ALBANY—Kirsten Gillibrand thinks New Yorkers are starting to get used to the idea that she’ll be a senator for a long time.
“I think it’s happening already, I really do,” Ms. Gillibrand said in an interview on Feb. 14 as she ate a celery stick dipped in blue cheese at the end of a long day of meeting and greeting at the New York State Association of Black and Puerto Rican Legislators convention in Albany. “The more I am traveling around the state, the more people get to know me, the more we build this relationship of trust that I’m going to be there for them just as I was there for my district.”
To call Kirsten Gillibrand’s introductory travels around the state a “listening tour” wouldn’t quite capture it. Yes, part of the mandate since her appointment last month by David Paterson has been to hear and address complaints from officials representing high-crime urban communities (she has an NRA-approved position on gun rights) and from black and Latino officials concerned about her restrictive stance on immigration.
But she is also laying down a marker. She is telling the state that it had better get used to her.
She is a fact of life.
“For those who are considering running, they will see that I am performing well,” she said, referring unmistakably to Democratic Representatives Carolyn McCarthy and Carolyn Maloney, each of whom has made noises about running against Ms. Gillibrand in 2010.
“Ultimately,” she said, “I don’t think there will be a primary.”
While New York’s new junior senator does not lack for brute political strength—tireless campaigning, monster fund-raising, unanimous backing from the state’s top-tier establishment—she can still be a bit of a blunt instrument.
On Jan. 30 at the St. Regis Hotel, Ms. Gillibrand met with about 30 influential liberal columnists and consultants over a spread of cookies and soda for an off-the-record talk about key policy issues.
According to several attendees, Ms. Gillibrand introduced herself by saying her experience as a lawyer prepared her for Congress because she had learned to read bills closely. She then answered a series of general questions with lengthy responses.
Then Dorothy Samuels, a member of the Times editorial board, launched into a particularly aggressive, rapid-fire line of questioning about Ms. Gillibrand’s position in support of a bill lifting all gun regulations in Washington, D.C. and her support of the so-called Tiahrt Amendment, which critics say inhibits access by law enforcement officials to gun data. At one point, Ms. Samuels asked, sarcastically, if Ms. Gillibrand’s years as an associate at a law firm representing Philip Morris taught her how to read the Tiahrt Amendment before she signed on because, as Michael Bloomberg argues, it prevents the authorities from getting information to pursue gun traffickers.
“Well, that’s not how I read the amendment,” Ms. Gillbrand responded.
One attendee said that Ms. Samuels went over some line, but several other attendees considered Ms. Gillibrand’s response to have been worse: vague, naïve, dismissive. At a certain point, when Ms. Gillibrand seemed to ramble during an economic question, an aide handed her a note. She stopped in the middle of the answer and read the note, which instructed her to move on, out loud.
She moved on.
“We were kind of shocked,” said one attendee. “She was unprepared and a little minor-league that day.”
Ms. Gillibrand remembers it differently.
“My view on the D.C. gun ban, which I told her, was that you could not be a gun owner in Washington, D.C., and I didn’t think that was fair,” said Ms. Gillibrand. “Because any law-abiding citizen should be able to own a gun, particularly if they want to hunt or for home protection, and I thought that was very, very different from laws to keep the guns out of the hands of criminals.”
She added, “Dottie asked, ‘How can you say you are going to end gun violence if you say that you are going to support the brief to end the D.C. gun ban.’ And we didn’t have time because literally it was the last question and we had already been given that we were late by 10 minutes so I couldn’t go into the full discussion, with her, which I would have.’”
Asked if she considered herself to have been dismissive of Ms. Samuels, who she acknowledged she didn’t know was a member of the Times editorial board, Ms. Gillibrand responded, with a chuckle, “Not at all. I think she was dismissive of my answer.”
An editorial headlined “Listening to Ms. Gillibrand” in the following morning’s New York Times concluded: “New Yorkers should expect much more.”
Maybe New Yorkers will get it, but in unexpected areas. While the press narrative has focused on guns and immigration—the issues on which Ms. Gillibrand continues to “evolve” (to use Chuck Schumer’s word)—she shows signs of assertiveness on other topics.
Take relations with Israel, a subject on which New York’s senators have traditionally assumed leadership stature as four-square supporters of whatever elected government happens to be in power.
In the Feb. 14 interview, Ms. Gillibrand said that the next prime minister of Israel—based on the recent close election that has yet to result in the formation of a governing coalition in the Knesset—would “probably” be the Likud Party’s Benjamin Netanyahu, a hawk who regards a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as naïve and unworkable.
