Gillibrand brings clout to House

First term in Washington can be productive under Democratic majority

TIM O'BRIEN Staff Writer
Section: Capital Region,  Page: B1

Date: Thursday, November 9, 2006

Kirsten Gillibrand may arrive in Washington, D.C., as one of more than 30 in the freshman class, but she's already well-connected in Democratic party politics.

The Greenport resident staged a come-from-behind victory over incumbent U.S. Rep. John Sweeney, R-Clifton Park, in the 20th Congressional District. Now, some of the same people who helped the Democrat get elected - from Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton to fellow U.S. Rep. Michael McNulty - will be in a position to aid the first-year legislator. During his concession speech, Sweeney - who still hadn't called Gillibrand to concede by Wednesday evening - questioned whether she could deliver for the district like he had.

"I am proud of the fact that we were able to take federal resources and redirect them here," he told supporters Tuesday at the Holiday Inn in Saratoga Springs. "That may be important. We'll find that out in the next couple of years." Clinton said she expects Gillibrand to be among the top leaders of the freshman class.

"I've known Kirsten for a number of years," she said, noting Gillibrand was active in the Democratic National Committee's Women's Leadership Forum. "She was a very active volunteer in my 2000 campaign. She is going to hit the ground running. She's got an agenda she wants to pursue."

Clinton not only campaigned with Gillibrand, but former President Bill Clinton appeared twice - including on election eve - to back the candidate.

In recent years, Gillibrand has been a regular financial contributor to Democratic candidates across the country. Federal Elections Commission reports show she personally gave $30,025 between 2003 and 2005 to such candidates as Senators Barack Obama, Barbara Boxer and Maria Cantwell.

McNulty, who praised Sweeney Wednesday for his service, bucked tradition by campaigning vigorously for an incumbent's opponent in a neighboring district. McNulty said he will assist Gillibrand whenever he can but she already is well known to incoming House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.

He noted Pelosi held a fundraiser at her San Francisco home for Gillibrand.

"Kirsten is going to have a very solid relationship right from the very start," McNulty said. "I think you'll see Kirsten getting a lot of support from our leadership, and the important thing is that leadership isn't minority leadership any more. It's majority leadership."

McNulty, who becomes the longest serving House member to represent Albany in history, is on the House Ways and Means Committee and will chair one of its subcommittees.

Gillibrand said she expects the support of McNulty and Clinton to help her.

"With their guidance and collaboration, I think I will be in a position to put forward legislation that will benefit our district," said Gillibrand, who already is angling for a seat on the Energy and Commerce Committee to write bills promoting alternative energy. "The senator has been incredibly generous with her time and her advice."

Len Cutler, director of the Center for the Study of Government and Politics at Siena College, said Democrats are well aware Republicans outnumber them in the 20th by more than 80,000 votes. Already, speculation was beginning among Republicans Wednesday on who would run against her in two years.

"That is going to be a tough seat to hold," Cutler said. "You know they are going to challenge her in 2008."

With Democrats now in control of the House, Cutler said, they will likely steer federal funding to the district to solidify Gillibrand's hold on the seat.

"It would seem to me, regardless of the fact that she is on the low end in terms of seniority, the desire of the new speaker of the House is to hold that seat," Cutler said.

With Democrats also gaining the majority in the Senate, he said, U.S. Sen. Charles Schumer of New York will be in a powerful position given his role overseeing the Democrats' effort to win the majority.

"You're going to have two power brokers from the state of New York in the U.S. Senate," Cutler said. "I think there is going to be an attempt, a very diligent attempt on the part of leadership, to accommodate the needs of this class because this is a building class for the Democratic Party."

Gillibrand announced her candidacy more than a year ago and took a leave from her law firm to campaign full time.

Gillibrand said she visited each of the eight counties in the district at least a dozen times, and plans to have an open meeting each month, with the venue changing for each session so she can cover the 200-mile-long district.

Cutler said that, too, is a change in national politics: Elected officials now try to be seen not just during campaign season.

"The mantra is run away from Washington, even though you are part of that Washington establishment," he said.

Tim O'Brien can be reached at 454-5096 or