Kirsten Gillibrand kind of knows everyone in politics. Just ask her.
“What makes me so successful is that I’ve developed so many relationships,” she said in a phone interview on Jan. 27, hours after being sworn in as a U.S. senator, as she walked to the Senate floor to cast her first vote. “Because I did fund-raising and organizing in New York for 10 years before I ever ran for office, I developed so many great relationships with all the people that care about elective politics. From the public servants to the donors to the community organizers.
“These were all the relationships I called upon when I decided to run,” she continued. “When I did my first poll I asked Hillary Clinton to review it. I asked Andrew Cuomo to review it. I asked Eliot Spitzer to review it. These are all people that I had worked with helping them to get elected, working on their causes, so they all had become friends through my 10 years of organizing in New York.”
Ms. Gillibrand, who replaces Hillary Clinton as New York’s junior senator, has been portrayed, alternately, as an apple-fed upstate yokel and a grasping Tracy Flick.
Both ideas underestimate her.
She is a leviathan—a Schumer-esque fund-raising monster with a political pedigree; a careerist overachiever who has studiously cultivated ties to a surprising number of the most powerful Democrats in the state and the country; a fearsome campaigner who, despite her wholesome appearance, is comfortable in the mud.
Ms. Gillibrand is the pure, unadulterated political creature that a state like New York demands. And now that she is a senator, it seems impossible—naïve, even—to picture her as anything else.
“Like Schumer, her eye has been on that prize for a long, long time,” said Jonathan Schiller, a founding partner of Boies, Schiller & Flexner LLP, where Ms. Gillibrand worked as a partner early in the decade. “She is no hayseed, she is no newcomer, she’s no shy, reclusive country girl. She is someone who grew up in a political family.”
Her wont to travel in elite circles isn’t news to the political cognoscenti.
Last year, Anthony Weiner thought he had scored as the only member of Congress to make it into an exclusive Hillary Clinton event with New York’s top fund-raisers and power brokers at the Museum of Modern Art.
That is, until he looked around the room and noticed that a junior colleague, Representative Kirsten Gillibrand from the yonder Hudson Valley, was already there, going from one bigwig to the next collecting business cards, shaking hands and extracting campaign contributions.
“She’s working the tables,” he recalled. “She’s shmoozing. It was chutzpah, but you’ve got to admire it. She represents Hudson. It’s not like she happened to be at the bar at the Modern. And even more interesting, from my perspective, is that she seemed to know a lot of those people already.”
Ms. Gillibrand is clearly resented by some of her former House colleagues (though not, Mr. Weiner made clear, by Mr. Weiner). She probably doesn’t much care.
Born into an elite Albany political clan—she is the daughter of an influential lobbyist with Republican ties and the granddaughter of a close aide to Erastus Corning, the longtime mayor of Albany—the 42-year-old has nurtured deep Clinton ties and Cuomo connections. She is the pick of the Patersons and a favorite of Rahm Emanuel.
Howard Wolfson, Mrs. Clinton’s communications director and now a key aide to Mayor Michael Bloomberg, acted as media guru for her 2006 campaign. Her longtime pollster is Jefrey Pollock, of Global Strategy Group, which represents the governor and Mr. Cuomo. She counts as friends the city’s top lawyers and fund-raisers.
“From very early on, she would say that the family was from upstate and that she would one day go home and run for Congress,” said Ann Lewis, a close aide to Mrs. Clinton who first met Mrs. Gillibrand in 1999. “I think her family was better connected than I knew.”
She went to college at Dartmouth, studied in China, interned in Austria and then came home and worked at a prestigious law firm. Later, she worked as a special counsel to Andrew Cuomo when he served in the Clinton administration as secretary of Housing and Urban Development.
Even after she went back into the private sector to work as a lawyer at a white-shoe firm, the public sector was never far from her mind.
Mr. Schiller said that “throughout the time she worked here, and closely with me on complex federal litigation, she was in touch with Hillary Clinton, she was in touch with the Democratic Party. She never stopped thinking about and planning her career.”