“You never know: as the leader, Mr. Netanyahu may find that when he works with America, he may broaden his view,” said Ms. Gillibrand. “He may decide that in the best interest of peace is a two-state solution. That may well indeed be the path to peace.”
Asked if she would advocate that position in the Senate, Ms. Gillibrand said, “I will certainly offer what I think is the best policy, regardless of what Netanyahu says is what he wants to do. I will always be an advocate for the solutions that I think will be most effective.”
And as for the United States applying diplomatic pressure on its ally, Ms. Gillibrand wasn’t entirely against the idea.
“I think the president will use all the means and all the tools in his toolbox to reach a solution for peace in the Middle East,” she said, adding, “And if he offers positive reinforcement or negative reinforcement, that will be a strategic decision for the administration and our secretary of state.”
Asked if she would generally be a standard-bearer for New York liberalism in the Senate, now that she represents the entire state, Ms. Gillibrand said, “I think we’ll see. I tend to look at each issue independently, each issue on the merits, and I rarely will decide my views based on whatever label will be given it.”
She continued, “I think on financial issues, I will have a view based on my experience, having been a securities lawyer, having come from upstate New York, where we tend to be more in favor of fiscal conservatism, pay as you go. On the financial issues, that may be areas where I might bring different views to the debate.”
On Saturday afternoon, a handful of supporters of Ms. Gillibrand, several wearing suits and mud-caked boots, came to the drab offices of Amalgamated Transit Union Local 1321, just down the road from the Hudson Valley Paper Company and Miss Albany Diner.
Union officials looked for toothpicks to poke into cheese cubes and pepperoni slices and brought out a tray of cookies studded with M&Ms. One man in a work shirt and baseball cap walked into the office and said, “I haven’t seen my girl in a while.” A middle-aged couple showed off their “Senator Gillibrand” buttons while the mayor of Albany, Gerald Jennings, complained that the Web site of The Times Union had published the wrong address for the event, in which Ms. Gillibrand would endorse Democratic businessman Scott Murphy, a red-haired political neophyte, as her successor in the 20th Congressional District.
Ms. Gillibrand arrived, dressed in a funereal black jacket with large black lapel buttons, white pearls, a black skirt with a frilled hem and shiny black flats. (After a morning political event, she had paid respects to the family of one of her former staffers whose mother had died.)
“How are you? Nice to see you,” Ms. Gillibrand repeated over and over as she shook the circle of extended hands around her. “I appreciate you coming out today.”
She took a cookie from the tray.
“I’m just going to steal this cookie because I might not get another chance,” she said before heading to the press conference.
Ms. Gillibrand, who went to Dartmouth and spent years working in a white-shoe corporate law firm in Manhattan, affects a homespun air. Upstate, she talks about the lessons her grandmother, Polly Noonan, a Democratic power broker, taught her, and of the importance of family.
Standing in front of the union’s seal, festooned with American and Canadian flags, she told the 50 or so local supporters, “I am so happy to be home,” and waved a special hello to her local reporters. She talked about the stimulus bill that had just passed in the Congress; demonstrated a fluency in energy technology grants; and called dairy farmers “the best businessmen I know.” When she ceded the podium to Mr. Murphy, she stood with hands folded in front of her and squinted and grinned as if there were sun in her eyes. It’s an expression she wears often when listening onstage. It’s her answer to the Hillary head nod.
When state Democratic Party chair June O’Neill asked if there were Democrats in the house, the whole room cheered, but when she asked if there were any converted Republicans in the house, Ms. Gillibrand alone said, “Absolutely.” She whispered “perfect” to Mr. Murphy when he finished his maiden political remarks, and came to his rescue when, in a question-and–answer session, her press aide asked if a reporter’s query about drug policy was intended for “Scott Johnson.”
“Murphy,” corrected Ms. Gillibrand.
After the press conference she greeted the people in the room, including Elizabeth Benjamin, an excellent, no-nonsense Daily News reporter who had asked about guns during the press conference.
“How ya been?” said Ms. Gillibrand said to Ms Benjamin. “I love seeing you.”
According to Ms. Gillibrand’s base, she is doing everything right.
“The first people she met with are the first people she might have had a problem with,” said Bob “Rabbit” Riley, a Congressional liaison for the National Association of Letter Carriers, referring to the new senator’s downstate constituents who disagreed with her pre-evolved positions on guns and gay marriage and immigration. “Give her a year and a half, and she’ll be untouchable.”
A few minutes later, Ms. Gillibrand hopped in the passenger seat of the black Toyota 4Runner parked in front of the union’s doors, and traveled to the Crowne Plaza Hotel, which played host to the black and Latino convention over the weekend, and which was ground zero for the people who have a problem with her.
