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The Reintroduction of Kirsten Gillibrand

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Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, Chuck Schumer, and Al D'Amato have all helped Gillibrand. Carolyn McCarthy, Steve Israel, and Carolyn Maloney, all former colleagues of Gillibrand's in the House, have spoken out against her. Maloney may oppose her in the 2010 Democratic primary.  

Gillibrand gave birth to her first child, Theo, in 2003, at the age of 36, when she was working at Boies, Schiller in Albany. She became pregnant with Henry shortly after she was elected to Congress. On May 14, 2008, she spent twelve hours on the floor of the House before going into labor. The birth of Henry Nelson Gillibrand was announced the next day to a standing ovation on the House floor.

The Gillibrands moved to Washington, D.C., when Kirsten became a congresswoman, in 2007, but they were still spending weekends in Hudson. Now they live almost exclusively in Washington. Jonathan works for a Washington real-estate investment trust. To take care of the kids after school or day care, the couple employs a babysitter or relies on family for help. Jonathan is not much interested in Washington political life. When we met in Washington, he told me about an exotic-car convention he was planning on attending in Florida. “That’s much more my kind of thing,” he said with a wry smile.

A friend of the family says Jonathan supports Kirsten’s political ambitions but is worried about the effect her career may have on their family. “When she was thinking of making her name available for the Senate, he said, ‘Sure, throw your hat in the ring,’ ” the friend says. “But he never thought she would get it. Now he’s freaked out about the loss of privacy and his wife traveling so much.” When I asked Gillibrand about Jonathan’s concerns, she said, “My husband and I talked about the appointment. We said, ‘Is this something that we are prepared to do as a family? Would I be good at this? Is this something where I could make a difference?’ And we decided that the impact you can have as a senator is extraordinary, because you could have a voice on all issues.”

Gillibrand is, by all accounts, a dedicated parent. She drops off Theo at preschool and Henry at day care before her workday begins and tries to be home with them at night as early and often as possible. As a congressional representative, she would sometimes bring Theo to the House in the evenings. “They have a cloakroom that has hot dogs and peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwiches and candy. For him it was, ‘Oh, I want to go with you to the Capitol Building!’ ” While the large number of representatives allowed her to shift the time she spent presiding over the House, the Senate has proved less flexible. Shortly after her January appointment, Gillibrand was assigned a “gavel time” of between 5 and 7 p.m. on days the Senate was in session. Gillibrand went to the Senate leadership and explained that the time conflicted with Theo and Henry’s dinner-and-bedtime routine. She asked if she might switch with a senator without small kids. She was politely told no. (The decision was later reversed.)

Gillibrand is aware that being the mother of two young children can be a powerful connecting tool for a politician. “I hate being away from my kids, but it’s no different than for a mom who is cleaning out offices from 4 p.m. to midnight,” she says. “My burden isn’t any greater than hers.” She recently introduced legislation calling for stronger testing of potential toxins in baby products and, during a series of satellite interviews with New York television stations, deftly worked in the idea that she, “as a mother of two small children, was shocked to find this kind of stuff in products I use every day.”

Gillibrand’s voting record on women’s issues is brief, but strong: She has a 100 percent rating with naral Pro-Choice America, and has been active on equal-pay legislation. And she’s built a network of powerful women allies. One of the first calls Gillibrand made when she was contemplating a run for Congress was to a Hillary Clinton connection, Judith Hope, a Democratic National Committee member and founder of the Eleanor Roosevelt Legacy Committee, a fund-raising project aimed at encouraging pro-choice women to run for office. Once Gillibrand was appointed senator, Hope and other activists quickly rallied around her. “The Eleanor Roosevelt types now see Hillary’s seat as a woman’s seat,” says a frustrated staffer for a potential Gillibrand opponent. “They’ve completely circled the wagons around Gillibrand.”

With women still badly underrepresented in the Senate, liberal women activists are reluctant to bash Gillibrand, even if they disagree with her on policy issues. I got an earful from a Gillibrand friend when I suggested her House views were out of step with many Democrats. “This is more important than another yes vote on immigration,” the activist told me. “We have the opportunity to keep a woman in the Senate from a major state like New York. The stakes are too high for ideological purity.”


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