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The Reintroduction of Kirsten Gillibrand

After a shaky first hundred days, the junior senator from New York is trying to start over.

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Kirsten Gillibrand shuttling between meetings in New York in April.  

The shuttle that transports senators from the Capitol to their offices shimmies a bit, like a kiddie roller coaster. Kirsten Gillibrand, new to the ride, holds on to her seat very tightly as the train clatters to a stop. Gillibrand is already into hour six of her day, and it’s barely noon. She drove her 1-year-old son, Henry, to day care, clutching a bottle of breast milk she had pumped earlier. She then banged out “Old MacDonald Had a Farm” on a Fisher-Price keyboard. Henry didn’t want her to go (“It’s okay, Bunny, I’ll see you tonight”). There was a short drive to a breakfast held by the gay lobbyist group the Human Rights Campaign (“Who wrote these remarks? They’re not very good”), then a series of discourses on the special bond she feels with gay people (“I was a 34-year-old woman lawyer working twelve hours a day in New York City. All the men in the firm were married. My only friends were gay men”), why door-to-door campaigning is easy for her (“I was the No. 1 Girl Scout–cookie seller as a girl! I’d go into any neighborhood!”), and what she thought of Maureen Dowd’s labeling her Tracy Flick and calling her sharp-elbowed (“I think I have nice elbows”). We get off the train, and Gillibrand strides ahead in sensible black flats (“You would never write about Chuck Schumer’s shoes, but it’s okay. People want to know these things”).

Kirsten Gillibrand is working hard to reintroduce herself to her constituents. Her first hundred days were marred by policy flip-flops, threats from political rivals, and images of her as a fighter for Big Tobacco who happened to keep two guns under her bed. So she is giving it another go. “My parents and my husband have been worried about the coverage,” says Gillibrand. “I told them, ‘Give me six months, and I will make it better.’ People meet me, they like me. I work hard.”

New York is not a particularly civil town, especially when it comes to politics. And Gillibrand started dodging insults even before she was sworn in. Her former colleague in the New York congressional delegation Carolyn McCarthy called her appointment “totally unacceptable.” Another New York representative described her selection as “mind-numbing.” And yet many of the traits that Gillibrand’s foes use to attack her are the same traits that make her likely to hold her Senate seat in 2010. Sure, she is pushy, in a Tracy Flick sort of way. Yes, she has shown all the ideological purity of the McCain campaign. And absolutely, she is cozy with Republicans—Al D’Amato stood next to her at her appointment-announcement press conference.

But while everyone was mocking and plotting, Gillibrand raised $2.3 million in less than 90 days during an economic meltdown. She’s got the Clintons on her side. Chuck Schumer has embraced her. She has received the support of the twelve other Democratic women senators. Last month, President Obama made a call and talked potential Democratic primary opponent Steve Israel out of challenging her. Even Caroline Kennedy’s cousin, Robert F. Kennedy Jr., has been kind to her in public.

Gillibrand is a fan of J.R.R. Tolkien’s “Lord of the Rings” books, and her life has had a similar the-quest-is-all momentum. She is practical and not inclined toward introspection, helpful qualities when you are trying to morph from an upstate congressional representative who supported building a bigger fence along the Mexican border and achieved a 100 percent NRA rating to a United States senator in need of statewide votes who is now an immigration advocate who decried gun violence the week of the mass shooting in Binghamton. Gillibrand is the scion of a local political family determined to make the last difficult leap from the merely well connected to the power elite, and she appears to be succeeding.

I heard a common refrain from her colleagues. They see Gillibrand as a young woman in a hurry whose aggressiveness seems almost gauche, even for a politician. Yet her upstate roots and young children give her an Everymom image that middle-class voters love. And her drive has its benefits. “She is working or thinking about things she needs to do every moment that she is awake,” says Elaine Bartley, her longtime best friend. “The rest of her friends, we’re trying to get thank-you notes out a month after our kid’s birthday party, and she’s getting them out the next day.”

Her lack of polish can cause opponents to dismiss her as a country bumpkin who is in over her head. But her folksiness comes with a sharp edge. She learned how to play hardball from her grandmother, a legendary political force in Albany. She has the work ethic of someone who spent tens of thousands of hours of her youth on mind-numbing legal work. And she is a canny collector of political friends. “She has a single-mindedness about where she wants to go,” says a Democratic activist who knows her well. “She wouldn’t throw her mother under a train, but she’d run you over with a train if you got in her way.”


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