Kirsten Gillibrand Shows She's No Lightweight

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Senator Kirsten Gillibrand in her office in Washington Alessandra Petlin for Newsweek

As a cold, gray Saturday afternoon fades into evening, Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand—jeans, pale pink sweater, no makeup—sits tucked into a blue velvet armchair in her Capitol Hill office, trying to retain her composure as she talks through the events of the previous week. “To have something so horrific happen to someone so good and so promising,” she says, blue eyes welling with tears, “it hit me very hard.”

The junior senator from New York has just hung up with Mark Kelly, husband of Gabrielle Giffords, the House member shot in the head in Tucson. Gillibrand is quite close to Giffords and was among the handful of lawmakers to accompany President Obama to the memorial service for victims of the shooting. She was at her friend’s bedside when the wounded congresswoman opened her eyes for the first time. Since then, at Kelly’s behest, Gillibrand has been making the media rounds to help humanize “Gabby” and put a personal face on the tragedy. Meet the Press, Good Morning America, Face the Nation, The View—it’s the kind of exposure an ambitious lawmaker would ordinarily revel in. But these are not ordinary circumstances, and Gillibrand looks exhausted and emotionally wrung out. Her husband, Jonathan, she says, is having an especially rough time. Asked about the shooting, he noted simply, “I worry about her every day, and I always have.”

Though distraught, Gillibrand is determined not to let the tragedy change how she does her job—especially now, when things seem to be going her way. Two years after being plucked from the House to fill Hillary Clinton’s Senate seat, Gillibrand finds herself experiencing A Political Moment. She is drawing raves—including from Jon Stewart—for her tireless work in passing the bill to aid September 11 first responders and in repealing the military’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy. In November, she won the election to finish out Clinton’s term with 62 percent of the vote. Along the way, the 44-year-old mother of two (Theo, 7, and Henry, 2) has shed 40 pounds of “baby weight,” earning a glowing profile in Vogue. Phrases such as “rising star” and “up-and-comer” are being bandied about by colleagues.

But this success has not come without frustration, sweat, and a fair amount of abuse—much of it heaped on by fellow Democrats. From the beginning, Gillibrand’s political climb has been marked by people underestimating or even dismissing her. Maybe it’s the sweet face and blonde hair or the baby-doll voice or the blindingly sunny nature and tendency to ramble. The senator herself suspects it has much to do with being a woman in what is still overwhelmingly a man’s game—a landscape she has learned to navigate. No matter: Gillibrand does not discourage easily. To the contrary, the drive to dismantle obstacles—and rout her enemies and detractors—is something she clearly thrives on.

It was perhaps inevitable that the knives would come out when New York’s accidental governor, David Paterson, handed Gillibrand the prize that most of the political world had assumed would go to Caroline Kennedy. With the requisite fame, glamour, and pedigree, Kennedy seemed poised to fill the void left by Clinton’s departure. Gillibrand, by contrast, was an obscure one-term House member from a conservative, rural district. “She faced prejudice not just as a woman but as an upstater,” says Robert Zimmerman, a top Democratic fundraiser in New York. Gillibrand was promptly derided, first as a political nobody unprepared for the job; then, as Dems looked at her Blue Dog voting record—most provocatively her 100 percent rating from the NRA—as a right-wing yahoo unfit to represent deep-blue New York. There was much talk of liberal primary challenges. Forget any individual opponent, says Zimmerman, Gillibrand came in facing “an entire political culture that was trying to count her out.”

But critics misread her. Hailing from a prominent political family, Gillibrand possesses a bred-in-the-bones understanding of the game. Her maternal grandmother, Polly Noonan, ran upstate politics for years as the right hand of longtime Albany Mayor Erastus Corning II; her father, Douglas Rutnik, is a politically active lawyer with ties to such former GOP officeholders as George Pataki and Al D’Amato (in whose Senate office young Gillibrand interned).

