The Selling of Kirsten Gillibrand

gillibrand family collage The Selling of Kirsten GillibrandMeet Senator Working Mom.

“What I have been trying to do is really be a voice for New York families,” said Kirsten Gillibrand in an interview on May 26. She also said, “It’s very much a kids-first agenda. That is at the heart of all people’s concerns.

“When you are talking about tax policy, you are talking about parents having more money at home to provide for their kids,” said Ms. Gillibrand, who has two young children, whom she often discusses. “When you are talking about national security policy, you are talking about how do we keep America safe from terrorism, how do we keep a dirty bomb from going off in a shopping mall, because I want to protect my kids. Everything boils down to who is the most vulnerable among us.”

Got the message?

Even before the primary-field-clearing exertions of Chuck Schumer and Rahm Emanuel won her some breathing room ahead of next year’s elections, Ms. Gillibrand had been at work fashioning a legislative agenda focusing on toxins in the water supply, possible carcinogens in baby shampoo, family visa requests and safeguards for renting families facing foreclosure and for single parents burdened with unnecessary financial penalties.

It’s all meant to add up to a place for her in the Senate and New York’s political consciousness that voters can actually recognize. And, not incidentally, it is a space that does not overlap with the considerable acreage currently occupied by her senior colleague, Mr. Schumer.

“It’s not so much to be different from him, because I think we work well together,” said Ms. Gillibrand, of her senior colleague. “It’s much more about who has no advocate right now—who is really suffering.”

That’s the idea, anyway.

Even assuming that she doesn’t end up facing a challenge within her party, there are a number of un-ignorable obstacles between Ms. Gillibrand and a successful statewide exercise in self-definition.

These include: a record over her two-plus years as an upstate congresswoman on guns, immigration and gay rights that is well to the right of her party, and her naked reversals on said issues after her Senate appointment; the continuing public criticism of her from her former House colleagues; and, most dangerously, the profound first impression of her among consumers of New York media as the random product of David Paterson’s mad-science-experiment of a selection process earlier this year to replace Hillary Clinton.

On the morning of May 25, Senator Kirsten Gillibrand and two of her aides walked along rows of white seats set up on the steel deck of the Intrepid aircraft carrier for a Memorial Day ceremony. One veteran jumped up to welcome her. Most of the nearby spectators sitting around looked baffled.

“I didn’t recognize her,” said Karl Koett, a 32-year-old artist’s assistant and Democrat from Brooklyn, after he watched Ms. Gillibrand shake hands with the veteran in front of him. He said that he has yet to form an opinion of Ms. Gillibrand and knew very little about her, except for one lasting association in his mind.

“I think of David Paterson,” he said.

Needless to say, this is not a winning formula for 2010, when Ms. Gillibrand will have to stand for election, for the first time, to her Senate seat.

 

HERE, for non-devotees of the Gillibrand Senate office’s email-distribution list, is a sampling of what she’s been doing:

On April 29, Ms. Gillibrand responded to a study indicating that baby shampoos and lotions contained carcinogens and other harmful chemicals by proposing the Safe Baby Products Act, to investigate such products that are marketed to and used by children. Ms. Gillibrand then convinced Senator Diane Feinstein to include a small piece of legislation in her larger bill overhauling the Food and Drug Administration for the agency’s five-year reauthorization.

On May 6, an amendment Ms. Gillibrand co-sponsored with Senator John Kerry protecting renters from eviction after foreclosure passed the Senate as part of the larger Help Families Save Their Homes Act.

On May 12, she proposed legislation to study the presence of trace levels of pharmaceutical drugs in drinking water and what effects they had on children and families. It was later added as an amendment to a larger water financing bill.

“As a mom and as a legislator, I thought, ‘We need to do something about that,’” said Ms. Gillibrand. 

On May 15, Ms. Gillibrand announced her co-sponsorship of a bill requiring nutrition facts on the menus of chain restaurants. “I am working to combat child obesity and improve nutrition for all New Yorkers,” she said in the release.

And on May 20, Ms. Gillibrand joined Senator Robert Menendez of New Jersey, and Mr. Schumer—both of whom played important roles in convincing Representative Steve Israel not to challenge Ms. Gillibrand in a primary—to introduce the Reuniting Families Act to help immigrants join their families and make visas more available.

“As a mother of two young boys,” Ms. Gillibrand said in her statement at the time, “I know that every day away from your family is an eternity.”

There’s a theme here. As Ms. Gillibrand happily acknowledges, it ought to be a familiar one.

Stepping seamlessly into the psychic space left by the departure of her predecessor, she is the diligent family woman advocating for the constituents most in need of help. Like a New York version of presidential candidate Clinton, she aims to be the champion for the sort of Americans who were “invisible” to George Bush.

“It’s very similar,” she said. “Her campaign in many respects resonated with many people across New York because they want someone who will focus on the problems they are experiencing today.”

Ms. Gillibrand’s modest poll numbers have ticked up somewhat—27 percent of registered voters now say they will support her in 2010, up from 20 percent in a Siena poll released in April.

But measurable progress, at least until election season, will probably continue to be slow.

“She’s raising money, putting together a statewide campaign, trying to avoid a primary and adjusting to life in the Senate—all that gets in the way of becoming singularly defined as Senator Working Mom,” said Jennifer Duffy, a senior editor and Senate watcher at the Cook Political Report. “Besides, it’s not such a novelty anymore. It’s been 17 years since Patty Murray was the Mom in Tennis Shoes.”

Part of the problem is that the press is not playing along.

The media has largely ignored Ms. Gillibrand’s legislative agenda, and even her political appearances.

“It’s important to work with the media,” said Ms. Gillibrand. “A lot of folks want to make news every day, but I think it’s an important point that they cover what we’re actually doing in Washington.

“Over time,” she added, “the New York media will work with me to let people know what I’ve been doing substantively.”

 

REALLY, THOUGH, Ms. Gillibrand’s efforts to establish an easily definable agenda will continue to go unnoticed by New York’s media, and voters, until she starts advertising.

“It might not become evident to voters until she starts running bio spots,” said Ms. Duffy.

Ms. Gillibrand acknowledges that the lack of familiarity between her and the voters is in part a result of her being deprived of a campaign to define and sell herself to New York voters.

“It’s more challenging,” she said, adding, “The benefit of having had a year-and-a-half-long campaign would have been to have already begun to build that relationship.”

The good news for her is that there’s still time. After all, notwithstanding her years in Manhattan as a white-shoe New York lawyer and standout political fund-raiser, she’s still, unmistakably, a newcomer.

During the Memorial Day ceremony, as she sat a few seats down from Mr. Paterson and waited on the end of the stage for her turn to talk, Ms. Gillibrand motioned for one of her aides to come talk to her. The aide, Bethany Lesser, hurried behind the stage and leaned in to hear Ms. Gillibrand’s query and quickly returned to the crowd, where she found one of Mr. Paterson’s aides.

“Is that Alan Hevesi in the front row?” Ms. Lesser asked, referring to the former city comptroller, who is now engrossed in a large pay-to-play scandal concerning the city’s pension system.

The Paterson aide confirmed that it was indeed Mr. Hevesi.

When it was her turn to speak, Ms. Gillibrand dutifully recognized Mr. Hevesi, seated next to David Dinkins, the former mayor, in the front row.

“I want to thank our mayor—Mr. Mayor, thank you for being here,” she said. “And thank you, Mr. Comptroller, for being here as well. It’s an honor to see you both.”

Each of them stood, to applause, and accepted the acknowledgement of their senator.