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The Reintroduction of Kirsten Gillibrand

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The Gillibrand camp spun Israel’s withdrawal as a sign of support from Obama. It certainly had that appearance, but the president’s motives were more far-reaching than that. The filibuster-proof 60-seat majority Democrats will enjoy if Al Franken is seated is fragile. The Democratic leadership doesn’t want to waste precious resources on internecine warfare. “The Washington Establishment hates change,” says a Democratic Senate staffer. “There is no way Schumer and Harry Reid are going to abandon her. They’ll give her some kind of legislative trophy that she can put her name on. And if you’re a lobbyist, you’re going to be like, ‘What’s in it for me to take a flier on someone else when the smart money’s on Gillibrand?’ ” Late last week, Carolyn McCarthy announced she wouldn’t run either.

Maloney, meanwhile, is said to be on the verge of announcing a bid to unseat Gillibrand in the 2010 Democratic primary. “The commercials write themselves,” says a top Manhattan political consultant. “Big Tobacco. Immigration. Guns. It’s all there. And she has no record. She has no base of goodwill to build on.” Says one early rival, “I assure you that we will be united in our opposition to her. She’ll be reelected over my dead body.” Names that have surfaced on the Republican side as possible 2010 opponents include former governor George Pataki and Congressman Peter King.

Gillibrand’s fund-raising ability may be her most powerful weapon. Although she alienated some of her Wall Street backers with her vote against the Bush bailout bill while she was in the House (Crain’s New York Business editorialized that the vote disqualified her from Senate consideration), she’s been working to address that. In March, she held a fund-raiser with Wall Street executives hosted by Bill Clinton at the Upper East Side mansion of corrugated-box millionaire Dennis Mehiel, Carl McCall’s running mate in 2002. At that event, she left no doubt that she understood what her audience expected of her. “I used to represent a rural, conservative Republican district,” Gillibrand told the crowd. “Now I represent all of New York, and I have to represent all New Yorkers. I know the difference.”

Gillibrand raised $250,000 at the event. On April 6, she reported amassing $2.3 million in the first quarter, a substantial number that’s all the more striking in the current economic climate. Maloney has not displayed the ability to raise large amounts of money during her career. She currently has $1.3 million in the bank, enough to buy roughly one week’s worth of television ads. Polls show Pataki even in a theoretical race against Gillibrand, but he has expressed no interest. King, who is not well known outside his own Long Island district, would be hard-pressed to match Gillibrand’s war chest.

Gillibrand, of course, has a clear vision of the future. As we say good-bye—she’s off to make fund-raising calls—she asks, “Did you get what you need? Did I tell you if I wasn’t a lawyer, I wanted to be a journalist? I love getting at the truth. My favorite is Greta Van Susteren.”

For a fleeting moment, a look of concern comes over Gillibrand’s face, and she touches my arm. “Is this going to be okay?”

But before I can say anything, the smile returns. Kirsten Gillibrand believes again. “This will be okay. I know it will be okay.”


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