Ms. Gillibrand’s tactic seemed to be twofold. Appeal by listening, nodding and projecting accessibility. Demonstrate power by recruiting, talking about big money and reminding people that you are the senator from New York.
As soon as she arrived at the hotel, she took a brief private meeting in a booth of the lobby restaurant with a veteran operative she was interviewing for a potential staff position. Then, followed by four female staffers, two of them toting notepads, Ms. Gillibrand walked to the elevator bank, where Charlie King, the executive director of Al Sharpton’s national Action Network, asked her how her day was going.
“It’s been O.K.,” she said, adding, with a punch in the air, “I got to endorse somebody.”
In the cramped elevator, Gloria Davis, a former assemblywoman who resigned after pleading guilty to bribery in 2003, turned to Ms. Gillibrand and said, “I knew your grandmother. I don’t know you at all.”
“Where are you from,” Ms. Gillibrand responded cheerily, apparently not recognizing Ms. Davis.
“The Bronx,” said the woman.
“I’m headed to the Bronx this weekend!” Ms. Gillibrand said.
Ms. Davis looked unimpressed.
“So do you have any good stories about my grandmother?” said Ms. Gillibrand as the elevator doors slid open. “I love to hear all the dirt.”
“No,” Ms. Davis responded.
Ms. Gillibrand, ever merry, persisted. With her assistant, Tippins Stone, in tow, she asked Ms. Davis for her name, which she did not recognize, and her number. Ms. Davis coldly asked for Ms. Gillibrand’s card instead.
“Tippins,” Ms. Gillibrand said, grabbing her assistant’s green notepad and scribbling down a phone number and email address.
“Don’t give this information to anybody,” she told Ms. Davis. “It’s my private information.”
Outside a reception for New York’s State Senate majority leader, Malcolm Smith, Mr. King, who was acting as the senator’s unofficial liaison, brought forth Inez Dickens, who represents Harlem in the City Council.
Ms. Gillibrand kissed her on the cheek. Ms. Dickens, wearing a waist-length black fur coat, lectured the senator on how she needed to broaden her mindset.
“When you represent one area, you represent it to the best of your ability, I understand that,” said Ms. Dickens. “But when you represent the whole state, you have got to be willing to change your views, especially on guns.”
“It’s my honor to work with the communities,” responded Ms. Gillibrand.
When she finally walked into Mr. Smith’s reception, where many guests swarmed a buffet in the center of the carpeted ballroom, she had a hard time getting much attention. Mr. Smith introduced her to lukewarm applause.
“This is the leader’s reception, and I got the senator who’s going to get us high-speed rail. You’ve got to do better than that,” he said.
Ms. Gillibrand stepped out from behind the podium, and said, “I just want to introduce myself.” She then discussed specific energy and tax proposals before concluding, “I just want to thank you for letting me introduce myself.”
As she slowly made her way out of the room, tearing off scraps of paper with her email to more people, Mr. Smith told The Observer that he was confident that people around the state would soon understand that Ms. Gillibrand wouldn’t face a primary challenge.
“I don’t believe she gets primaried,” said Mr. Smith. “I’m going to help them realize that.”
At a Bronx Democratic Party reception down the hall, teenagers wore “Bronx Youth Empowerment Program” sweatshirts and sat around the small stage as Ms. Gillibrand said, “I’m going to be the U.S. senator from the Bronx.” She talked about money for food stamps and education in the stimulus bill, emphasized the change in her immigration position after meeting with some Bronx legislators (“end these raids until we have a comprehensive immigration reform”) and tried to connect with the “moms” in the room. She talked about the rights of veterans and relayed the appreciation a Vietnam vet expressed to her after she helped him get disability money. (“Kirsten, every morning when I strap on my leg, I strap on my patriotism.”)
The crowd needed to be hushed from speaking over her a half-dozen times.
Ms. Gillibrand’s last reception of the day was held by 1199 SEIU in another ballroom decorated with a banner on the wall that read “Health Care Cuts By Caucus Member District.”
Ms. Gillibrand and her aides, now nearing the end of that day’s marathon get-to-know-me tour, made her way to the vegetables in the corner of the room.
“What are the big issues for 1199?” she asked Henry Singleton, a union member and organizer of home-care workers, as she ate a small plate of marinated artichoke hearts with her fingers.
She listened to him talk about hospitals and the necessity of the brutal ad campaign the union had just waged against Governor David Paterson’s budget cuts, one of which included a blind person asking Mr. Paterson, “Why are you doing this to me?”
“Your advocacy is right on,” she said, placing the remaining oily ribbons of artichoke on a cracker. “I’ve seen your commercials. You bring it down to the people. Your commercials are great.”
“I like you already,” said Mr. Singleton.