So far, Gillibrand's inconsistent record hasn't damaged her. Even when her opponent in the 2012 election, conservative lawyer Wendy Long, tried to make an issue of it, it didn't get much traction. "People don't like flip-floppers, but it was hard to make the case because she was not coming out to engage," Long says. "And it was less of a political liability since she had aligned herself up to fit in with one of the bluest states."
Not only did her record not hurt, but in a sense having multiple personalities may be, in an odd way, a boon to Gillibrand's long-term prospects. Sure, her haters have plenty to glom on to. ("I regard her as being one of the worst kind of politicians I can think of," says Roy Beck of the anti-immigrant group NumbersUSA. "Her flip-flopping is just indicative that she's just completely in it for herself," Long grouses.) But most of her constituents get the opportunity to see in her what they want to see.
"She understands that even when she takes positions that might be seen as restrictive to gun enthusiasts, she can talk to them and explain her position and her background," says Democratic strategist Joe Trippi. "It disarms people …. That sounds bad in that context, but that's what she does." In other words, if she no longer votes like a centrist, she still knows how to communicate like one.
Never mind that she spent 15 years as a Manhattan lawyer; to upstaters, she's the closest thing to one of them they can hope for in the Senate. It's why at a press conference, held just hours after the hamburger cook-off, on invasive species harming the Finger Lakes—one in which Asian clams, not Republicans, were the enemy—she could say this: "I was just reading the Farmers' Almanac, and it's going to be one of the most brutally cold winters." And no one laughed at her. Schumer could never pull off a line like that. That could partly explain Gillibrand's strong showing last year: She got 72 percent of the vote, a higher percentage than the senior senator has ever garnered.
"It's a pretty conservative area around here," says Robert Harding, a local reporter who was covering the event. "And there's this really pessimistic view of New York City. You'll hear people talking down about New York City politicians all the time, but you don't hear that about Gillibrand."
Gillibrand's credibility upstate has been built up over generations. Her maternal grandmother, Dorothea "Polly" Noonan, paved the way for her in Albany. She was a plain-speaking dynamo of a woman who wielded influence behind the scenes. She worked as the right-hand woman for Erastus Corning, the so-called Mayor for Life of Albany, for years. The only job Noonan was ever able to hold for him was secretary, but the title belied her importance.
"She was as powerful as they let women be in that era," says Paul Grondahl, the author of Mayor Corning: Albany Icon, Albany Enigma. "She was a power broker who could get out the women's vote, help enforce retaliation against those who went against the machine, and wasn't afraid to spout profanities and go toe-to-toe with the men."