Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Meet Kirsten Gillibrand

New York Senator Kirsten Gillibrand

Name: Kirsten Gillibrand (before she met her husband, she went by Tina Rutnik, which was a combo of her maiden name + her childhood nickname).

Position: United Sates Senator, New York

Party: Democrat

Age: 46

Career arc:

a. Asian Studies major at Dartmouth College (she interned for GOP Sen. Al D'Amato!).

b. UCLA Law School.

c. Worked for New York law firm, and plays a big role in defending Philip Morris from numerous lawsuits.

d. Law clerk to a judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit in Albany.

e. Special Counsel to HUD's Andrew Cuomo during Clinton Administration.

f. Worked for Hillary's 2000 Senate campaign.

g. Partner at a law firm.

h. Becomes U.S. Congresswoman in 2006.

i. Appointed to U.S. Senate by David Paterson.


Her congressional story is pretty amazing. In 2006, she ran against a four-term Republican incumbent in a pretty heavily Republican district.

She ran to the right on immigration, guns, and fiscal issues, and actually ended up winning -- thanks to her opponent's foibles and her own strong campaign.

Then, two years later, she successfully defended her seat with a 62%-38% victory... again, peeps, in a Republican district!

That, of course, was aided by a moderate record -- symbolically capped by her membership with the moderate Blue Dog Coalition of Democrats.

She ascended to the U.S. Senate after Obama tapped Hillary for Secretary of State, which left Hillary's Senate seat open.

NY Gov. David Paterson then appointed Gillibrand, and she became the youngest Senator (42, at the time) when she claimed her seat in 2009.

In 2010, she faced a special election, where she romped over Republican congressman, Joseph DioGuardi, 63%-35%; then won full reelection in 2012, scoring 72% of the vote -- which was a historic margin for a Senator from New York.


Her political metamorphosis is one of the quicker and more striking evolutions/calculated/shifts in recent history (in fact, Wikipedia actually has an entire page, called "Political positions of Kirsten Gillibrand", where her evolution is cleanly laid out).

As a House member, she was undeniably moderate, which was probably a reflection of a few things.

1. Survival -- she served a Republican district and her electoral livelihood depended on moderation.

2. Her father had close ties to Republicans, she interned for GOP Sen. Al D'Amato in college, and was an upstate New Yorker -- always a more moderate breed of New Yorkers.

But once she was plucked to replace Hillary, she turned into a -- by nearly every measure -- quite liberal. Her moderate demeanor suggests otherwise, but Gillibrand is more Barbara Boxer than Claire McCaskill.

As just one of her many reversals, consider her record on guns. While a House member, the NRA gave her a 100% on gun rights. Then Gillibrand the Senator came along, and she picked up a big, fat "F" from the group in 2010.

More recently, the NRA gave her a 0% in 2012.

Her reversals have come on other issues, including immigration and gay marriage.

The important thing for 2016 is where she is now, and let's take a look at her voting record since becoming Senator:

National Journal: According to it's 2011 rankings, Gillibrand and Oregon's Jeff Merkley were the Senate's most liberal members -- more liberal than Boxer, Harken, and Barbara Mikulski.

Compare that with the score of another potential Dem '16er, Mark Warner, who ranked as only the 37th most liberal, and you can see that Gillibrand brings some hardcore progressive cred to the table.

ACLU Scorecard: The liberal group gives Gillibrand a 75% for the 112th Congress' votes. The ACLU only bases that number on four votes, though, so it's not a very meaningful number (Joe Manchin, for example, a VERY moderate Democrat, picks up 100% from the ACLU on those four votes). 

A much more reflective sample comes from the previous year and its fifteen votes that the ACLU tagged as especially important.

On those, Gillibrand picked up an 80%, which was less liberal than her colleague Chuck Schumer's 93% and on-par with Mark Warner. So according to the ACLU's scorecard, she's a bit more moderate.

League of Conservation Voters: The environmental group gives her a 100%, which is on par with Warner, and as a way of contrast, higher than Jim DeMint's 27%. To put it simplistically, she likes to plant, and DeMint likes to cut things down.

Club for Growth: Weirdly, the Club ranks her as the third most conservative Democratic Senator, based on her 2011 votes.