“This was when email was emerging as a political tool, and she was very organized, always hosting meetings, and storing information about events that were going on around the country,” said Ryan Karben, a former assemblyman who worked across Lexington Avenue at Simpson Thacher and Bartlett when Ms. Gillibrand worked at Davis Polk Wardwell in 2001 and 2002. “She clearly had great political organizational skills.”
“She was one of the early volunteers for Hillary and was one of the original volunteers of women for Hillary,” Ms. Lewis said. (Karen Persichilli Keogh, Clinton’s former state director, is already advising the new senator, and Ms. Lewis said she would gladly help, too, if asked.)
And Ms. Gillibrand, running in a race in 2006 that nearly no one expected her to win, was a much more vicious campaigner than anyone knew. She savaged Republican incumbent John Sweeney–once again, in a style eerily reminiscent of Chuck Schumer, who dismantled incumbent (and onetime Gillibrand mentor) Al D’Amato in 1998.
“Early on you could see that she was a tough cookie,” said Jen Psaki, who worked on the Gillibrand race in 2006 for the DCCC.
Ms. Psaki, now a deputy press secretary in the Obama administration, recalled that Ms. Gillibrand essentially forced the race onto the DCCC’s radar, and that she became a favorite of the psychotically aggressive DCCC chair Mr. Emanuel, who is now Barack Obama’s chief of staff.
According to another Democratic aide who worked on the campaign, when Mr. Sweeney demanded that Ms. Gillibrand release her tax returns to demonstrate whether she paid New York City residency fees—a tactic intended to frame her as a rich, Brit-marrying cosmopolitan elitist—she demanded that Mr. Sweeney release his police records. According to the aide, the campaign knew Mr. Sweeney had several arrests to his name dating back to the ’70s, including an episode in which wine, Mr. Sweeney’s car and an electric pole combined to leave several people stranded on a ski lift. She never released her tax returns, and with the help of Mr. Sweeney’s subsequent run-ins with the law, won the race by a healthy margin.
Once in the House, her votes on gun, immigration and gay issues frustrated many of her Democratic colleagues. But even more infuriating to some members, including Nancy Pelosi, was her attempt to jump ahead of more senior members to fill a vacant seat on the House Ways and Means Committee.
But even colleagues who disagree with her policies can’t help but marvel at her political acumen.
“As a freshman, to come in and be put on the Steering and Policy Committee, that’s huge,” said Yvette Clarke, who came into the House with Ms. Gillibrand in the 110th Congress.
When asked how that happened, Ms. Clarke said, “If I had the answer to that, I’d be on Steering and Policy.”
There is every reason to expect that Ms. Gillibrand will be equally hard to ignore in the Senate. Asked how she expected the dynamic to work between her and Mr. Unignorable himself, Chuck Schumer, she said, “I really feel like our areas of expertise are complementary. Yes, he will always be senior and I will be junior, but I don’t see that as a relationship of one lesser than the other. I just think he has much more experience, which obviously is going to make him very effective and powerful.”
(Her initial Senate committee assignments, for the record, are Public Works and Environment, Foreign Affairs and Agriculture.)
If she remains a work-in-progress on the issues, Ms. Gillibrand has the routine of actually being a winning politician down.
“She was an accomplished attorney, so there’s that whole world she could tap into in,” said Ms. Clarke. “Bill and Hillary both went to support her in her run; that in itself opens the door to a whole other cadre of donors. She knows how to establish those relationships and cultivate them. And from those relationships you get to move on to other relationships.”
She added, “She just parlayed whoever she knew into influence.”
To be sure, the Park Avenue penthouses and townhouses of New York’s rarified fund-raising community is familiar terrain to Ms. Gillibrand.
Hassan Nemazee, a prominent Democratic fund-raiser who served as a co-finance chair on Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign, said he had first met Ms. Gillibrand before her 2006 race and was impressed by the case she made as to why she could win in a reliably Republican district. The down-home upstate routine, he suggested, was only part of the picture.
