Kirsten Gillibrand was an obscure U.S. representative from upstate when then-Governor David Paterson selected her to fill Hillary Clinton’s old Senate seat in 2009. In the years since, Ms. Gillibrand has done much to raise her profile and to establish herself as more than an accidental senator.
She deserves a new, full term of her own. The Observer endorses her candidacy over that of her Republican opponent, Wendy Long.
There is much to recommend about Ms. Gillibrand. She is absolutely tireless. She is a much-needed voice for upstate New York at a time when downstaters dominate top elected offices. She is the only woman who holds statewide office in New York. And in this bluest of blue states, she has managed to cross the aisle and keep open the lines of communication with her fellow New Yorkers who happen to be Republicans.
Most of all, Ms. Gillibrand has proven to be far more effective than many would have thought when Mr. Paterson promoted her to the Senate after slightly more than two years in the House. From her crucial vote that helped end the military’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy to her indefatigable work on behalf of 9/11 first responders, Ms. Gillibrand has shown leadership, courage and determination—qualities that are not always apparent in Washington these days.
She also understands that for New York and, indeed, the nation to move forward, politicians simply cannot get bogged down in ideological or partisan dogma. Effective politicians understand the importance of compromise, dialogue and negotiation.
As a senator, Ms. Gillibrand has avoided pointless partisan posturing, which helps to explain how she successfully argued in favor of increased federal spending to support the health-care needs of 9/11 emergency workers. That bill could easily have died on the Senate floor, but Ms. Gillibrand resuscitated it—a testament to her ability to bring her colleagues together, which is a quality that is becoming all too rare on Capitol Hill.
The senator’s instinct for consensus no doubt can be attributed to geography—she is a Democrat who represented a solidly Republican congressional district that includes parts of the Adirondacks, the Catskills and the Hudson Valley. She knows what it’s like to deal with members of the opposing party on a daily basis, and unlike so many on Capitol Hill who seem to live in an echo chamber, she understands that those who disagree with her are actual human beings, not mere abstractions.
Regrettably for the voters of New York, Ms. Gillibrand’s views and style are not exactly undergoing close scrutiny this year. And her apparently inevitable re-election may have made her just a little too comfortable. New York voters deserved a more vigorous contest in this Senate race. But the challenges of fund-raising and the Republican Party’s general lethargy in New York have combined to produce a less-than-memorable contest.
Ms. Gillibrand and her opponent, Ms. Long, met recently for their only face-to-face debate, and Ms. Long proved that she could have been a contender, had she been given greater support from local and national Republicans. While Ms. Long’s views on cultural and social issues are too conservative for most New Yorkers, her laser-like focus on economic issues and on Albany’s culture of corruption had Ms. Gillibrand on the defensive at several points. If the senator has further national ambitions—and, frankly, what Senator doesn’t?—she will need to step up her game in the coming years.
At the age of 45, Senator Gillibrand could easily serve for another two decades, given how hard it is to dislodge incumbents, especially Democratic incumbents in New York. That means there’s a very good chance that she will still be on Capitol Hill (or perhaps some other lofty office) in 2032.
What we need to hear from Ms. Gillibrand, not only in the next week but in the coming few years, is a vision for what promises to be a long tenure in the Senate. While her emphasis on retail campaigning and pothole politics is understandable at this stage of her Senate career (her colleague Senator Schumer is a master of both), New Yorkers are accustomed to U.S. senators with big ideas and global agendas.
In the 20th century alone, New York sent Robert Wagner, Herbert Lehman, Jacob Javits, Robert F. Kennedy and Daniel Patrick Moynihan to the U.S. Senate. These formidable politicians did not see themselves as glorified aldermen; they viewed their office as more than a distribution center for federal patronage.
New York senators made their mark by engaging large issues, writing landmark legislation and seeking solutions to systemic problems.
Frankly, New York needs that kind of intellectual engagement again. Yes, it’s important that the state’s senators fight for a fair share of federal spending. But New York expects and deserves more from them.
That will be Kirsten Gillibrand’s challenge over the next six years.