After a big political flap, New York gets its new U.S. senator

U.S. Rep. Kirsten Gillibrand, who's relatively conservative, is named to take the seat vacated by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton

Mike Groll/AP
New York Governor David Paterson introduces Kirsten Gillibrand, the state's new US Senator, in Albany Friday.

Her nickname as an up and coming New York Congresswoman was: “Little Hillary.”

But her title will soon be United States Senator.

Kirsten Gillibrand a young, blond, moderate Democrat from Upstate New York will succeed now Secretary of State Hillary Clinton as New York State’s junior senator.

Governor David Paterson made the announcement at noon today.

“I have found the best candidate to be the next United States Senator from New York,” said Governor Paterson at a press conference in Albany. “Kirsten Gillibrand is dynamic, she is perceptive, she is courageous, she is outspoken.”

Congresswoman Gillibrand (D) is a relative unknown who has just begun her second term, a Blue Dog Democrat representing the conservative 20th District in the Hudson Valley. She meets two of the key qualifications Paterson set for his choice: she’s a woman and she’s from Upstate. That’s expected to help the downstate governor when he runs for election in 2010 on the same ticket. The choice, though, rankled some older political hands who’d hoped for the seat and some liberals concerned about her pro-gun stance, but it’s being praised overall.

“It’s an inspired appointment. She’s a fighter, she’s a hard worker and she understands the problems of upstate New York to the core,” says Helen Desfosses, a political scientist at the State University of New York at Albany. “And she’ll be able to win election in her own right in two years because she’s had to fight to win her seat and for re-election just a few months ago.”

Democratic infighting

Patterson’s announcement came after a politically tumultuous month set off by the surprise announcement from intensely private Caroline Kennedy that she wanted the senate seat once been held by her uncle Robert Kennedy. As a close friend of President Obama who supported the idea, it sparked dreams of another New York Camelot. But they were short-lived. After an awkward political roll-out, Ms. Kennedy’s quest ended in a one-line statement that she was withdrawing her nomination for personal reasons. That was followed by a day of sniping in the press between unnamed aides to Paterson and Kennedy. In all, New York pundits say, it didn’t reflect well on Paterson’s handling of the entire appointment process.

“The process was very, very messy, and Governor Paterson has clearly done some damage, at least in the short-term, and possibly the long-term,” says New York pollster Lee Miringoff. “He clearly has, at least minimally, annoyed such political names as Kennedy, Cuomo, and Obama, which, as an unelected governor you probably do at some peril.”

New York Attorney General Andrew Cuomo was also said to have been interested in the appointment, but he never vied for it publicly. And Gillibrand has close ties to the Attorney General. When he was Secretary of Housing and Urban Developing during the Clinton administration, Gillibrand was his Special Counsel. That’s led some analysts to contend the damage to Paterson may be overplayed.

“Everybody’s saying ‘Paterson was indecisive,’ but I don’t think he had a choice,” says New York political analyst Maurice Carroll. “If he wanted to appoint Kennedy he should have done it right away, but if he had any questions he had to wait. You can’t just summarily dismiss a Kennedy. As long as her candidacy was in play, he had to pay attention to it.”

In choosing Gillibrand, Paterson insisted that his decision was not based on “on gender, geographical location, race or religion” but on who was the best candidate. While she is a relatively unknown in much of the state, she has a reputation as a “Giant Killer” in Democratic political circles. In 2006 she ran against a four-term Republican incumbent in one of the most Republican districts in the state and won. She was re-elected in November garnering more than 62 percent of the vote.

“To win twice in the most Republican district in the state is no small feat,” says New York Senator Charles Schumer. “She has a reputation as a go-to person, if you want to get something done in her district, you go to Kirsten Gillibrand and she will get it done.”

A political family

Politics also runs in Gillibrand’s family. Her grandmother was Polly Noonan, a well known upstate powerbroker. Both of her parents are lawyers involved in local politics. In accepting her appointment, she called it an “incredible honor” but also said she recognized that most New Yorkers don’t even know her name.

“Over these next two years, you will get to know me, and much more importantly, I’ll get to know you,” she says. “As I represented the needs and priorities of the 20th District, I will represent the many diverse views of the entire state as your Senator.”

That was a nod to concerns that have already been aired by some downstate politicians about her pro-gun stance and other conservative views. Two more experienced politicians have already said they plan on challenging her when she has to run for the seat in 2010. One is Rep. Caroline McCarthy (D) of Long Island, an ardent gun control advocate whose husband was killed in 1993 by a gunman on the Long Island Railroad in 1993.

“The fact that there’s already a threatened primary suggests there are wounds here, and there’s a bigger picture,” says John Zogby, president of Zogby International, a polling firm in Utica, New York. “At a time when David Paterson least needs any of this, he’s going to get a big dose of New York Democratic Party politics.”

New York is almost two states in outlook

That could mean fierce infighting. The Democratic Party in New York has a long history of highly contentious primaries that tend not to serve it well. There are Upstate/Downstate resentments dating back to Colonial days as well as a modern day progressive wing which is often at odds with more moderate centrists.

If Patterson was hoping the choice of Gillibrand would bring the party together and make it easier for the Democrats to hold onto Clinton’s seat, he could be disappointed. But analysts say, much of that will depend on how Gillibrand handles herself as the new Junior Senator.

“The bottom line in six months is whether we’re saying that was a great pick, a stroke of genius, or a disaster,” says pollster Miringoff.

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