And although the Club's lifetime scoring of her is lower, she still emerges as more conservative than the most progressive U.S. Senators.

U.S. Chamber of Commerce: Gillibrand scored a 45% in 2011 -- equal to her colleague Chuck Schumer, but more business-friendly than liberals like Dick Durbin and Al Franken.

Meanwhile, here are some more rankings -- these from the UNBELIEVABLY useful, Project Vote Smart.

Planned Parenthood and NARAL have given her a 100% rating every year since she joined the Senate, the American Conservative Union gives her a lifetime 7% rating, the AFL-CIO gives her an 89%. She gets 100% from a host of other labor unions, and the conservative Family Research Council gives her a 0%.


Her stint defending Philip Morris from lawsuits could do some major damage -- particularly, if the media presses her on it, which it might not, because, as New York Magazine reports in its great profile of her, the media was "largely uninterested" in the story when it could have hurt her most -- just before her first run for office.

After the election, though, The New York Times released a lengthy and fairly devastating piece on her time there, noting that her law firm allowed associates to opt out of defending clients they thought were morally objectionable.

The New York Times:

Ms. Gillibrand plays down her work as a lawyer representing Philip Morris, saying she was a junior associate with little control over the cases she was handed and limited involvement in defending the tobacco maker.

But a review of thousands of documents and interviews with dozens of lawyers and industry experts indicate that Ms. Gillibrand was involved in some of the most sensitive matters related to the defense of the tobacco giant as it confronted pivotal legal battles beginning in the mid-1990s.

Ms. Gillibrand, who worked at the Manhattan firm of Davis Polk & Wardwell from 1991 to 2000, eventually oversaw a team of associate lawyers working on Philip Morris cases, according to a colleague, and was a frequent point of contact between the firm and Philip Morris executives.

In addition, Ms. Gillibrand represented Davis Polk on a high-level Philip Morris committee whose work included shielding certain documents from disclosure, according to several lawyers and industry observers. Serving on the panel placed her alongside some of the country’s top tobacco industry lawyers.

And she was viewed so positively by Philip Morris that by 1999, when the tobacco maker brought in an additional outside law firm to represent its interests, Ms. Gillibrand was one of five Davis Polk lawyers designated to train the firm about sensitive legal issues, according to a company memo.

When she moved in 2001 to a new firm, Boies Schiller, where she worked until 2005, one of Ms. Gillibrand’s clients was the Altria Group, Philip Morris’s parent company, where she helped with securities and antitrust matters, according to the firm.


Maybe junkies view this as old news (because it sort of is), but I didn't know about it, and I doubt many voters do.

If the media reminds voters of this sordid resume-builder (a big "if"), it could be electorally disqualifying.

You can't do much worse, as a lawyer, than defending a tobacco maker and trying to keep private its secret tests about the addiction and attendant malignancy, right?

And it seems as though she needs work on spinning her time there.

Usually, as Elle notes, she tries intimidation.

When confronted with a tough question—even one that she is expecting—Gillibrand's style is to angrily stare at her inquisitor and repeat talking points in the hopes that the messy business will simply vanish.

When I ask whether she has any regrets over her work for a cigarette company (she continued to work for Philip Morris' parent company, Altria, when she moved to the prestigious law firm of Boies, Schiller as a partner in 2001), Gillibrand replies with a chill in her voice: "It's not how I see it. The way I see it is that I worked very hard at Davis Polk. I worked on all the cases assigned me; I didn't pick and choose. I got the best legal training in the world.

SPOUSE: British venture capitalist, Jonathan Gillibrand.

The Gillibrands (photo: public domain)


Whilst Gillibrand was a lawyer, she met Gillibrand on a blind date. Jonathan was at Columbia, getting an MBA, and his kindness won her over.

“I thought he was one of the nicest and kindest people I’d ever met,” says the senator. “That’s what charmed me.”

The story of the blind date, though, is a bit more complex and even more serendipitous and romantic in one of those "just think: if we hadn't...." kind of ways.

She actually stood him up on the planned blind date, and the raincheck date almost didn't happen.

"I stood him up," she says with a hint of rueful embarrassment. "It was a Saturday night, and I was supposed to go to a black-tie party with him; it was a group date. But I had this presentation Monday morning to hundreds of lawyers; it was really a big presentation for me. I was really working very hard on getting my slides ready. And they weren't ready."

