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The Reintroduction of Kirsten Gillibrand

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Shortly after 2 a.m., Gillibrand’s cell phone rang, and Paterson greeted her with “Good morning, Madame Senator.” Gillibrand thanked the governor, hung up the phone, and promptly advised an aide to leak the news to the New York Times before Paterson could change his mind.

In Washington, the New York delegation was apoplectic. Representatives Steve Israel, Jerry Nadler, and Maloney all believed they were being seriously considered for the post. “We thought Paterson had two real choices,” said a senior staffer of one of the contenders. “He could name a celebrity like Caroline, someone so huge that she’s going to get her phone calls returned. Or he was going to name a kick-ass legislator who can run circles around the other legislators. Paterson went a third way.”

When Paterson asked Israel, Nadler, and Maloney to join him in Albany for the announcement as a sign of unity, they declined. Carolyn McCarthy immediately promised to challenge her in a primary.

The delegation’s mood didn’t lighten at Gillibrand’s appointment-announcement press conference. Gillibrand walked past State Assembly speaker Sheldon Silver with barely a hello but was seen talking animatedly with D’Amato. When the camera went wide, there was D’Amato, standing closer to Gillibrand than Paterson was. “You could hear heads exploding,” says a Gillibrand critic. “We just couldn’t believe what we were seeing.”

Gillibrand says she expected the vitriol with which her colleagues met her appointment, but she was still stung by it. “I was hurt but not surprised,” she says. “I thought they were my friends. They came to campaign for me. They raised money for me. I’ve called all of them and asked them to lunch.” She lets out a little smile. “Some of them don’t want to have lunch with me.”

It’s later in the day, and Gillibrand is scheduled to film interviews in a Senate studio with upstate New York television stations. She detours into a dressing room to adjust her makeup, and Bethany Lesser, a press aide, whispers, “Senator, you don’t have time. You look fine.” Gillibrand ignores her. “Bethany, let me tell you a story. There was a press conference on a windy day where I didn’t look my best, and that was the picture my opponents used in negative ads for two years.”

Gillibrand’s first hundred days in the Senate brought a new set of problems. There were questions about her legitimacy and experience. “There was a bit of ‘Uh-oh, can she handle this?’ ” says a top aide to a Senate Democrat.

Gillibrand has also been accused of flip-flopping on policy issues with an eye toward the 2010 election. Despite her “sanctuary city” vote in the House, she wrote a letter to the secretary of the Department of Homeland Security in February asking that the agency stop its raids on residences. In 2007, she had co-sponsored the renewal of legislation requiring the federal government to delete information learned from handgun background checks after 24 hours. Shortly after being named senator, she voted to repeal that provision.

As police sweep her car at a checkpoint near the Capitol, I tell Gillibrand about a remark Schumer made to me. “One of the things I like about Kirsten is I can tell her when she’s doing things wrong. She takes it well,” Schumer had told me. “I won’t try and minimize the mistakes she’s made, but I don’t think they’re insurmountable at all. She’ll learn.”

It’s Schumer, more than anyone, who is responsible for Gillibrand’s relaunch. At Gillibrand’s lowest point, shortly after the Times tobacco story, New York’s senior senator agreed to cooperate with (and some suspect he orchestrated) what was viewed by some as a Times makeup call, a front-page story about how Schumer was taking Gillibrand under his wing. The piece implied that Schumer was supporting Gillibrand because he could manage her. The message Schumer meant to send was clear: He is on Gillibrand’s side and expects others to be as well. “I don’t endorse eighteen months out,” Schumer says. “But I can tell you I’ll be endorsing her at the right time.”

Gillibrand insists she’s not, as some observers have suggested, Schumer’s puppet. But she doesn’t deny he’s a mentor. “It’s all true. I had dinner with Chuck in New York last week,” she told me at one point. “And Chuck told me what I was doing wrong. He told me what events I should have skipped and what ones I should have gone to. And I listened. He knows a lot.”

Gillibrand’s standing has also been enhanced by Barack Obama. In May, Long Island congressman Steve Israel, arguably Gillibrand’s most formidable potential primary opponent, was a day away from announcing his candidacy. Staff had been hired, and a website was about to be launched. But then Israel was called to presidential chief of staff Rahm Emanuel’s office and two days later received a call from the president. That day, Israel announced he would not run.


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