“Look how successful she has been at raising money in Manhattan,” Mr. Nemazee said. “If you are just a parochial candidate you are not as successful as she has been.”
“She’s fabulous,” said Ellen Chesler, a prominent donor and early fund-raiser for Ms. Gillibrand, who was introduced to her by mutual friends in the Clinton universe. “She raised close to five million dollars for a seat where nobody who gave her money lives.”
Sometimes, the admiration is grudging. But, at least in process terms, it’s always there.
Teachers union head Randi Weingarten, the apparent runner-up to Ms. Gillibrand in Mr. Paterson’s post-Kennedy senate search (she was the last candidate to receive word that she would not be a senator), said Ms. Gillibrand was something of a “star” among female Democrats.
Asked about the various complaints having to do with Ms. Gillibrand’s win-at-all-costs reputation in the House, Ms. Weingarten did say, “One of the things that Hillary taught everyone was how much she was a team player. Ultimately collaboration becomes very important for getting things done.”
On the afternoon of Jan. 23, Ms. Gillibrand put on her team-player hat as she stood in Meeting Room 6 in the Capitol building. That didn’t stop all the state’s power brokers from jostling for a coveted place in the camera shot at her side.
Onstage, Mr. D’Amato alighted over his old intern’s right shoulder. Mr. Schumer signaled for her to shuffle closer to him. The Albany legislative triumvirate of State Senator Neil Breslin, Assembly Majority Leader Ron Canestrari, and Assemblyman Jack McEneny entered the room just before Ms. Gillibrand’s family.
When Ms. Gillibrand spoke, she turned on the folksy charm. Wearing a black pantsuit and pearls, she expressed bewilderment at the mass of reporters assembled before her and deferred to Mr. Paterson in the running of the question-and-answer session. When her young son hopped onto the stage, she put her hand on his head. She affected an oh-my-gosh air and talked about licking envelopes in her grandmother’s office. The audience, aware that her grandmother was a power player in the capital’s Democratic machine, nodded knowingly.
“She comes from a very important political family in Albany,” said State Senator Neil Breslin after the event.
On Jan 26, Ms. Gillibrand kept doing the modest thing. Without any apparent security detail, she walked into the Franklin Roosevelt Library in Hyde Park. Two reporters behind her didn’t immediately realize who she was. She again deferred to Mr. Paterson during the press conference, but in her answers, she made it clear she was a player to be reckoned with. She talked about dining with Harry Reid and said she’d sit on the Senate’s Agriculture Committee. When asked about her stance on immigration, which has been criticized by Latino and other immigrant groups as cynically nativist, Ms. Gillibrand indicated that she’d maintain a less-than-lenient line.
“My view has always been that we need to right-size immigration,” she said, adding that she believed in a need to “have a database in the Department of Labor of immigrants who have been cleared, who are legal, that are part of our system, and the number has to be the right number.”
“I’m going to be a voice to solve this problem,” she said.
Ms. Gillibrand knows the cold realities of politics. But she also knows there is time for softballs and smiles.
At the end of the Hyde Park event, as reporters swarmed Ms. Gillibrand with questions, she thanked them for the work they did and promised to speak with them in the near future. As she left the room, a diminutive elderly woman came up to greet her.
“I’ve met you once before,” said the woman. “Congratulations.”
“Oh, it’s good to see you. Thanks for your support,” Ms. Gillibrand said. “God bless you!”
“She’s being portrayed as a lightweight,” Tom Poelker, a party chairman in a neighboring county, who has watched Ms. Gillibrand closely, said after attending the event in Hyde Park.
“My opinion is that there’s not much that gets by Senator-designee Kirsten Gillibrand. She’s very sharp—very perceptive. Extremely perceptive. Very perceptive politically.”
And how does Ms. Gillibrand herself respond to those people who say that she is, in fact, an overblown lightweight? Or an overambitious climber?
“It doesn’t bother me at all, because at the end of the day, this is just the short term,” she said in the phone interview. “I think all of this will smooth out as I demonstrate my effectiveness and my work ethic and as I partner with all the constituency groups in our state and make a difference for them.”