Saturday, January 30, 2010

Gillibrand Faces Identity Crisis

Narrow vision, low visibility put 2nd term in peril

By Jerry Zremski

WASHINGTON — Rushing through the halls of Congress, Sen. Kirsten E. Gillibrand last week explained how she would like to be remembered decades from now — if she lasts that long in the seat once occupied by Robert F. Kennedy, Daniel Patrick Moynihan and Hillary Rodham Clinton.

“I want New Yorkers to know that I always put their priorities first,” said Gillibrand, a Democrat who recently completed her first year in the Senate. “The kind of senator I want to be is a voice for the voiceless . . . The No. 1 goal of my office is constituent services.”

Now that’s a rather narrow approach compared with that of Moynihan, who had a hand in everything from foreign policy to the preservation of Buffalo’s Guaranty Building, or that of Kennedy and Clinton, who used the Senate as a springboard for presidential campaigns.

And the very narrowness of the sights Gillibrand has set could end up being the reason why her Senate career might not survive 2010, political pros from across the state say.

“She hasn’t developed a political identity or connected with New York voters,” said Lee Miringoff, director of the Marist Institute for Public Opinion, which published a poll earlier this month showing that nearly a third of the state’s Democrats either have no opinion of Gillibrand or have never heard of her.

And now Gillibrand faces the fight of her political life: a potential primary challenge from former Tennessee Rep. Harold Ford Jr., a charismatic newcomer who’s doing things Gillibrand hasn’t done — like having lunch with Buffalo Mayor Byron W. Brown.

Polls show her with a big lead over Ford, but with so many voters lacking an opinion about Gillibrand, Miringoff said that lead could quickly evaporate.

And if she survives the primary, more trouble could be waiting. A Siena College poll found Gillibrand trailing former Gov. George E. Pataki, a Republican who’s been talked about as a potential candidate, by 13 points.

Political pros say Gillibrand’s troubles are partly inevitable but partly her own doing.

When President Obama appointed Clinton to be secretary of state, Gillibrand, then a second-term congresswoman from the Hudson Valley, became the surprise choice of an unpopular governor. “She went into the job largely unknown,” and it should be no shock that she had trouble defining herself in just a year, said Siena pollster Steven Greenberg.

Since taking office, though, Gillibrand simply hasn’t earned the kind of loyalty that could help her defend against a strong challenge.

For example, Buffalo’s mayor is in good touch with Sen. Charles E. Schumer, D-N.Y., and he used to meet or talk frequently with Clinton when she represented the state.

But a year after Gov. David A. Paterson appointed Gillibrand, she still has not paid a visit to the mayor in his office. And Brown doesn’t seem happy about it.

“We need elected representatives who are going to give us their focus and their attention,” said Brown, who met with Gillibrand and her staff before two events last year but who was disappointed that she later canceled a scheduled meeting in Washington. “I think it is important for the people of Buffalo to feel they are not taken for granted,” he said.

Erie County Executive Chris Collins, a Republican, has never had a meeting with Gillibrand, either, said Collins’ spokesman, Grant Loomis.

And other Democrats from elsewhere in the state said Gillibrand hasn’t taken the time to stroke the political potentates who like to be stroked.

“She seems to have spent more time fundraising and getting acclimated to the Senate” than in building deep roots across the state, said New York political consultant Hank Sheinkopf. “As a result, she didn’t connect, she didn’t make an impression . . . There’s nothing she’s identified with as being her issue.”

Asked about such complaints, Gillibrand said in an interview: “It just takes time. Most people who are well known around the state have been in public service for a very long time. A year is a relatively short time, even though I have traveled to every one of the 62 counties, even though I’ve been in the western counties several times.”

On her trips — including a summer vacation with her family in Western New York — Gillibrand has put a priority on meeting average voters, she said.

“I have not had the chance to meet with everybody, but I will,” she said.

Erie County Democratic Chairman Len Lenihan, a Gillibrand supporter, cited another reason why she has not created the strongest of impressions: a frantic Senate schedule filled with issues like the economy, health care and Afghanistan that has kept lawmakers in Washington more than usual.

“She’s largely been in Washington, given the enormity of what’s been going on there,” Lenihan said. “She has had limited time to develop those relationships. But I do think, as time goes on, she’ll have more time and develop those connections.”

No doubt about it: Gillibrand has been busy in Washington — and not just on the other issues that dominated the debate in the past year.

She’s been active on the Agriculture Committee and played a key role in winning $350 million in aid to the state’s dairy farmers.

From her seat on the Environment and Public Works Committee, she got amendments passed cracking down on coal emissions and allowing cities to set pollution emissions limits for taxis.

And she’s introduced legislation aimed at curbing childhood obesity and updating food safety laws.

Asked about what she’s done for Western New York, Gillibrand grabbed a 30-page year-in-review authored by her staff, and started picking items off that list, which includes fighting tire-dumping from Chinese companies and pressuring the Environmental Protection Agency to crack down on Tonawanda Coke’s benzene emissions.

“We got a lot of money, which is very important, because obviously property taxes are a huge problem throughout Western New York,” she added, reading through a list of grants she won, often with the aid of other lawmakers.

Ford, for one, doesn’t seem all that impressed. During a trip to Albany last week, he compared Gillibrand to “a parakeet” who always repeats the party line, and added: “Obviously I think a more independent and stronger and steadier voice is something that could be more effective.”

In response, Gillibrand lashed out at Ford, saying: “I wouldn’t allow my six-year-old son to do the kind of name-calling he did yesterday.” She also said it was a “fraud” for Ford to bill himself as an outsider when he grew up in Washington as the son of a congressman.

In other words, it looks like Gillibrand is priming for a fight.

And by the time it’s over, she’s promising one thing.

“By Election Day, everyone who wants to know me will know me,” she said.

Tom Precious of the Buffalo News Albany Bureau contributed to this report.

Source: The Buffalo News