Like an actress auditioning for the role of a lifetime, Kirsten Gillibrand deftly elbowed aside her competition. Among the marquee names who wanted to be the junior U.S. senator from New York: Caroline Kennedy, who dropped out, and Andrew Cuomo, who didn't make the cut.
It was the 42-year-old sophomore in the House of Representatives who landed the job. Now, three weeks after Gov. David Paterson gave her the nod in a 2 a.m. phone call, a truth emerges about life as the anointed successor to Sen. Hillary Clinton: One man selects, but millions elect.
Thus, the woman who served 754 days as a Democrat in the House representing a Republican enclave finds herself auditioning across the Empire State, 19 million strong—not least in New York City, where there is no shortage of opinion, most of it high decibel. Already Gillibrand, 99th in seniority, has gotten an earful as she touts conservative positions on fiscal issues and liberal views on social ones. Newsday took aim at her "short but troubling" voting record on gun control and immigration. A House Democrat slammed her as a "poster child for the NRA." A New York Times writer said Gillibrand's positions are evolving "at a rate previously seen only in science-fiction movies."
What does Gillibrand think of her reception from New Yorkers? "I think it's fine," she says from the Capitol, adding: "It's going to take time. They don't know me. They didn't elect me. They haven't voted for me. I haven't had the chance to campaign. I haven't had the chance to serve them. I have confidence that when they do get to know me, they will know I'm going to put them first and put their priorities first and really fight for them every day."
Today one of her battles is with a stubborn cough. Another is with the clock, made clear by an aide bent on keeping her on schedule. Gillibrand keeps talking, answering questions about the economic stimulus, legislation, constituents, her British husband (a venture capitalist), their two young sons, and what she's reading (Three Cups of Tea). She is poised, unfailingly polite, and never off the record.
On being appointed: "I was extremely grateful and very excited. Also surprised."
On how she sold herself: "As a congresswoman, I had a very successful constituent-services operation. And I had been able to develop a level of trust and accountability in my district, which was so strong I won re-election by a 24 percent margin."
On her priority: "To create jobs."
On what she calls "Congress at Your Corner": "I'd go to grocery stores, bookshops, coffee shops, senior centers, florists . . . for an hour or two and just meet constituents, talk to them about their issues, and open case files if they needed help."
On her philosophy: "God puts us on this Earth for a reason, and he gives us certain talents, and it's certainly my goal to use those talents in a way that helps the most people I can."
On her command of Mandarin Chinese, which she once spoke and read: "Bu hao," she says, for "not good."
Born in Albany to two lawyers, Gillibrand later saw her parents divorce and her father, long a public defender, turn to lobbying. She attended the same prep school as Jane Fonda. At Dartmouth, she majored in Asian studies, picked up awards in English and physics, and was captain of the squash team, graduating magna cum laude. Her law degree is from UCLA, and her specialty, securities law, saw her earnings reach $509,269 in 2005, before her first campaign. She was a partner at the firm led by David Boies, Al Gore's attorney in the 2000 recount.
Gillibrand just released three years of tax returns, so such details (as with the $970 the couple gave to charity in 2005) are public. She is a fan of transparency and social networking. Her Facebook page brims with 2,343 supporters. The long questionnaire she filled out for Paterson, as he considered people for the appointment, is on her campaign website. In the House, she even posted the names of groups asking her for earmarks.
Her interest in politics was fueled by her late grandmother, a Democratic activist in Albany. By age 10, Gillibrand was doing grunt work in the local mayor's race. Years later, she was raising campaign dollars for the likes of Bill and Hillary Clinton and John Kerry. Ties to top Democrats and major donors helped fatten her own war chest. Gillibrand took in nearly $5 million, an impressive sum, for her last House race, a number dwarfed by the $20 million to $30 million she'll need for re-election to the Senate. To keep the seat, she has to run in 2010 (for the rest of Clinton's term) and again in 2012.
Hence, she's busy, auditioning from Buffalo to all points east. Monday, she gave her first major address as a senator to nearly 500 gathered at the Hilton New York. The host was the Association for a Better New York, and the reviews largely favorable, not unexpectedly as people paid $65 for a breakfast of scrambled eggs and bacon and the chance to hear her.
On hand was New York University's Mitchell Moss, a professor of urban policy, who says she's an attractive candidate for statewide office as a female, moderate, and Roman Catholic fundraising dynamo. But he thinks her debut speech was too short on vision and too long on a pet issue: agriculture. Perhaps his big-city bias is showing, but she struck him as an "apple knocker," the farmhand who shakes apples from trees, leaving others to put them into bushels. Now the former Manhattan attorney needs to woo voters in greater New York City, home to a large chunk of Democratic primary voters. "She's gotta go from being an apple knocker," he quips, "to being an advocate for the Big Apple."
Democratic political consultant William Cunningham was there, too, rating her performance an A minus. "Everyone is going to give her the opportunity to show us what she can do," he says. "Most New Yorkers think, 'Look, you got the job. Now run with it.'"
For the nation's newest senator—and its youngest—the show has just begun.