Political Bloodlines of Kirsten Gillibrand, Senator From New York

Gov. David Paterson picks 20th District congresswoman with interesting historical ties.

By SHARE

By Michael Barone, Thomas Jefferson Street blog

Gov. David Paterson's appointment of 20th District Congresswoman Kirsten Gillibrand to the Senate is an interesting one. She has political genes: Her grandmother Polly Noonan was evidently a very close friend (presumably mistress) of Erastus Corning 2d, who was mayor of Albany from 1942 until his death in 1983. Ben Smith has something on her Albany political connections. Steve Weisman's review of a biography of Corning has more. Corning was quite a political character: great-grandson of the similarly named founder of the New York Central Railroad, son of an Albany political fixer, an ally of Daniel O'Connell, who was head of the Albany Democratic machine from the early 1919 until his death in 1977. Here, Paul Grondahl, the author of that biography, gets his readers at least thinking about the possibility that Corning was the biological father of Gillibrand's mother—and points out that Gillibrand's father was also close to Corning.

Corning and O'Connell were an odd couple. O'Connell was something of a recluse for many years; I remember reading that in the 1960 campaign, John Kennedy visited him at his home in Albany. The O'Connell machine is described most memorably in the terrific Albany novels of William Kennedy. Few if any American writers have described a small American city better than Kennedy has described Albany. Kennedy also is the source for this story about Corning: Gov. Thomas Dewey appointed a prosecutor to investigate the Albany Democratic machine. Corning as a witness was asked how much money he made in his insurance business. He said he didn't know. The prosecutor then asked him if the records of his insurance business were in the upper right hand drawer of his desk where he could have looked at them at any time. "Yes," said Corning, "I could have looked at them, but I didn't."

Will Gillibrand hold the seat in the special election in 2010? New York has rejected appointed senators a couple of times before—John Foster Dulles in 1949, Charles Goodell in 1970. But both were Republicans, and since direct election of senators came in, no Democratic senator from New York has been defeated in an election. Royal Copeland died in office in 1938, James Mead ran for governor (and lost) in 1946, Robert Wagner resigned because of ill health in 1949, Robert Kennedy was assassinated in 1968, and Daniel Patrick Moynihan did not run for re-election in 2000. Gillibrand could face a primary challenge. Her support of gun rights has apparently got Long Island Congresswoman Carolyn McCarthy talking about running, and a New York City liberal could run. The large majority of Democratic primary votes are cast in New York City. As for the Republicans' chances, I would think they are pretty dim unless Rudy Giuliani decides to run.

Ironman has a good post on the looming special election to fill Gillibrand's House seat. This should be a good opportunity for Republicans: The district voted 54 percent to 46 percent for George W. Bush in 2004, and although it's obviously significantly less Republican today, it should be within range, given the right candidate and a good campaign. If William Kennedy were a Republican (I'd bet heavily he's not), he would be a great candidate; he'd be a great candidate for the Democrats too. Whether he'd want to be a congressman I rather doubt. But he might not have to serve long. New York will lose at least one seat in redistricting following the 2010 Census, and the Democrats who control the legislature might well carve up the 20th among its neighbors.

  • Read more by Michael Barone.
  • Read more about New York Gov. David Paterson.