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The Reintroduction of Kirsten Gillibrand

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Gillibrand and her husband, Jonathan, in Washington, D.C., dropping off their son Theo at preschool.  

Gillibrand debated between Princeton and Dartmouth for college. “I went to visit Princeton, and all the girls wore a ton of makeup and high heels and had fancy pocketbooks,” she says. “And then I visited Dartmouth, and everyone was in sweats with no makeup, doing outdoor things. That was more my speed.” At Dartmouth, Gillibrand majored in Asian studies after taking a class in Chinese politics. “Learning Chinese doesn’t have a lot to do with talent or skill,” Gillibrand says. “It is about putting in the hours doing rote memorization. And I knew I was good at that.” She joined a sorority and played tennis and squash, but didn’t participate in student government. “I didn’t like the type of people involved,” she says. But her fellow students nevertheless saw where she was headed. “She was always very nice. She always remembered names,” says a classmate. “You could see how she could become a politician.”

Gillibrand was viewed by some as a career climber as early as law school. She enrolled at UCLA in 1988, and spent the summer between her first and second year interning in the Albany office of then-Senator Al D’Amato. Gillibrand’s father had become close with D’Amato in the eighties, serving as a conduit to the capital’s political Establishment (after Rutnik and Penny Noonan had divorced, Rutnik dated Zenia Mucha, a senior D’Amato aide). Gillibrand passed the bar in 1991 and moved to Manhattan to take a job as an associate at the law firm of Davis Polk & Wardwell. The next year, she received a prestigious clerkship with Court of Appeals judge Roger Miner, a Republican appointee. Because the position was so coveted, and Gillibrand had not finished in the top 10 percent of her law class, it was assumed that she received the position based on her father’s D’Amato connections.

After her clerkship, Gillibrand returned to Davis Polk, where she worked for nine years, logging long workweeks for a series of clients including the tobacco conglomerate Philip Morris. During her 2008 congressional reelection, operatives for Sandy Treadwell, her Republican opponent, compiled boxes of information that documented Gillibrand’s involvement with Philip Morris, but the media was largely uninterested. The New York Times revisited the material after Gillibrand’s Senate appointment. The Times’ 2,700-word front-page story depicted Gillibrand as a key player on the account, making trips to Philip Morris’s European cigarette-testing lab and using her office as a war room to plot strategy to defend the company against government claims that it knew tobacco was a carcinogen and hid that information from consumers. The story noted that Davis Polk allowed associates to decline to work for certain clients if they found the work ethically objectionable, but that Gillibrand appeared to have thrown herself wholeheartedly into her Philip Morris assignment.

Gillibrand declined to speak to the Times for the story, but when I asked her if she regretted her work, she answered with a defiant “No.” She didn’t defend the work on its own terms, however. “I had an opportunity to work with Robert Fiske on the case, and he is universally regarded as one of the great lawyers of our time,” she told me. Then she said, “And the work on that case allowed me to do pro bono cases.” Gillibrand then listed some of the pro bono cases she worked on—helping battered women get divorces from abusive men and aiding a housing alliance to sue landlords over lead-paint problems—but as with most lawyers, the pro bono work took up no more than a fraction of her time.

Gillibrand began attending fund-raisers for the Clinton-Gore reelection campaign and building a database of political contacts. “Kirsten has been compiling lists and contacts since Dartmouth,” says Sarah Hoit, a college friend who served in the Clinton administration. “She saw the benefit of e-mail lists long before others did.” Penny Noonan Rutnik recalls that her daughter was already thinking about her political career when she was at Davis Polk. “I remember getting a call from her saying she was having a tough time finding a cleaning woman who wanted to be paid legally,” Rutnik says. “I said, ‘What’s the big deal?’ And she said, ‘Mom, I might want to run for office someday. I can’t have an illegal cleaning my house. I’ll do it myself if I have to.’ ”

Gillibrand says it was Bible study that awakened her to public service. “When I was working in New York, I taught a Bible class for 10-year-olds,” she says. “My favorite parable is the one Jesus tells about the talents.” She’s referring to the story in which a master becomes angry with a servant for wasting a coin, or “talent,” he was given. “What I took from that is we have to do the most with the talents God has given us. I was working as a corporate lawyer, where I wasn’t helping people. I was just helping big companies make money. And I wanted to do more.” The story may be true, but it clearly sounded rehearsed.


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