Now that the TV cameras are gone and the political-gossip reporters have slunk away, Representative Carolyn McCarthy—the diminutive, hard-bitten blonde from Long Island who recently infuriated the state’s Democratic Establishment by announcing her plans to run against Governor David Paterson’s Senate pick, Kirsten Gillibrand, in 2010—can refocus on her real crusade: the rules of procedure at House hearings. As she trots back to her Capitol Hill office from a Bernie Madoff–related subcommittee meeting, McCarthy fairly glows with pride over the committee’s replacement of opening statements with question-and-answer sessions. “I fought for that for six years,” she gloats. “Barney”—that’s Barney Frank, the powerful House Financial Services Committee chairman—“finally got it passed.”
This sort of thing might seem trivial, but McCarthy has battled for it: the insider-y authority to fret over mundane procedural questions and the Washington confidence to call Barney Frank by his first name. She came to Capitol Hill from Mineola twelve years ago a clueless, single-issue celebrity, the nurse who became an anti-gun spokeswoman after her husband was killed by mad shooter Colin Ferguson on the Long Island Rail Road. Back in her office (informal by House standards—staffers perch on corners of haphazardly placed couches), McCarthy looks over her photo wall and points to a picture of herself at 52, at the start of her first term. “You can tell by the weight,” she jokes. Then a centrist from a staunchly Republican district—a little like her nemesis Gillibrand, actually—McCarthy didn’t know a thing about Democratic politics. One day she gave a reporter an angry quote about her incumbent congressman’s vote on the assault-weapons ban, and the next thing she knew she was running for Congress. “A person named Dick Gephardt called, and I didn’t know who that was,” she says. While she still retains her retro style—long nails, big brown hair bow—she takes pride in mastering D.C.’s political folkways, scoring spots on the education and finance committees and the House delegation to NATO. “Congress is like twelve hours of school every day,” she says.
Later in the day, three Germans in dowdy suits and inadvertently punk haircuts show up to talk transatlantic defense. McCarthy touts her learning curve during a discussion of Russia. “We grew up not liking Russia. It wasn’t until I came to Congress that I learned we can’t just dislike each other,” she explains earnestly if a little elementarily to a member of the Bundestag, who’s wearing a Magic Eye necktie. “We have to talk to each other, for the good of us all.”
After the Germans leave, conversation turns to McCarthy’s promise to challenge Gillibrand, a big gun-rights supporter, in a Senate primary. “I was surprised at how I reacted,” muses McCarthy. (“Let’s face it,” she seethed on Hardball, “[Gillibrand] has been working for the NRA.”) Others were surprised, too: Senior senator Chuck Schumer asked her to leave Gillibrand alone. But she’s not recanting, and has told her fund-raisers that she means to run.
Gillibrand has been running scared already, protesting that she needs time—like McCarthy did—to shuffle off her provincial conservative mores and learn how to be a Democrat in full. I mention a Times story to McCarthy in which Gillibrand “talks of her progress as an honors student might of acing a forthcoming exam” and brightly suggests she could evolve on guns, since “a lot of these are not issues I thought a lot about before.” McCarthy rolls her eyes. Gillibrand, the scion of a political family who lawyered for the worldly Boies, Schiller & Flexner, is no bumpkin. “Look, I know Kirsten has spent a lot of time in New York City,” says McCarthy. I ask her if she’s worried that by making so much noise about Gillibrand, and Gillibrand’s stance on gun control in particular, she might be re- stereotyping herself as Carolyn McCarthy, the gun lady. She pauses.
“Well, that’s all right. I’m known for education, I’m known for district work,” McCarthy shrugs. “But I am the gun lady.”