it be a third?