Senator Surprise

Article excerpt

Byline: Michelle Cottle

New York's Kirsten Gillibrand was once dismissed as an undeserving political lightweight. Now, with two big legislative wins, her star is suddenly on the rise.

As a cold, gray Saturday afternoon fades into evening, Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand--jeans, pale pink sweater, no makeup--sits tucked into a blue velvet armchair in her Capitol Hill office, trying to retain her composure as she talks through the events of the previous week. "To have something so horrific happen to someone so good and so promising," she says, blue eyes welling with tears, "it hit me very hard."

The junior senator from New York has just hung up with Mark Kelly, husband of Gabrielle Giffords, the House member shot in the head in Tucson. Gillibrand is quite close to Giffords and was among the handful of lawmakers to accompany President Obama to the memorial service for victims of the shooting. She was at her friend's bedside when the wounded congresswoman opened her eyes for the first time. Since then, at Kelly's behest, Gillibrand has been making the media rounds to help humanize "Gabby" and put a personal face on the tragedy. Meet the Press, Good Morning America, Face the Nation, The View--it's the kind of exposure an ambitious lawmaker would ordinarily revel in. But these are not ordinary circumstances, and Gillibrand looks exhausted and emotionally wrung out. Her husband, Jonathan, she says, is having an especially rough time. Asked about the shooting, he noted simply, "I worry about her every day, and I always have."

Though distraught, Gillibrand is determined not to let the tragedy change how she does her job--especially now, when things seem to be going her way. Two years after being plucked from the House to fill Hillary Clinton's Senate seat, Gillibrand finds herself experiencing A Political Moment. She is drawing raves--including from Jon Stewart--for her tireless work in passing the bill to aid September 11 first responders and in repealing the military's "don't ask, don't tell" policy. In November, she won the election to finish out Clinton's term with 62 percent of the vote. Along the way, the 44-year-old mother of two (Theo, 7, and Henry, 2) has shed 40 pounds of "baby weight," earning a glowing profile in Vogue. Phrases such as "rising star" and "up-and-comer" are being bandied about by colleagues.

But this success has not come without frustration, sweat, and a fair amount of abuse--much of it heaped on by fellow Democrats. From the beginning, Gillibrand's political climb has been marked by people underestimating or even dismissing her. Maybe it's the sweet face and blonde hair or the baby-doll voice or the blindingly sunny nature and tendency to ramble. The senator herself suspects it has much to do with being a woman in what is still overwhelmingly a man's game--a landscape she has learned to navigate. No matter: Gillibrand does not discourage easily. To the contrary, the drive to dismantle obstacles--and rout her enemies and detractors--is something she clearly thrives on.

It was perhaps inevitable that the knives would come out when New York's accidental governor, David Paterson, handed Gillibrand the prize that most of the political world had assumed would go to Caroline Kennedy. With the requisite fame, glamour, and pedigree, Kennedy seemed poised to fill the void left by Clinton's departure. Gillibrand, by contrast, was an obscure one-term House member from a conservative, rural district. "She faced prejudice not just as a woman but as an upstater," says Robert Zimmerman, a top Democratic fundraiser in New York. Gillibrand was promptly derided, first as a political nobody unprepared for the job; then, as Dems looked at her Blue Dog voting record--most provocatively her 100 percent rating from the NRA--as a right-wing yahoo unfit to represent deep-blue New York. There was much talk of liberal primary challenges. Forget any individual opponent, says Zimmerman, Gillibrand came in facing "an entire political culture that was trying to count her out. …