Kirsten Gillibrand — New York’s new junior senator — is known as a skillful legislator and proud mother. But one night last May while serving in the U.S. House, those roles almost collided.
After an already long work day at the Capitol, the nine-months pregnant Mrs. Gillibrand mustered up enough energy to sit through several hours of a House Armed Services Committee meeting that dragged on late into the evening. Hours later, she gave birth to her second son.
The episode quickly cemented the young moderate Democrat’s reputation as a friendly but ferociously intense and dedicated lawmaker. It also served notice never to overlook or underestimate the 42-year-old politician who was the surprise choice to fill the remaining two years of former Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton’s term after she was named secretary of state.
“She is very, very dedicated to the people that she serves,” said June F. O’Neill, chairwoman of the New York State Democratic Party. “That’s why the people in the 20th Congressional District love her, and even some of the people who didn’t vote for her the first time voted for her re-election” in November.
Immediately after Mrs. Clinton’s Cabinet appointment, Caroline Kennedy was the media’s presumptive front-runner as her replacement. But after a series of lackluster public appearances and pundit accusations that she was unqualified, the daughter of President Kennedy withdrew her name from consideration. Media speculation then turned to other high-profile names, such as New York Attorney General Andrew Cuomo and Mrs. Kennedy’s cousin, Robert F. Kennedy Jr.
But on Jan. 23, New York Gov. David Paterson raised eyebrows from Buffalo to the Potomac when he named Mrs. Gillibrand as Mrs. Clinton’s successor.
“It surprised a lot of people,” said Rep. Gary L. Ackerman, New York Democrat. “There are other people who the oddsmakers would’ve said had a better shot and that might have been a stronger choice.”
But many in her home district, including some Republicans, say they weren’t shocked at all.
“We had heard rumors the governor had wanted to do something for upstate [New York] and saw value in replacing a woman with a woman, and if those two things were true, then that list is a fairly short list,” said Daniel Stec, Queensbury, N.Y., town supervisor.
Mrs. Gillibrand’s meteoric political ascension to the Senate didn’t come without warning. As a private attorney in the 1990s, she represented one of her firm’s most important clients, Philip Morris, during major litigation including defense of civil lawsuits and FBI criminal investigations.
Then, in 2006, she surprisingly defeated four-term GOP incumbent John E. Sweeney in a district that hadn’t had been represented by a Democrat in three decades. She was re-elected in November, beating her Republican opponent with 62 percent of the vote.
To win over voters in her conservative, mostly rural district that stretches north from the Hudson Valley, Mrs. Gillibrand bucked her party and campaigned for many Republican-oriented issues, such as supporting gun rights and opposing amnesty to illegal immigrants.
Once in the House, she continued her moderate-to-conservative bent. She supported extending President Bush’s 2001 and 2003 tax cuts, voted against the $700 billion Wall Street bailout plan and joined the Blue Dogs, a coalition of conservative House Democrats.
“As an upstate Republican myself, if you have to go with a Democrat, a Blue Dog Democrat isn’t a bad flavor Democrat to have,” Mr. Stec said. “If I have to pick between her and a Nancy Pelosi, I’ll take a Gillibrand.”
But her conservative leanings, while popular in her former upstate district, angered more liberal members from New York City and its suburbs.
“Her positions were not necessarily reflective of the positions of the majority of the state delegation,” Mr. Ackerman said. “But the governor was apparently looking for a profile, and irrespective of her views, she fit the profile.”
Many in the delegation privately accused the governor of being “fixated” on picking a Democratic woman, regardless of her experience and political views.
Rep. Carolyn McCarthy, New York Democrat, a staunch gun-control advocate, said that Mrs. Gillibrand’s 100 percent positive rating from the National Rifle Association makes her “unacceptable” to serve in a statewide position.
“We are New Yorkers, and I do believe that anyone who is going to be the NRA poster child is not sending the right message to the rest of the country,” Mrs. McCarthy said during a National Public Radio interview Jan. 23, shortly after Mrs. Gillibrand’s appointment. “I certainly have been fighting against gun violence for 15 years, and I think that we had many, many qualified people that could have taken this seat, and I am very disappointed the governor has picked her.”
But New York’s senior senator staunchly has defended Mrs. Gillibrand from criticism she received from the New York delegation, and predicted her views would “evolve” with her new job.
“When I was a congressman from Brooklyn, I never voted for a single farm program,” said Charles E. Schumer, a Democrat. “Then I was elected senator and met with farmers and dairy owners from around the state and got educated.”
Some Democrats worry that any drastic changes in her policies would be a mistake, as critics and challengers would slap her with the “flip-flopper” label.
But Ms. O’Neill said any “evolution” in Mrs. Gillibrand’s policies only would show her willingness to listen and learn about varying sides of issues — many of which may not have been pertinent in her former upstate district.
“If there’s something that she doesn’t really know about, she’s not afraid to say that and then go and learn about it,” Ms. O’Neill said. “I think generally people evolve and grow; I don’t think that’s unusual in regular people nor do I think it’s unusual in people who hold elected office.”
The new senator has toured the state since her appointment, meeting with diverse groups and constituents.
“I think she is what she is,” Mr. Stec said. “I don’t think she was trying to be something she wasn’t to win this seat.”
Sen. Amy Klobuchar, Minnesota Democrat, said Mrs. Gillibrand has been a quick study who needs little mentoring from senior senators.
“She clearly knows her way around the halls of Congress — and she’s doing very well,” Mrs. Klobuchar said. “I like how she’s been working with everyone. I’ve heard such good things about her from the House.”