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The Reintroduction of Kirsten Gillibrand

Gillibrand with staff members in the Russell Senate Office Building.  

Gillibrand is preppy, blonde, short, and athletic. She looks like someone who might give tennis lessons at a country club, as she did when she was 16. She has run two marathons but is sensitive about the baby weight she has yet to shed. Her children have been sick recently—there was a trip to the emergency room last week—but she powers on, even boasting about her endurance. “I get up with the kids when they’re sick. Johnny, my husband, doesn’t do as well with interrupted sleep as I do.”

We’re in her office now. Gillibrand has moved into Hillary Clinton’s old space, but because of a bureaucratic delay, she’s not fully unpacked. The walls are bare and smell of fresh paint. When I ask Gillibrand what politicians have inspired her, she pauses a moment, then cites her grandmother.

If you make a quick right off the New York State Thruway onto a service road on the outskirts of Albany, you’ll come to Noonan Lane. The oldest home on the secluded street was once the residence of businessman Peter Noonan and his wife, Polly, Gillibrand’s maternal grandparents (the street was named after their family). Less than a mile away is Corning Hill Road, the longtime home of Erastus Corning II, Albany’s “mayor for life” from 1942 to 1983. Polly met Corning in 1937 while working as a secretary for the Scenic Hudson Commission, an organization helmed by Corning, then a state senator. Their friendship confounded and fascinated Albany for nearly half a century.

The mayor was a prep-school Wasp who shipped his own two children off to boarding school; Noonan was the lightly educated daughter of Irish immigrants. Her salty manner is said to have loosened up the buttoned-down Corning, and she exercised power as a patronage queen during his reign. The mayor’s own wife avoided political functions, so Noonan served as Corning’s traveling companion. According to Paul Grondahl’s biography, Mayor Corning, Noonan once entertained two journalists on a flight back from the 1974 state Democratic convention with cracks about Corning’s failing sexual prowess. Grondahl writes that there is no evidence that Albany’s political odd couple was ever sexually involved, but the relationship was certainly close. Corning spent so many evenings at the Noonans that he had his own recliner, just across from Peter’s.

Although Corning was estranged from his own children, he treated the Noonans’ four children as his own, particularly Penny Noonan, Gillibrand’s mother. When Penny started dating a boy named Douglas Rutnik, Corning informally adopted him too. Penny Noonan and Doug Rutnik eventually married, went to law school, and started Rutnik and Rutnik, an Albany law firm that benefited from municipal business Corning steered its way. When Corning died, in 1983, he left his family’s insurance practice to the Noonan children.

Polly Noonan liked to keep her family close, so Penny and Doug Rutnik built their own house on Noonan Lane. (Two of Polly’s other children eventually built houses on the block as well.) Kirsten Rutnik was born in 1966. She is the couple’s middle child, sandwiched between an older brother, Doug, and a younger sister, Erin.

Gillibrand talks often about helping her grandmother do political work as a child. “We’d do typical stuff like putting bumper stickers on cars,” she says. She flashes a mischievous look. “Sometimes, you are putting your own candidate’s bumper sticker over somebody else’s candidate’s bumper sticker.”

It’s not hard to see where Gillibrand gets her confidence. “Penny was the first real working mom that a lot of us kids knew,” says Elaine Bartley. “She was always multitasking, working on a case on the phone while unloading the dishwasher. That’s where Kirsten got the idea that she could work, raise kids, do it all.” Now semi-retired, Rutnik spends much of her time in Florida or with her grandchildren. She’s also a hunter who shoots the family turkey every Thanksgiving. “We never pushed Kirsten into politics. She took to it naturally,” Rutnik told me not long after Gillibrand’s Senate appointment. “I thought the governor would be crazy not to choose Kirsten. Then Caroline Kennedy came along, and I wondered why anyone would take her seriously. It annoyed me: Just because she’s a Kennedy, people think she can do the job. And then I heard Caroline speak, and it was clear this was not her forte. That’s when I knew Kirsten had a chance.”

Gillibrand attended Catholic grade school in Albany and went to high school as a day student at the prestigious Emma Willard School, in Troy. She spent most of her time studying, she says. “I was a big nerd. I wasn’t the smartest, but I’d put in tons of hours.” On the school’s tennis team, Gillibrand earned a reputation as a player who wore down her competitors by returning their shots until they crumpled with exhaustion. Because her parents lived nearby, Gillibrand often hosted classmates from Emma Willard for sleepovers. “Kirsten was always working out deals and compromises, even then,” says Bartley. “She’s always been very social, very outspoken. She was always the central character in any event while we were growing up.”