Two years ago, Kirsten Gillibrand was a political newcomer who ousted a four-term, scandal-tainted incumbent.
Now Gillibrand is the incumbent, and one that some experts say will be tough to beat because she has taken a moderate stance on issues and supported constituents.
The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee has named Gillibrand one of its “Frontline Democrats” — strong candidates who are up for re-election.
“It’s a very different campaign than it was two years ago,” said Robert Turner, a professor of political science at Skidmore College. “It’s sort of a classic ‘Republican versus Democrat’ type race and a classic ‘challenger versus incumbent’ type race.”
Turner predicted Barack Obama’s lead in New York could help Gillibrand. But Leon Halpert, a political science professor at Siena College, said the national trends are less important to voters in this largely Republican district.
“That’s not a district that’s conducive to Democratic influence in general,” Halpert said.
Gillibrand has distinguished herself on issues traditionally important to Republicans by serving on the Agriculture and Armed Services committees and taking a moderate stance on gun issues — things that may resonate with rural constituents.
She added amendments to the reauthorized Farm Bill, including an incentive for small farmers to switch to organic farming.
If she’s re-elected, Gillibrand plans to work again on passing a bill that would give veterans one place to look for services they can get through the Department of Defense and Veterans Administration.
Currently, navigating the system is confusing for veterans returning from war.
“You’ve got to shuffle through papers. You’ve got to go online,” Gillibrand explained.
She aims to bring 80 percent of the troops in Iraq home within about a year, including all of the National Guard soldiers.
“It forces the Iraqi people to provide for their own security.”
helping at home
Constituent services are one of Gillibrand’s strengths, Turner said. “An incumbent can win simply by being responsive and attentive to the home district, and certainly she has done that.”
Her office has helped secure $24 million in federal government grants for municipalities, businesses and nonprofit organizations in the district.
“We’ve worked really hard on individual service,” she said.
Challenger Sandy Treadwell has criticized Gillibrand on taxes, saying she voted for a huge tax increase.
But she said that’s not accurate.
Rather, Congress’s budgets have assumed that the Bush tax cuts will expire in 2010 because that’s how legislators are required to write the budgets, she explained.
“I have no intention of letting the tax cuts expire.”
She also recently has come under fire for accepting $23,200 during this election cycle in campaign funds from Altria Group, the parent company of tobacco company Philip Morris, and thousands from Woody Kaplan, an advocate of legalizing marijuana.
Gillibrand spokeswoman Rachel McEneny Spencer said the congresswoman has voted against legalizing marijuana and has sponsored legislation to regulate the tobacco industry and boost fees to the companies.
Spencer added that Treadwell owned stock in Altria until last summer, when it was sold, and that as chairman of the state Republican Committee, he received $102,000 from tobacco companies for the party.
The Democratic Party accepted money from tobacco companies too, said Treadwell spokesman Peter Constantakes.
The Treadwell camp also alleged that Gillibrand is being dishonest about time she spent as a lawyer representing Philip Morris.
“Kirsten Gillibrand actually worked for five years defending Big Tobacco and hiding the dangers of cigarettes,” Constantakes said.
Gillibrand disputes that claim. Rather, she was one of several dozen attorneys assigned to a case involving Philip Morris when she was a junior law associate, Spencer said.
“As a recent graduate of law school, Gillibrand did not have the liberty to choose her case assignments,” Spencer said in a statement.
Gillibrand stands by her records on transparency and open government, noting she posts her financial statements, public schedule and earmark requests on her Web site.
on the issues
Here’s where Gillibrand stands on the issues:
Energy: Gillibrand aims to have the U.S. become energy independent within the next 10 years. Although she voted twice to allow offshore drilling, that alone won’t be enough to satisfy the country’s needs.
“Drilling is really just a short-term solution and idea,” she said.
Instead, Gillibrand is focusing on solar, wind and non-food-based ethanol produced in the U.S., which she said would boost domestic manufacturing as well.
Technology: She founded a high-technology caucus of members of Congress from both sides of the aisle.
It is developing legislation that would help the high-tech industry grow through tax credits and incentives, she said.
Terrorism: Gillibrand would like to see more troops in Afghanistan and for the U.S. to invest in education for people in refugee camps in Pakistan, which could become a terrorism hotbed if ignored.
“It’s the quickest place for the Taliban and al-Qaida to recruit right now,” Gillibrand said.
Cyber terrorism needs our attention as well, she said.
“The risks to our country based on a cyber attack are severe.”
Health care: Gillibrand advocates requiring Americans to have private insurance or buy into a Medicare-type nonprofit system at a percentage of their income.
“Everyone would have to be one or the other.”
Environment: She is in favor of strengthening clean air and water regulations, especially in light of the environmental issues in the Adirondacks.
“We get a lot of the acid rain and the mercury and the poisons that are emitted from the factories in the Midwest.”
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