Rebranding Gillibrand: Can New York's Junior Senator Remain a Conservative Democrat?

Article excerpt

WHEN DEMOCRATS swept into the House in 2006, their new majority was constructed by moderates like Kirsten Gillibrand. Like many freshman Democrats that year, she campaigned against corruption--her opponent, incumbent John Sweeney, was tangled in a lobbyist scandal and his wife had filed a police report alleging abuse. Gillibrand won her upstate New York district by running to the right: she campaigned against amnesty for illegal immigrants, promised to restore fiscal responsibility to Washington, and pledged to protect gun rights. After winning by six points, she joined the conservative-leaning Blue Dog Coalition.

Gillibrand kept her word. In her first term, she voted against McCain-hatched immigration reform, assailed Bush's bailouts, and received a perfect 100 percent rating from the NRA. She crushed her Republican challenger by 24 points in 2008 and bragged that her voting record was "one of the most conservative in the state." Now, after her surprise appointment to fill Hillary Clinton's vacant Senate seat, liberals in the media, in her party, even in her expanding staff are determined to teach this Blue Dog new tricks.

In a much-noted editorial, the New York Times asked, "Can she represent a constituency beyond the narrow politics of her district, where she has been a bullet-headed opponent of gun control, proudly basking in ... extremist affections?" Columnist Maureen Dowd lamented, "So now we have an N.R.A. handmaiden in Bobby Kennedy's old seat?" Crain's called her votes against the financial services bailouts "politically expedient" and said that she "should be disqualified" from serving in office.

The attacks got personal. The Daily Beast called Gillibrand, a mother of two young children, "a bizarro version of Sarah Palin." Glenn Thrush, the left-leaning Politico writer, led a story about her appointment with the rumor that her colleagues called her "Tracy Flick," after the ambitious blonde suck-up from "Election." Joe Conason speculated in Salon that Gov. David Paterson picked Gillibrand only to boost his own falling poll numbers and described her support for "Pay As You Go" budget rules as "mindless."

Even her colleagues began to turn on her. Carolyn McCarthy, the congresswoman whose husband and son were shot by Colin Ferguson on the Long Island Railroad in 1993, said, "I don't think someone with a 100 percent NRA rating should be the next senator from New York." McCarthy vowed to run against Gillibrand in the special election of 2010 if she doesn't change her views. Jon Cooper, another Long Island legislator, has hired a public-relations firm to explore a primary run. He has criticized Gillibrand for her inconsistency on issues ranging from the Iraq War to guns and gay marriage. "I don't pander," he says, "I try to reflect the ideas of my party." Cooper could become the "history-making" alternative to Gillibrand as the first openly gay U.S. senator.

In addition, ten prominent New York Democratic legislators have signed a letter asking the state party to withhold its support from Gillibrand. June O'Neill, the NYSDC chair, told TAC, "We have always given our officials equal access to committee resources and we will continue to do the same moving forward."

Some of Gillibrand's opponents may have trouble labeling her as a flip-flopper--McCarthy is a former Republican--but their threats are putting pressure on the newly appointed senator.

In order to mollify these disgruntled Democrats, New York senator Chuck Schumer suggested that Gillibrand go on a listening tour "from Bayside to Bed-Stuy, from Tottenville to Eastchester." Referring to his differences with her on gun issues, he assured the media, "her views will evolve to reflect the whole state." The statement was particularly rich coming from Schumer, who with Rahm Emmanuel worked hard to recruit unconventional candidates like Gillibrand and then helped them build issue profiles that would win over their conservative districts. …