Wayne Barrett: Is Gillibrand Too Republican to Replace Clinton?
Now that Caroline Kennedy has dropped out, the new frontrunner for Hillary Clinton's senate seat is upstate congresswoman Kirsten Gillibrand, a Democratic hero for capturing a Republican-majority district in 2006. Camera crews are now posted outside her home in Hudson, New York, and she is reportedly telling Washington colleagues that she believes she will be tapped by Governor David Paterson, who is now in such a rush to announce a pick that he plans to do it either tomorrow or Saturday.
The irony is that Paterson may be swinging from the nation's most prominent Democratic family to one with strong Republican ties. Gillibrand's father, Doug Rutnik, is an Albany insider and lobbyist whose ties to former GOP powerhouses Joe Bruno, George Pataki and Al D'Amato are legendary. In fact, Gillibrand won her seat when a state police domestic violence report about the GOP incumbent, John Sweeney, was mysteriously leaked, ostensibly with the acquiescence of the Pataki administration, which had its own reasons to oppose Sweeney. Bruno is under federal investigation now, and some of the subpoenas in the case involved a real estate deal that partnered Rutnik with Bruno and another lobbyist. Rutnik dated, and eventually lived with, a top Pataki and D'Amato aide for many years, until he broke up with her in 2006 to marry a cousin of his, Gwen Lee, who'd worked in high-paying state jobs secured by the same aide. Rutnik and D'Amato have been registered lobbyists for some of the same clients.
Ironically, Chuck Schumer, who defeated D'Amato in 1998, is said to be Gillibrand's top Democratic champion. What's even more ironic is that Gillibrand has a one hundred percent rating from the National Rifle Association, and Schumer made his own national reputation as a sponsor of the assault weapons ban and a fierce proponent of Brady bill and other gun control legislation. Gillibrand even opposes any limitations on the sale of semiautomatic weapons or "cop-killer" bullets that can pierce armored vests. Schumer's other signature issue is the care and feeding of Wall Street, and Gillibrand voted against both of the Schumer-supported financial service bailout bills last fall, which have delivered billions to New York, salvaging institutions like Citigroup. An editorial in Crain's, the city's premier business news magazine, said recently that Gillibrand "should be disqualified" from seeking the senate seat "by her politically expedient vote" against the bailout.
One connection between the senator and the congresswoman is that Schumer's chief of staff, Mike Lynch, is married to Gillibrand's legislative director, Brooke Jamison, a former Schumer staffer. In Schumer's 2007 book, Positively American, he called Lynch "my most trusted staffer" ever. Schumer has handpicked senate candidates across the country with great skill, picking enough winners in 2006 and 2008 to give the party its new, rather hefty, majority; but his apparent favorite in his home state, if it is Gillibrand, is out of step with New York voters, particularly Democrats, on a host of issues.
Gillibrand has described her own voting record as "one of the most conservative in the state." She opposes any path to citizenship for illegal immigrants, supports renewing the Bush tax cuts for individuals earning up to $1 million annually, and voted for the Bush-backed FISA bill that permits wiretapping of international calls. She was one of four Democratic freshmen in the country, and the only Democrat in the New York delegation, to vote for the Bush administration's bill to extend funding for the Iraq war shortly after she entered congress in 2007. While she now contends that she's always opposed the war and has voted for bills to end it, one upstate paper reported when she first ran for the seat: "She said she supports the war in Iraq." In addition to her vote to extend funding, she also missed a key vote to override a Bush veto of a Democratic bill with Iraq timetables.
But it's her votes on the bailout bills -- which pleased no one but were widely seen as vital to the national and New York economies -- that could become the most damaging ammunition against her should she run statewide in 2010. She was one of 63 Democrats to break with the other 172 party members in the House and vote against the second bill, which she called "fundamentally flawed." Her argument against the bill seemed to be both parochial and political, contending that "upstate New York needs a plan that will actually work to stabilize our economy and protect taxpayers." Albany's other House Democrat, Mike McNulty, voted for it, perhaps aware that the statewide economy depends upon revenues generated by the financial services industry. "It's the most important vote of my career, and took an enormous amount of effort on my part to decide what was best for my district," Gillbrand said.
Gillibrand once worked for both D'Amato and Andrew Cuomo, another candidate for the senate seat. She was a special counsel when Cuomo ran HUD in the 1990s and her father was close to both Senator D'Amato and Governor Mario Cuomo in the same time period. Her former law firm, Boies, Schiller & Flexner, has been the largest single donor to her House campaigns, and David Boies, the senior partner at the firm, contributed $25,000 to Paterson's campaign committee on December 23, 2008, while the governor was considering Gillibrand's candidacy. Boies' son Chris, also a partner in the firm, contributed another $25,000 on the same day.
Additional research for this story was done by Patrick B. Anderson, Ana Barbu, Beethoven Bong, Dene Chen, Sara Dover, Jana Kasperkevic, and Jesus Ron.