Gillibrand Appointed to Succeed Clinton

Posted January 23, 2009 at 12:31pm

Updated: 2:08 p.m.

The rocket-like political ascent of Rep. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) entered a new stratosphere Friday, as New York Gov. David Paterson (D) tapped the second-term Congresswoman to replace Hillary Rodham Clinton (D) in the Senate.

Paterson’s appointment of Gillibrand brings to a close a two-month-long soap opera that began as soon as Clinton was nominated to be secretary of State and featured some of the most storied names in Democratic politics. But the political drama isn’t completely over: Gillibrand could face tough competition in both the Democratic primary and general election in 2010, and the special election to fill her upstate House seat offers Republicans a major pickup opportunity.

Paterson, who must run for a full term next year after assuming the state’s top job following a sex scandal involving his predecessor, has chosen to tie his political fate to Gillibrand, even though he could have named far more senior and better known politicians to fill the Senate vacancy. At age 42, Gillibrand will be the youngest Senator.

At a midday news conference in Albany, surrounded by several elected officials, the governor said he selected Gillibrand because of her personal qualities and record in Congress, not for political considerations.

“I have found the best candidate to become the next U.S. Senator from New York,” Paterson said.

Gillibrand, a lawyer who ousted a scandal-plagued Republican in 2006, was both humble and enthusiastic at the announcement, calling the appointment “an incredible honor.”

But her elation may be short-lived. Some liberal groups are less than enthralled with Gillibrand, and at least a few of her more experienced Congressional colleagues — some of whom angled for the Senate appointment themselves — are plainly jealous.

Earlier this week, a pro-gun-control group denounced the prospect of a Gillibrand appointment because of her support from the National Rifle Association.

Rep. Carolyn McCarthy (D-N.Y.), who has made gun control her signature issue in Congress, said Friday she would challenge Gillibrand in a Democratic primary next year. In an article published Thursday, an influential writer with the liberal Village Voice newspaper questioned Gillibrand’s Democratic bona fides and outlined her ties to prominent state Republican leaders.

Those ties could become embarrassing very quickly: Former state Senate Majority Leader Joe Bruno (R) was indicted Friday on public corruption charges. Bruno, according to the Voice, has had business partnerships with Gillibrand’s father, Douglas Rutnik, a statehouse lobbyist in Albany.

At the announcement Friday, Gillibrand was quick to say that she looked forward to working with McCarthy on some gun legislation. And at least one powerful national liberal group, EMILY’s List, signaled that it is willing to fight for Gillibrand next year.

“In Congress, Gillibrand has been a leader for women and families, fighting for progressive policies such as equal pay and expanded health care for children,” EMILY’s List President Ellen Malcolm said in a statement.

Even if Gillibrand is able to side-step a tough Democratic primary next year, Republicans appear poised to make a real run at the Senate seat, even though they are currently shut out of all statewide offices in New York and last won a Senate race there in 1992.

Rep. Peter King (R-N.Y.), who has expressed interest in running for Senate in 2010, said in an interview Friday that he would likely make a final decision during the summer.

“Obviously, Kirsten has qualifications” to serve in the Senate, King said. “She is entitled, as Barack Obama is entitled, to get her feet on the ground.”

Regardless of which challengers emerge, Gillibrand will need to move around the state quickly to introduce herself to voters.

“She’s going to have a lot of work to do in the [New York City] media market over the next year to build up her name recognition and image,” said Tom Jensen, communications director of Public Policy Polling, a North Carolina-based Democratic firm that has queried New York voters about the Senate vacancy in recent weeks. “It’ll largely come down to how well she can mend any fences within the party that need mending after this appointment process, and how much positive visibility she can achieve in this first year as a Senator.”

Gillibrand acknowledged her low statewide profile at the Albany presser and vowed to work to build it in the months ahead.

“Over the next two years, you will get to know me, and much more importantly, I’ll get to know you,” she said.

