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The Reintroduction of Kirsten Gillibrand

Gillibrand arrived in Washington in 2007 with a reputation as a dragon slayer from a swing district. She was given plum assignments on the House Agriculture and Armed Services committees. The New York Times wrote a multipart series about her first year in office. Resentment within the delegation began almost immediately. Much of the ill will centered on the perception that she seemed to feel entitled to special treatment because she had upset a Republican incumbent. “Leadership does a lot to protect candidates from marginal districts,” says a staffer of a senior New York representative. “But she flouted the conventions. She placed calls to Charlie Rangel and then to Speaker [Nancy] Pelosi trying to get better committee assignments. That was good for her, but not for the delegation.”

Fellow Democrats also took exception to the fact that Gillibrand bucked the party line on hot-button issues. She joined the Blue Dog Democrats, an alliance of mostly southern fiscally and socially conservative Democrats. She earned a 100 percent rating from the NRA, in part for her vote in favor of a measure that limited information sharing on gun buyers between the ATF and FBI—a position vehemently opposed by big-city mayors including Mike Bloomberg. (The tension between the mayor and the senator continues. Bloomberg was a major supporter of Caroline Kennedy’s Senate bid, and Gillibrand’s representatives suspect his people have been responsible for much of her negative press.) She voted in favor of the controversial measure to label New York a “sanctuary city,” and to potentially cut off federal aid until municipal authorities begin actively curbing illegal immigration. And she was one of a small minority of Democrats to vote against the TARP bank-bailout legislation, a move said to enrage House Speaker Pelosi.

Despite her critics’ objections, Gillibrand’s voting record proved politically effective, at least in the short term. In 2008, she faced a well-financed Republican in business executive Sandy Treadwell. He outspent her $7 million to $4.5 million, but while his campaign was largely self-financed, Gillibrand raised more money from outside sources than any other freshman representative elected in 2008. Her conservative positions on economic issues, guns, and immigration were catnip to her upstate constituents, leaving Treadwell boxed in. “When she voted against TARP, we knew we were finished,” a Treadwell aide says. “She was smart. She didn’t leave us any openings.”

The Treadwell campaign tried to exploit Gillibrand’s work for Philip Morris, but it lacked a key weapon. “We looked everywhere for video of her speaking at an anti-tobacco rally,” says the Treadwell adviser. “There’s nothing. She was too smart to leave anything that you could use in a negative ad.” Gillibrand defeated Treadwell last November by a margin of 62 to 38.

“I assure you that we will be united in our opposition to her,” says one early rival. “She’ll be reelected over my dead body.”

When Barack Obama nominated Hillary Clinton to be secretary of State in November, Governor David Paterson made a special effort to find a woman to fill Clinton’s seat. The potential 2010 Democratic slate headed by Paterson otherwise threatened to feature all males, perhaps all from downstate, no less. The list of women for Paterson to choose from wasn’t especially long. Westchester congresswoman Nita Lowey, who would be 73 before 2010, quickly withdrew her name from consideration. It was unclear if Manhattan congresswoman Carolyn Maloney, who went on a Hillaryesque listening tour, would have statewide appeal. Paterson liked Randi Weingarten, the president of the United Federation of Teachers, but her lack of electoral experience made her a risky choice.

Enter Gillibrand. Not only would she provide the gender diversity Paterson sought, but she was popular upstate, had a good relationship with the Clintons, and had powerful financial connections—all of which could help get her elected and help the beleaguered Paterson in his own 2010 campaign. A Washington Post blog posted a list of contenders and placed Gillibrand as the second favorite, trailing only Nassau County executive Tom Suozzi.

But whatever hopes Gillibrand had for winning the seat were all but ended when Caroline Kennedy emerged as a candidate. Recognizing that she could not compete with Kennedy’s star power, Gillibrand instructed her allies only to let the governor know she was still interested and not to lobby on her behalf. She completed a questionnaire Paterson requested, but otherwise kept out of view.

That all changed when Kennedy removed herself from consideration. On the evening of January 22, Paterson called Gillibrand in Washington and asked her if she was still interested in the job. He told her he had not made his final decision, but he requested that she fly to Albany and await further instructions. Paterson also asked her to make one phone call. One of the few constituencies the increasingly embattled governor could rely on was the gay community, and Gillibrand had expressed support in interviews for civil unions instead of legalizing gay marriage. Paterson instructed Gillibrand to call Alan Van Capelle, executive director of the Empire State Pride Agenda, and promise she would reverse her position. Gillibrand made the call, and then headed to Albany. With rumors still circulating about whom Paterson might choose, Gillibrand went to bed uncertain of her fate.