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Rebranding Gillibrand

Can New York’s junior senator remain a conservative Democrat?

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.

But Schumer’s prediction seems prophetic. At first, Gillibrand told reporters that she kept two rifles under her bed. By the next morning, downstate papers were teasing her, so she called the media again to say that, for security reasons and because of her young children, she had locked the rifles away. Within a month of her listening tour, she signed a letter to Attorney General Eric Holder asking for a repeal of the NRA-backed Tiahrt amendments, which prohibit the government from sharing information from its firearms trace database with anyone except law enforcement or prosecutors pursuing criminal investigations. A year earlier, she had sought to make the amendments permanent.

She has even accepted Schumer’s rationale that her position on gun rights is geographically determined. “In some of the downstate communities these [gun control issues] are top priorities. I didn’t have any big towns in upstate New York, ” she said.

And guns are not the only issue on which Gillibrand is proving flexible. As a congresswoman, her proposed solution to the immigration crisis was simple: more border guards and fences, no amnesty or path to citizenship for illegals. Americans for Better Immigration, a restrictionist group that pushes for tighter immigration enforcement and a reduction in immigration, gave Gillibrand’s congressional record a “B” grade, which made her their 22nd-best Democratic legislator in the country.

Chung-Wha Hong, executive director of New York’s Immigration Coalition, met Gillibrand’s appointment to the Senate with a terse press release saying her “positions on immigration … are deeply troubling” and that she “must reconsider her positions.” Theodore Ruthizer, a New York immigration lawyer and past president and general counsel of the American Immigration Lawyers Association, told the Times, “I think she needs to be educated, frankly.” It was a lesson Gillibrand seemed willing to learn.

She met with over a dozen Hispanic elected officials in late January and pledged to support the DREAM Act, which helps illegal-immigrant high school students obtain legal status. Though she spoke favorably of path-to-citizenship measures, she stopped short of calling for a halt to large-scale immigration raids. El Diario, which had lambasted her as “anti-imigrante” weeks earlier, reported that after the meeting she “changed her tune.”

But even the more evolved Gillibrand may not satisfy her critics. McCarthy has promised “to hold her feet to the fire” on guns. New York Assemblyman Peter Rivera, who had described Gillibrand as “xenophobic,” said after meeting her, “It’s too early to know whether this is going to have a long-term effect.” And the New York Times, noting her quick switch from supporting civil unions to endorsing full gay marriage, was still cold to her, editorializing, “There’s flexibility, and then there is rootlessness.”

Watching Gillibrand’s initial stumbles, Republicans sense an opportunity. A spokesman for the National Republican Senatorial Committee (NRSC) said that Gillibrand’s selection “has angered the left wing and created a real schism in the Democrat Party.” Peter King, the media-savvy Republican who represents a heavily Democratic district in Long Island, is exploring whether he can put together enough money to compete with Gillibrand’s formidable fundraisers. Sen. John Cornyn, who heads the NRSC, has already met with former New York governor George Pataki. Though initial reports indicated that Pataki had little desire for a return to public life, a source close to the governor says that his interest has increased. A Siena College poll released March 23 had the former governor and the new senator tied at 41 percent. Rudy Giuliani has also been discussed as a potential challenger to Paterson or Gillibrand.

To stop the political fallout, Gillibrand has picked up the mantle Hillary Clinton left behind. She retained most of Clinton’s New York staff to capitalize on their relationships with constituencies she has offended. She is also taking pointers from Howard Wolfson, a top adviser from Clinton’s presidential run. Both Schumer and Bill Clinton have appeared at Gillibrand fundraisers, and Ellen Chesler, a long-time Clinton friend, has organized meetings for Gillibrand with progressive media figures. Chesler said, “I think she just has to now present herself as the very serious, very well-informed, very progressive candidate that she is.” This endorsement comes only two months after Gillibrand described her own record as “one of the most conservative” in the Empire State.

In the next two years, Kirsten Gillibrand’s career will test the viability of the Blue Dog project. Unlike her conservative Democratic Senate colleagues Jon Tester and Jim Webb, Gillibrand will face an election in 2010, and her first challenge will be to her left. If she continues to rebrand herself as a progressive, or loses to a challenger like McCarthy, the political class will conclude that conservative Democrats can only thrive in red states. The Democratic caucus will become more obedient to its liberal base and less diverse.

But if the recent modifications to Gillibrand’s conservative views are only tactical and temporary, she will still be to the right of her Republican opponents on almost all issues but gay marriage. The only turf her potential GOP rivals have is their support for Bush’s foreign-policy legacy—not a winner in New York. She has the fundraising apparatus and the independent record to become a national political figure. And her success would encourage Democrats to consolidate their power by ignoring the demands of far-Left interest groups and running to the center.

Gillibrand’s rise has been bad news for Republicans since she made her debut in 2006. And she will continue to thwart the GOP from the Senate—as long as Democrats don’t give her a progressive makeover.  

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