So for want of a PowerPoint (she worked until three in the morning), the "Hi, I'm Kirsten" moment was delayed for three weeks. "He was supposed to stay [in America] for just one year until his program was over," she says. "And then he met me, so he wound up staying."


As Politico recently reported, the Democratic party is pining for a female nominee.

With Republican governor Susana Martinez lurking as potentially the strongest demographic offering of the 21st century (female Hispanic), Democrats feel the need to counter. They'd forever rue missing out on the once-in-a-history-of-America chance to nominate the first female presidential nominee.

If Hillary doesn't run, Gillibrand suddenly emerges as the leading, female option -- although not the immediately apparent one.

Her close ties to Hillary and her $-rich homestate of New York would give her an immediate boost, and she's someone progressives could, theoretically, get behind.

Of course, progressives would have to forget about Gillibrand 1.0, which was probably too moderate to win a Democratic nomination; instead, they'd hope that Gillibrand's Senate incarnation showed up.

It's that Senate incarnation that led the effort to kill Don't Ask, Don't Tell, a cause celebre for many Democrats, and if she continues charting a liberal course over the next few years, she'll have even more to offer the Left when nominating time comes.

Over the next few years, Gillibrand will inevitably be compared to other women who might run for president, including Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar and Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren.

Why she's better than Warren and Klobuchar: Gillibrand has more experience in elected office, and most importantly, comes across as more moderate than Warren and Klobuchar.

The simple truth is that Elizabeth Warren is kind of the same thing as Rick Santorum. Their politics are different, of course, but both strike most Americans as passionate activists who might be a tad nuts.

Gillibrand, though, doesn't. She plays moderate very well (as we saw in her House career) and liberal very well (as we see in her Senate career).

That's exactly what a party nominee has to do -- convince both the diehards and the mushy middle that you feel their pain.

And Gillibrand seems pretty good at it.

Read this terrific Vogue profile on Gillibrand, and you can see why she could be such a force.

As the crowd files out of the barn, I express admiration to one of the senator’s aides for his boss’s ability to charm a roomful of Republicans, and he says, “She can do the same thing on derivatives, comfortably rapping about financial markets. She walks into these huge churches in Brooklyn and Queens and starts talking about the asthma rates and the environmental-justice movement. It’s just her comfort level with so many subjects.”

This reminds me of something Tina Brown, the editor in chief of The Daily Beast, told me: “People underestimate how smart Senator Gillibrand is. I hosted a dinner for her to meet a number of CEOs and media figures, and in conversation she was brilliant in her analysis of the economic meltdown. And she is an amazing fund-raiser . . . an unstoppable machine when she works the room.”

Meanwhile, Gillibrand also has a few advantages over Klobuchar.

She not only has more experience, but she also comes from a strong power base (New York > Minnesota), has a stronger legislative trail, and has more sex appeal.

I hope that's not sexist, but we all know that attractiveness matters, big-time, in presidential politics, and Gillibrand is one of the most -- if not the most -- photogenic senators in the country (see Vogue photo shoot).

So what's the upshot on her upside?

Gillibrand could be the strongest candidate in the entire field, except for Hillary. She fuses a progressive voting record with moderate appeal, is extremely likable, female, and can raise all kinds of $.

She could connect in places like Iowa with her comfort and familiarity, growing up in rural Iowa. Andrew Cuomo and Martin O'Malley? -- not so much. 


If Hillary runs, Gillibrand won't, and if she did, it could be disastrous.


Well, Gillibrand's big problem is the gravitas thing. She's immensely likable, but doesn't have a commanding aura. Even the wispy Sarah Palin has more gravitas than Gillibrand.

If Gillibrand and Hillary both, improbably, ran, comparisons between the two would be legion, and Hillary would expose Gillibrand's gravitas gap even more spectacularly.

Yet even if Hillary doesn't run, Gillibrand will still have to contend with the gravitas thing.

Then there's the Philip Morris thing, which could be a fatal blow if it really grabs hold of people. The question is whether she'll get some immunity from it because it's already been reported -- if not widely known.


Finally, as usual, let's end on a video to give you some idea of what she's like in person -- here's Gillibrand on The View: