Politics & Poker: Gillibrand Family Has Deep Ties in Albany
Every good politician is a successful contortionist.
Newly appointed Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) is living proof of this axiom.
[IMGCAP(1)]It seems like just yesterday that Republicans were running attack ads against Gillibrand featuring the high-rise apartment building on Manhattans Upper East Side where she and her husband used to live. It was a none-too-subtle way of trying to convince upstate New York voters that Gillibrand really wasnt one of them even though she grew up around Albany and comes from a long line of political insiders there.
Now, Gillibrands critics on the left are painting her as some scary conservative from the sticks, unqualified to represent the entire state, especially the metropolis 140 miles south of her political base.
In the days since her appointment, Gillibrand has worked mightily to reach out to her foes. She says she wants to collaborate with a potential primary challenger, Rep. Carolyn McCarthy (D), on gun safety legislation without interfering with hunters rights. She says shes looking for common ground with Latino leaders who dont like her hard line on illegal immigration even though shes still pretty enthusiastic about making English the official language of the United States.
Gillibrand presents herself as the girl next door. Congressional colleagues are just as likely to describe her as a barracuda.
Paul Grondahl watches Gillibrand and sees her political bloodlines at work.
She knows how to play both sides, he muses.
Grondahl, a features writer at the Albany Times Union, is the biographer of Erastus Corning 2nd, the sturdy patrician who served as mayor of Albany from 1941 to 1983 and helped preside over a fearsome Democratic machine. Gillibrands grandmother, Dorothea Polly Noonan, was at Cornings side from the time that he was elected to the state Senate in 1937 until he died, first as his secretary, then as his friend and political lieutenant and maybe more.
Gillibrands parents, Penny Noonan Rutnik and Doug Rutnik, were also cogs in the Albany machine, and he remains a plugged-in statehouse lobbyist to this day.
Gillibrand calls her grandmother her role model, and certainly there is a heroic tale to tell there. Polly Noonan is invariably described as an earthy, savvy political operator with a heart of gold, a friend to the disenfranchised, able to
mobilize a vast network on behalf of favored candidates and causes. Late in life, Noonan became a certified counselor for alcoholics.
Gillibrand learned well at the feet of the master, says New York state Assemblyman John McEneny (D), a historian of Albany politics and, in another sign that in Albany there arent six degrees of separation but one or two, the father of Gillibrands communications director, Rachel McEneny. The grandmother was a very loving grandmother. She took those kids everywhere.
But Albany, like most state capitals, has an anything goes mentality that Gillibrand no doubt also absorbed. As an illustration, state legislators from New York City refer to something called the Bear Mountain Compact. The rules of the compact: Anything that happens north of Bear Mountain, a state park roughly 50 miles away from the city, doesnt get discussed south of Bear Mountain.
Through the years, Gillibrands family has been part of the gossip. First and foremost: Were Polly Noonan and Corning longtime lovers?
Its an unusual, complicated, mythic relationship, Grondahl says. People keep bringing it up because its never been resolved.
What is known is that most nights, after making his political rounds, Corning would appear at the Noonan home and sit with Noonan and her family (including her husband); the mayor was Penny Rutniks godfather.
Corning operated the most successful insurance business in Albany, a firm that feasted off of government contracts. When he died, he left the majority of the business not to his own children, but to Noonans.
Gillibrands parents ran their own law firm, Rutnik & Rutnik, that prospered from their political associations. Penny Rutnik later became an attorney with the city of Albany, and Doug Rutnik became a top- earning statehouse lobbyist.
But Doug Rutniks ticket to lobbying fortune surprised his fellow foot solidiers in the citys Democratic organization: After Corning died, Rutnik became friendly with a number of influential Republicans, including then-Sen. Al DAmato, then-Gov. George Pataki and Joe Bruno, who until last year was the longtime Majority Leader of the state Senate. DAmato and Rutnik even double-dated, the Village Voice recently reported.
Rutnik, after separating from Gillibrands mother, was romantically involved for several years with Zenia Mucha, a top aide to DAmato and Pataki who eventually fled the fantasyland of New York politics for a corporate position with the Walt Disney Co.
Rutnik also, according to the Voice, is in real estate partnerships with Bruno who was indicted last month on public corruption charges, raising the question of whether Rutnik could also be in legal jeopardy.
The familys bipartisan ties served Gillibrand well. They helped her land internships in DAmatos Senate office when she was in college and then a job after law school working with Andrew Cuomo, the son of former Gov. Mario Cuomo, when he was secretary of the Department of Housing and Urban Development. (Corning was an early and influential supporter of Mario Cuomo when he was involved in his epic 1982 Democratic primary battle for governor with Ed Koch, and as governor, Mario Cuomo helped make Polly Noonan vice chairwoman of the state Democratic Party.)
Later, as a lawyer in New York City working for the firm that represented Al Gore during the 2000 Florida recount, Gillibrand connected on her own with other top New York Democrats, like Sen. Charles Schumer and then-Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton.
Today, some improbable people are basking in Gillibrands reflected power and glory.
DAmato was at Gillibrands side in Albany 10 days ago when New York Gov. David Paterson (D) announced that she was his pick to succeed Clinton in the Senate. In recent days, New York media have focused on DAmatos significant campaign contributions to Paterson, and a New York Times columnist speculated Sunday that DAmato is bankrolling Paterson because he hates the Republicans dream 2010 candidate for governor: former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani.
Giuliani and DAmato have had an on-again, off-again relationship for decades, to be sure. But thats probably not whats fueling DAmatos contributions to Paterson. DAmato is no longer a Republican leader hes a lobbyist, with offices in New York City, Albany, Long Island, Buffalo and Washington, D.C. Thus he is the ultimate contortionist.
Last week, when Latino state legislators held a news conference in Albany to blast Gillibrands record on immigration, a former colleague named Roberto Ramirez helped them put it together. Two days later, Gillibrand hired Ramirez, a former chairman of the Bronx Democratic Party who runs his own political consulting firm, to work for her Senate campaign.
Which only goes to show that some New York political players arent just contortionists but a word that rhymes with it as well.