Governor David Paterson’s decision-making process may have been flawed, but his choice of Kirsten Gillibrand as New York’s new junior senator ought to be applauded for several reasons, not the least of which is geography. Upstate New York has been suffering a long economic decline for years now. Not coincidentally, perhaps, downstate has monopolized New York’s statewide offices. Having an upstater like Ms. Gillibrand in the U.S. Senate may signal a welcome reversal in the region’s fortunes.
What’s more, Ms. Gillibrand seems likely to test the Democrats’ new commitment to pragmatism. The new senator is hardly a liberal firebrand, as her record on gun control demonstrates. Her departure from Democratic orthodoxy certainly is disappointing for many downstate Democrats (and Republicans, for that matter). But it seems fair to point out that she does represent the views of tens of thousands—perhaps hundreds of thousands—of New Yorkers who live in gun-tolerant upstate.
Ms. Gillibrand’s position on guns is analogous to Pennsylvania Senator Robert Casey’s position on abortion. He is pro-life, a position that could not be more out of line with his party’s mainstream. A decade or so ago, Senator Casey’s views might have precluded him from moving up the ranks in the Democratic Party. But, with the encouragement of New York Senator Charles Schumer, Mr. Casey was able to win support from party regulars during his 2006 campaign to oust Rick Santorum. Last year, Senator Casey became one of Barack Obama’s key supporters in an important swing state.
The point is that a little heterodoxy isn’t a bad thing, especially in an age that claims to worship diversity. If that concept is to mean anything, surely it must include various viewpoints as well as a mosaic of race, creed and culture. Senator Gillibrand’s views on guns put her at odds with most New York City residents, and her vote against the Wall Street bailout was disappointing. But, after all, she was sent to Washington by voters who believe in gun ownership and who believe they were excluded from both the Wall Street party and from the taxpayer-supported cleanup.
So if there is cultural chip on the new senator’s shoulder, so be it. If she can channel upstate’s resentment into positive representation in the U.S. Senate, New York as a whole will be better off for her presence. She will do all of us a favor if she reminds us from time to time about the economic devastation north of Westchester County. The issue, frankly, deserves more attention.
There is another reason to cheer her appointment: New York needs a strong female presence among its elected leaders. At the moment, the number of women elected to statewide office in New York equals the number of black men elected to the presidency. That’s right: Hillary Clinton remains the only woman to win statewide office in New York on her own (that would exclude the state’s two female lieutenant governors, who were elected as part of a ticket). Identity politics can get tiresome, but who would deny that New York needs a woman in high office at a time when every other statewide office is held by a downstate male?
The most important unanswered question is whether Ms. Gillibrand understands the extent to which New York City is the economic engine that powers the entire state, not only in the billions of tax dollars we send to Albany each year, but also as the state’s showcase city, a globe-spanning magnet for tourists and businesses, show business and sports, culture and commerce.
Senator Gillibrand faces extraordinary challenges over the next two years. If she emerges as a passionate advocate for her state, she will find the political climate a good deal friendlier downstate when she runs for election next year.