When Robert Turner first heard U.S. Rep. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-Greenport, speak before about 50 Skidmore College students back in 2004, he thought she was terrible.
But the next time he heard her speak, he was impressed.
“She’s a really quick study,” said Turner, an associate professor of government at Skidmore. “It was hard to believe it was the same person. I watched her debate (against Sandy Treadwell, Gillibrand’s Republican challenger in 2008), and she cleaned his clock.”
On Friday, Gov. David Paterson appointed Gillibrand to assume the U.S. Senate seat vacated by Hillary Rodham Clinton, selected by President Barack Obama to serve as secretary of state.
Though little known outside her largely Republican district, political experts believe Gillibrand’s talent for campaigning and fundraising, as well as a natural ability to connect with people, will win over people throughout New York. They also said her appointment will have a positive impact on upstate, particularly if she wins an election for the seat in 2010.
“This is an inspired choice,” said Helen Desfosses, an associate professor of public administration and policy at the University at Albany. “She’s going to bring real strength to the state’s representation, but also upstate. She’s really going to go to battle for us.”
Turner agreed. “It’s great for upstate to have a senator who doesn’t have to embark on an upstate listening tour shortly after being elected or appointed,” he said. “It will be very helpful to upstate to have a representative who has been working on issues like infrastructure, agriculture and high-tech development for the past couple years. . . . There’s a difference in life experience that matters in terms of how a representative or senator sees the world. [Sen. Charles Schumer] grew up in New York City, and that’s the perspective he’s going to bring. It’s not that he can’t do a good job of representing upstate, but with Gillibrand there’s familiarity.”
It has been decades since someone with upstate roots held a New York Senate seat. In an e-mail praising Gillibrand as an “ardent environmentalist,” the Adirondack Council noted, “She appears to be the first Capital District resident and North Country rep in the Senate since before Teddy Roosevelt was governor of New York.”
needs of upstate
“Upstate feels it is underrepresented,” said Joseph Zimmerman, professor of political science at the University at Albany.
Zimmerman said that initially Gillibrand’s appointment won’t have much of an impact on upstate. “But as she gains in seniority, it could have a major impact,” he said. “She’s with the party in power, although at the moment she’ll be the senator with the least amount of seniority.”
Zimmerman predicted that Gillibrand would be more likely to focus on agricultural issues than her predecessors; New York, he noted, is a leading farm state, and Gillibrand may form alliances with senators from other farm states, such as Kansas and Nebraska.
Desfosses said she expects Gillibrand to focus on economic development. “She knows [upstate] is struggling,” she said. “She knows we never had an economic recovery. She really gets it. She’s been meeting with her constituents since she was elected. Her district has tons of little towns who are struggling.”
Turner agreed. “She’s been a very active and very vigorous representative,” he said. “She’s visited every part of her district, no matter how small. Although as senator, she’s not going to be able to do that type of individual attention, I think she’s going to be very active all over the state.”
Gillibrand will need to develop a statewide campaign organization, but she already has a good organization in place and the state Democratic committee will support her, Zimmerman said.
“Once she’s a senator, she’ll no longer represent just her district,” Zimmerman said. “She’ll need to represent New York City and Buffalo, too.”
Desfosses didn’t think this would prove to be a problem. “I think her term in office will be one long listening tour,” she said. “That’s where her heart is. She started doing it as soon as she was elected.”
Political observers said Paterson made his decision based on the fact that he’s running for re-election in 2010 and views Gillibrand as a good person to have on the ballot.
“He wants someone who is a good campaigner, a good fundraiser and an attractive person,” Zimmerman said.
“This allows him to say he represents all New Yorkers,” Desfosses said. “Up until now, there was no one in the top leadership who was from upstate. Everyone was from downstate. How could he say he represented the whole state?”
“She is all the things Paterson is not,” Turner said. “She’s a woman from upstate. She’s going to play very well with suburban voters who are often swing voters. I think a lot of families are going to look at her and say she looks a lot like a soccer mom. She’s a very fresh face, very appealing.”
Turner said that Gillibrand lacks the celebrity of predecessors such as Clinton, Robert F. Kennedy and Daniel Patrick Moynihan, but “that doesn’t mean she can’t become someone like Al D’Amato, who was very good at taking care of the nuts and bolts issues that affected the state.”
difficult to label
Though Gillibrand is being described as a conservative Democrat in the national media, local political observers said she is a moderate whose positions will likely evolve to better fit the state as a whole. Already, she has received the support of the Empire Pride Agenda for expressing support for gay marriage. But she also has the support of the gun lobby and is considered a fiscal conservative.
“She can move incrementally and not radically,” said Leon Halpert, a professor of political science at Siena College. “Her first steps can be baby steps but in a year or so she can accelerate her move left . . . to the more liberal median positions of the state.”
Appointed senators often face tough election battles. “She’s going to have to work hard at making connections,” Halpert said. “But she’s an effective campaigner and she’s developed a very strong network in Washington and New York City. I don’t think she’ll have any difficulty translating that to a Senate campaign.”
As a member of the House of Representatives, Gillibrand was one of three freshmen selected to serve on the Democratic steering committee, and she had a good relationship with Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi.
Because she lived in a Republican district, the Democratic Party wanted to help her so that she would retain her seat. Desfosses predicted that Gillibrand would work well with her fellow senators and receive help there, too.
“I think she’ll receive a lot of support from the Obama administration,” she said. “They’re not going to want her to lose that seat. Everyone is going to want to help her.”