Gillibrand brings several assets to a statewide race. She is personable and energetic and has a picture-perfect young family. She has also proven to be a solid fundraiser — though whether she will be able to raise the tens of millions of dollars she will undoubtedly need for a statewide run remains to be seen. She spent almost $2.6 million to upset then-Rep. John Sweeney (R) in 2006, and spent at least $4.4 million to turn away a free-spending millionaire challenger last year.

Gillibrand is close to Clinton and appears to have the enthusiastic support of the state’s senior Senator, Charles Schumer (D), who will also be on the ballot in 2010. And as a politically centrist woman from upstate New York, Gillibrand brings balance to a statewide Democratic ticket that will be dominated by liberal men from New York City and its environs.

Still, the Gillibrand selection carries several risks for Paterson, who struggled to keep his political equilibrium as the drama surrounding the Senate vacancy unfolded.

For weeks, Caroline Kennedy (D), the daughter of President John F. Kennedy, appeared to be the favorite for the appointment. But she had a rocky political debut as she moved around the state wooing political leaders, and she abruptly withdrew her name from consideration early Thursday for reasons that remain a mystery.

Paterson also gave careful consideration to naming state Attorney General Andrew Cuomo (D), a sometime rival to the governor who was the first choice of New Yorkers in recent polls about who might replace Clinton. Cuomo’s chances may have been dashed when Paterson and state legislative leaders could not agree on who would replace Cuomo as attorney general — a decision that would have rested with the Legislature.

By naming Gillibrand, Paterson also by-passed at least a quartet of her Congressional colleagues who were angling for the appointment: Democratic Reps. Brian Higgins, Steve Israel, Carolyn Maloney and Jerrold Nadler.

So during this appointment process, Paterson has risked the enmity of at least some of the Congressional delegation; the Clintons, who were not wild about the prospect of Kennedy going to the Senate; President Barack Obama and Senate leaders, who were said to be promoting Kennedy’s candidacy; the Kennedy family; and the Cuomos.

Gillibrand was quick to praise her Congressional colleagues who were bypassed for the Senate appointment, though all four were visibly absent from the announcement.

Several current and former New York Members were present, however, including Schumer, Democratic Reps. Gary Ackerman, Michael Arcuri, John Hall, Nita Lowey, Dan Maffei, Gregory Meeks and Paul Tonko, former Rep. Mike McNulty (D), and former Sen. Al D’Amato (R), another friend of Gillibrand’s father.

Meanwhile, a special election to replace Gillibrand in the House is expected to be scheduled for the early spring, and Republicans are optimistic about retaking the 20th district seat. Republicans hold a 70,000-voter edge in party enrollment in the district.

Two prominent Republicans immediately jumped in the race Friday: state Sen. Betty Little and state Assembly Minority Leader James Tedisco. Other Republicans eyeing the race are former Assembly Minority Leader John Faso and former state GOP Chairman Sandy Treadwell, who took 38 percent of the vote against Gillibrand last year after spending more than $6 million of his own money.

On the Democratic side, Carol Schrager, a Greene County attorney who worked for Gillibrand’s campaign and raised money for Hillary Clinton, announced her candidacy Friday. Also mentioned are Larry Bulman, a union official who doubles as Saratoga County Democratic chairman; Coxsackie Town Supervisor Alex Betke; and Mike Richter, a former New York Rangers goalie whose primary residence is in Connecticut but who owns a vacation home in the Adirondacks.

The Democratic and Republican nominees for the special election will be chosen by county party chairmen, who have weighted votes based on the party enrollments in their counties — and there are 10 counties in the 20th district.

The state chairmen of the minor political parties in New York — who can cross-endorse major party candidates if they choose to — decide who their nominees will be.

Even if Republicans recapture the seat, Democrats would hold a 25-4 advantage in the state’s Congressional delegation. And several Democrats have already said that if a Republican wins the special election, the 20th district could be dismantled during the next round of redistricting, when New York is expected to lose one or two House seats following the 2010 Census.