Kirsten Gillibrand was derided as a vulnerable flip-flopper when she was appointed to the Senate in 2009. Critics called her a nobody from upstate cow country unworthy of a seat held by political stars with names like Kennedy and Clinton. Potential opponents circled, including fellow Democrats.
Now she is enjoying the afterglow of a winning her first six-year term with 72 percent of the vote, and her influence is poised to grow. The landslide win last month punctuated a Senate tenure in which Gillibrand has shown she can master issues and raise money, two highly prized skills in Washington. It’s a big change for a politician mocked as “Kirsten Who?” when she was tapped to fill Hillary Rodham Clinton’s seat.
“Her evolution has been almost explosive,” said Lawrence Levy, dean of the National Center for Suburban Studies at Hofstra University. “This margin of victory and the acknowledgement in Washington and New York to be a person who gets thing done; it gives her a lot of room to maneuver.”
Gillibrand was a surprise choice for the seat vacated when Clinton became secretary of state. The favorite for it appeared to be former first daughter Caroline Kennedy, whose uncle Robert Kennedy held the seat in the 1960s. But she dropped out, and some Democrats who expected a dash of Camelot were unhappy with the largely unknown congresswoman with a 100 percent rating from the National Rifle Association.
Her approval ratings hovering in the teens, Gillibrand adopted positions on issues like immigration and guns that were more in tune with the statewide electorate in heavily Democratic New York.
A year into her term, she even earned the endorsement of the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence. The policy shifts left liberals suspicious and remain a prime complaint about her by New York Republicans, who hung wanted posters at their nominating convention this year offering a $1,000 reward “for anyone who can find Kirsten Gillibrand’s core convictions.”
“I didn’t take those criticisms seriously in the beginning,” Gillibrand said in an interview with The Associated Press after her win in November. “I knew my job would be to fight hard for New Yorkers and show them what I was made of over time.”
Gillibrand became an outspoken advocate for the repeal of the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy that kept gays and lesbians from serving openly in the military. She also pushed for passage of legislation to provide benefits to Sept. 11 responders and became a main sponsor of legislation to ban members of Congress and other federal workers from profiting from nonpublic information learned on the job.
She also raised a lot of campaign cash: more than $13 million on her way to an easy win in 2010 over a little-known and underfunded opponent, and more than $15 million for this year’s race against Republican Wendy Long. The money enabled her to deluge the airwaves before the election with a series of feel-good TV ads.
Unofficial returns had Gillibrand winning with 71.9 percent of the vote, which, if it holds when they are certified, would top Sen. Charles Schumer’s 71.2 percent share of the vote in 2004.
She also helped raise more than $1 million for 15 female congressional candidates in the last cycle through fundraising appearances, solicitations and her political action committee.
Beneficiaries include incoming Massachusetts senator Elizabeth Warren and incoming representative Grace Meng of New York City.
For the first time since she became a senator, Gillibrand can take an extended break from the campaign trail. She ran to finish Clinton’s term in 2010 and quickly pivoted to run for a new term in 2012. Now she has a six-year term.
Her short-term goals include making sure New York has enough federal support to recover from Superstorm Sandy (the administration of Gov. Andrew Cuomo is seeking $42 billion) and working with other members of Congress to avoid the combination of tax increases and spending cuts known as the fiscal cliff.
Longer term, she wants to see Congress overhaul immigration and filibusters and wants to continue her efforts to get more women into politics, one of her signature issues.
“A lot more work needs to be done, and I’m really excited to work on it,” she said.
Gillibrand, who turns 46 on Dec. 9, will soon mark her fourth anniversary in the Senate, where seniority and clout accumulate over decades. Still, she has been mentioned in the past year as a choice to run the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, though she said she has no interest. There even has been some talk of her as a 2016 presidential candidate, though that is tempered by fact that New York is home to two other potential Democratic candidates with higher national profiles: Cuomo and Clinton.
“The sky’s the limit for Kirsten Gillibrand,” Levy joked, “once the sky clears.”