Gillibrand’s Vox (Un)Populi

In the 12 months since Governor David Paterson made Kirsten Gillibrand a senator, her poll numbers have done something rather remarkable: that is, nothing.

There are several explanations for why Ms. Gillibrand’s statewide approval ratings have spent a year mired in the mid-20s, despite her superior title and elevated profile: Her appointment process was publicly bungled; her stance on issues like guns and gay rights evolved in disarmingly short order; and, since she’s never had to run a statewide campaign, many voters still don’t know who she is, or, for that matter, what she’s doing down in Washington.

But the junior senator may also be battling something more fundamental: her voice.

“Kirsten Gillibrand has what I would call a non-regional American young female’s accent,” wrote Dr. Bert Vaux, a sociolinguistics scholar at the University of Cambridge, who was asked by The Observer to analyze Ms. Gillibrand’s public speaking. “Though I lack the phonetic expertise to put my finger on what exactly is involved in this, her voice quality is of the sort that is typically associated with pre-workforce-age white American females. Judging by the case of this woman, this speech pattern has now extended into higher age ranges.”

Though Dr. Vaux stressed we should all avoid our “pre-programmed” tendency to form biases based solely on someone’s speech, he noted that Ms. Gillibrand often employs a “rising intonation pattern at the end of declarative clauses that lay people tend to associate with teenage girls,” a tendency that gives way to a “classic trigger of linguistic profiling.”

Translation: She sounds more like the cheerleader than the class president.

Ms. Gillibrand offered one concrete example of this amid a scrum of reporters in Harlem earlier this week. “Martha’s gonna wiin!” she squeaked, referring to Martha Coakley, the Democrats’ embattled Senate candidate in Massachusetts. “Martha’s gonna wiiiin!” she said, her voice rising even higher. “Just be positive!”

“In general, she speaks in a much less formal register than one expects from a senator,” Dr. Vaux wrote.

What exactly one expects from a senator has become a subject of growing debate, as Ms. Gillibrand increasingly tries to beat back a potential primary challenger, former congressman Harold Ford Jr.—a smooth-talking scion of Tennessee’s back-slapping political establishment, whose chief qualification seems to be that he presents better than she does.


 A Poor Contrast

Take, for example, a joint appearance by the senator and her would-be challenger on Jan. 18 at Al Sharpton’s Martin Luther King Jr. celebration in East Harlem.

Mr. Ford was in his element. Speaking without notes, he leaned on the lectern and spun stories, effortlessly, about the years he spent growing up around his grandmother’s house in Memphis. (He made sure to include the anecdote that spawned his forthcoming book—More Davids Than Goliaths, slated for publication one week before New York’s primary.) His cadences were relaxed and familiar. When he delivered his laugh lines, the audience laughed. When Mr. Ford began a Bible verse, the audience piped up to help him finish it.

“I felt like he knew how the audience would respond,” said Dina Mathis, a 43-year-old from Co-op City who was in the audience.

“He’s great,” one reporter gushed to another.

Ms. Gillibrand’s delivery was somewhat less inspiring.

“At this time of immense hope and possibility, that is best symbolized with Barack Obama as our president, there is still inequity, injustice and inaction that persist,” she said.

The speech received occasional bursts of polite applause.

“It was a well-written speech, but unfortunately, she read it,” said Bronx Assemblyman Michael Benjamin. “It didn’t come from her emotions. Be passionate. I like what she said, but it didn’t come across that way because she was reading it.”

With grim, almost systematic regularity since her appointment as senator, Ms. Gillibrand has underwhelmed audiences at precisely the times at which the most eyes were on her. At her initial press conference on Jan. 23, standing beside Al D’Amato, she named a long list of relatives and mentors, and touched on a hodgepodge of policy issues, without any discernible narrative arc or even basic structure. In the process, she missed a congratulatory call from the president.

And then on July 13, when she was given five minutes to introduce Supreme Court nominee, and fellow New Yorker, Sonia Sotomayor—a national coming-out party engineered in part by Ms. Gillibrand’s mentor, Senator Chuck Schumer—Ms. Gillibrand delivered a deliberate set of remarks that came painfully close to sounding like a biographical report presented to the class. As she stretched past the six-minute mark, the Senate Judiciary chairman, Patrick Leahy, had heard enough.

“Senator, we’re going to have to put your full statement in the record so that Judge Sotomayor can be heard,” Mr. Leahy said.

“May I conclude my remarks?” Ms. Gillibrand asked with a smile

“If it can be done in the next few seconds, Senator.”

“Yep, one minute,” she said.

He grumbled. She skipped to her last line.

Gillibrand’s Vox (Un)Populi