While people frequently compare Gillibrand to Hillary Clinton, a better parallel might be House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi. Both women were raised on politics—Pelosi’s father was a legendary mayor of Baltimore—and, just as key, both understood early the power of money. Like Pelosi, Gillibrand was raising cash for other Dems long before she began pursuing office herself (which made critics’ claims that she needed Chuck Schumer to help fill her Senate campaign coffers particularly insulting). As a young corporate attorney in Manhattan, Gillibrand joined the Women’s Leadership Forum, an arm of the Democratic National Committee. By the time she launched her 2006 House campaign, Gillibrand had a sprawling donor network (heavy on women and lawyers) at her disposal. As a first-time candidate she raked in close to $2.6 million despite being widely seen as an absurd long shot.

Gillibrand is so aggressive at fundraising that some fellow Dartmouth graduates have reportedly been irked by her appropriation of the alumni mailing list to solicit donations. But Gillibrand evinces neither shame nor annoyance at having to work the cash circuit. “Raising money is the very same effort as developing a grassroots advocacy,” she asserts.

She is also Zen about the rough-and-tumble nature of her profession—an attitude she credits to her grandmother. The attacks Noonan encountered as head of the Albany Democratic machine engendered a defiant streak in Gillibrand. “What my grandmother’s life did for me was, I saw how she did it, and I was never afraid.”

That said, Gillibrand is obviously galled by the disrespect she—and female candidates generally—have faced. She recounts with dismay the “enormous amount of inappropriate comments” to come from her Republican opponent in 2006. “The candidate kept saying, ‘She’s just a pretty face. She’s just a pretty face.’?” One of his aides, meanwhile, sniped, “All she knows how to do is buy pocketbooks in New York City.” “Remarkable,” says Gillibrand, flashing a small, satisfied smile.

Few would dispute that politics has its lingering chauvinism, much of it unconscious. Even some of Gillibrand’s fans come across as patronizing. Sen. Joe Lieberman calls her “adorably persistent,” and Majority Leader Harry Reid caused a stir by anointing her the Senate’s “hottest” member. It’s rare for a major-league female politician to discuss this dynamic lest she be labeled a thin-skinned whiner or divisive gender warrior. Not Gillibrand. “I think a lot of people underestimate women all the time,” she says. “But that’s OK,” she adds (with a look that makes evident it is not OK). “I know what I’m working with. I know what the challenges are.”

Around the Hill, Gillibrand has forged a reputation as hardworking, methodical, and relentless. “She goes to the floor with little notecards. She buttonholes senators. She does it right,” says longtime Reid aide Jim Manley. Just days after her special-election win, the senator was working the phones on the 9/11 bill while en route to Afghanistan. On the DADT repeal, Lieberman has joked that he had GOP colleagues begging him to call off the New York pit bull. Says the Connecticut independent, “This is a person who will do what she has to do to achieve what she has to achieve.”

Not everyone is so charmed. In the Senate, Gillibrand has shifted left on both gun control and immigration, prompting cries of flip-floppery, along with sharper accusations that she is the puppet of Schumer, the state’s senior senator. This was the line of attack pursued by former Tennessee congressman Harold Ford as he flirted with a primary challenge against her last year. Ford slammed Gillibrand as “weak” and a party-controlled “parakeet” unable to provide a voice independent from Schumer—a sentiment echoed by many big-money Dems at Park Avenue dinner parties.

At the same time, the young senator’s doggedness has prompted grumbling that she is an overly zealous self-promoter. “Funny how people tend to say that about young women who actually want to achieve success in society,” muses Howard Wolfson, a strategist on Gillibrand’s 2006 campaign.

None of this seems to trouble Gillibrand—at least not enough for her to scale back her ambitions. Despite Republican gains in the midterms, she has an impressive list of policy goals as she gears up for another campaign in 2012, from addressing lending problems at small banks to repealing the Defense of Marriage Act. And, oh yes, she’d like a seat on the Armed Services Committee, thank you very much.

A young woman in a hurry? Perhaps. But the Tucson tragedy has left its mark on Gillibrand, and not in a way that will slow her down. “Gabby is literally inspiring the nation with her courage and strength and just by surviving,” she says of her friend. Little wonder that Gillibrand, having overcome long odds in a far less dramatic context, now feels compelled to push even harder.

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