Kirsten Gillibrand's Improbable Path to Liberal Stardom

New York's junior senator has gone from a rural populist to the next Hillary Clinton—with White House ambitions to match. How did it happen?
Eric Thayer/Reuters

SYRACUSE, N.Y. — It's closer to breakfast than lunch, but Kirsten Gillibrand—wedged between five bulky men at a red-and-white-checkered table—nevertheless smiles until her eyes crinkle as a hamburger smothered in blue cheese and spinach is placed in front of her. She digs in, first with her fingers, then with a knife and fork, skipping the bun entirely. Burgers before 11 a.m.? Sure. But not even on home soil will the Democratic senator eat carbs.

Rick Lazio's refusal to eat a Gianelli's sausage here at the New York State Fair during his Senate race against Hillary Rodham Clinton in 2000 may have had something to do with why he lost. It was "akin to pushing away a kissable baby on the stump," the New York Daily News said. Gillibrand knows better than to turn away a baby. There's a hamburger-cooking contest to judge.

She awards her top vote to a bean-infused mushburger ("extra points for being healthy"), while also telling the crowd of meat enthusiasts that her favorite one might have been the one with cheese, bacon, and an egg. ("If you just keep adding enormous amounts of cholesterol, it makes anything delicious!") 

The crowd approves. She feels like one of their own. "My husband told me I could come to this event only because it was Gillibrand," an apple farmer recounted to me after the cook-off. "If it had been [Chuck] Schumer, he said he would have to divorce me."

Gillibrand is good at having it both ways, and not just when she's splitting the difference between looking healthy and authentic at Beef Day. This upstate native who once bragged about keeping shotguns under her bed also raises more money from the financial sector than any of her Senate colleagues (her haul included $89,700 from Goldman Sachs last cycle, the most among current members of Congress). Self-adorned with the humble goal of giving a "voice to the voiceless," she spent 15 years representing, among other clients, Philip Morris. Once the proud owner of an A rating from the National Rifle Association, Gillibrand watched her grade plummet to an F after she was appointed to the Senate and began supporting bills to curb gun trafficking. She has shifted her stance, too, on immigration, moving away from the hard-line positions she adopted as a member of the House of the Representatives.

In short, she is now much more like Sen. Schumer than attendees at the fair might suspect. "She is an extraordinarily bright politician," says Rep. Steny Hoyer of Maryland, the No. 2 Democrat in the House. "And I use 'politician' in a good way."

A lesser talent might be torn between her two selves: the rural centrist from the closest thing that New York has to "real America"; and the Wall Street-financed, corporate lawyer who's appeared in fashion shoots for Vogue magazine. But after a rocky start in a political career that has lasted less than a decade, she has a found a way to turn the dichotomies to her advantage. Kirsten Gillibrand is determined to have it all—and, along the way, perhaps give Democrats their next bright, young national star.

"My own view is that I think Gillibrand is one of the people in the United States of America that I think can be president of the United States," Hoyer says.

It's a stretch to imagine Gillibrand running for president any time soon: There's a Hillary-sized shadow hanging over 2016, and Governor Andrew Cuomo also appears above her on the New York depth chart. But this is a Democratic Party desperate for new blood and new talent. At 46, Gillibrand fits the bill perhaps better than anyone—and she has begun to build a national persona that can match her ambitions. Her battle against the Pentagon over sexual assaults in the military has won her headlines and praise. At the same time, she's a stunningly adept fundraiser who earns loyalty from her colleagues the old-fashioned way—by doling out money. It's telling that when potential women presidents are mentioned, the list tends to begin and end at Clinton. There is opportunity there.

But to reach that place in the firmament, Gillibrand will have to pull off what many politicians before her have had to do: reconcile her past political identities with her present ones. Gillibrand isn't the first Democrat from a rural, centrist background to try to build a bridge to the progressive wing of the party. (See: the other Clinton, Bill.) And often, it can be easier to accomplish than those liberals trying to convince rank-and-file voters that they are one of them, as both Barack Obama and John Kerry before him struggled to do. But that doesn't mean she won't have some explaining to do on what can be politely termed her evolution.

How she navigates those questions will say a lot about her readiness for the grand stage.

Left Turn

In 2009, two days before Gillibrand was sworn in to the Senate as Hillary Clinton's successor, the 100-year-old Spanish-language newspaper, El Diario, splashed her picture across their cover with the headline: "Anti Inmigrante." The piece quoted Peter Rivera, an Assembly member and now New York's commissioner of labor, as saying her "hard-line stance" of opposing amnesty for undocumented immigrants "borders on xenophobia." At the same time, a slew of House members, such as Reps. Carolyn Maloney and Carolyn McCarthy, threatened to run against her in 2010 because of her conservative record on guns.

But Gillibrand was already working to court progressives. One of her earliest moves in the Senate was to hire the MirRam Group, a public-affairs consulting company with ties to the Hispanic community, including then-Assemblyman Rivera. MirRam set up meetings throughout New York City between Gillibrand and Hispanic leaders in order for her to "listen and learn" about priorities within the Latino community.

She met with Rep. Nydia Velazquez, D-N.Y., a meeting in which Gillibrand would offer her support on the Dream Act, the proposed legislation that would grant legal status to some children of illegal immigrants. For someone who had once opposed Eliot Spitzer's plan to provide undocumented residents with driver's licenses and who supported cutting aid to sanctuary cities, it was more than a tonal shift. Gillibrand sat down with policy experts like Muzaffar Chishti of the Migration Policy Institute, who told National Journal he was "extremely intrigued by how quickly she changed her stance." She also met with El Diario.

"I was stressed out," Luis Miranda of MirRam said about the encounter. "But she was such a good listener and so empathetic that she immediately disarmed people. Just take a look at the coverage from before the meeting, and how it ended in just a couple of weeks."

It was all right out of the Hillary Clinton playbook; 16 months before her own election to the Senate, Clinton traveled the state on her own "listening tour." Gillibrand says today that her evolution makes sense, as she now represents an entire state instead of just one congressional district. For that transformation to be credible, however, Gillibrand needed to undertake what Clinton had before: an observable period of "education," even if it was one that was noticeably brief. (According to The New York Times, Schumer even had to tell her to "slow down" so that it didn't look quite so blatantly political.)

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Ben Terris is a staff reporter for National Journal.

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