POLITICAL LEGACY ARRIVES ON STAGE

Kirsten Gillibrand received her first experiences in Albany politics from her grandmother, the legendary "Polly" Noonan

PAUL GRONDAHL STAFF WRITER
Section: Main,  Page: A1

Date: Sunday, January 25, 2009

ALBANY -The late Dorothea "Polly" Noonan, a workhorse of the city's legendary Democratic machine, surely would have been shedding tears of joy and offering an earthy salute if she had been there Friday as her granddaughter, Kirsten Gillibrand, was presented as the new U.S. senator from New York.


Gillibrand's ascension to the powerful post represents historic milestones. It not only is the culmination of three generations of Noonan women toiling in the political trenches, but also a return to political prominence for the region: Gillibrand becomes the first U.S. senator to hail from Albany since the 1861 election of Ira Harris, a judge, founder of Albany Law School and friend of President Abraham Lincoln.


And amid the long currents of political history that ebb and flow through Albany, Gillibrand represents a new bend in the river cut by twin influences: the blue-collar grit of Noonan, and the patrician, cerebral style of her grandmother's confidante and onetime boss, Mayor Erastus Corning 2nd, the longest-serving mayor of any city in America and scion of a dynastic Albany family.


"My role model in politics was my grandmother," Gillibrand, 42, the youngest member of the U.S. Senate, said at the Friday news conference where Gov. David Paterson made the announcement that ended months of political dance.


Gillibrand described how, as a 10-year-old girl, her grandmother inspired her passion for the political game. At Grandma Noonan's knee, she said, Gillibrand stuffed envelopes in campaign headquarters, soaking up the ambiance of rough-hewn ward heelers, and dreaming that one day she might reach the highest rung of what became a family industry.


"It's a very happy day," said her mother, Polly "Penny" Rutnik, a politically-connected lawyer, as she pushed Gillibrand's sleeping 8-month-old son, Henry, in a stroller after Friday's event.


"Politics was always being discussed in our house and I knew from when she was a little girl that she could achieve this," her mother said.


"It's a wonderful day for her and a great day for a father," said her father, Doug Rutnik, a lawyer and lobbyist.


Rutnik, who is divorced from Gillibrand's mother, was personally, professionally and politically close to Mayor Corning, who was an intimate of Polly Noonan's for more than four decades.


Gillibrand's parents and other family members have described Corning as a father figure who taught the Noonan kids how to hunt, fish and enjoy outdoor pursuits. The mayor was a regular guest of Noonan and her husband at the Noonans' house. Corning and Noonan frequently attended political functions, dinners and dances together and the mayor occasionally joined the Noonan on family vacations.


Even on Gillibrand's heady day that resembled something of a coronation, her family members could not escape the unquenchable rumors that Corning and Noonan's long association produced offspring. It remains one of Albany's great abiding political myths, a mystery wrapped in an enigma, likely never to be resolved.


Until her death in 2003 at age 87, Noonan bluntly dismissed the rumors with salty-tongued retorts. Corning deftly deflected such speculation with his cool, urbane personality. He died in 1983 at age 73.


Noonan and Corning each remained married to their respective spouses throughout their lives. If there was a romance, family members say, the two took the truth to the grave with them.


"I don't think there is any truth to that. It's pure conjecture," Gillibrand's father said.


In any case, nobody denies that Gillibrand possesses vestigial traces of Corning's legendary political acumen. That wouldn't be surprising, because she saw him frequently around the Noonan Lane family compound while she was growing up. The home was situated less than a mile from the mayor's house, which was on Corning Hill Road along Route 9G, just over the line in Bethlehem.


And through Corning, at least tangentially, Gillibrand's political heritage reaches back to the mayor's great-grandfather, Erastus Corning, mayor of Albany, iron titan, congressman and founder of the New York Central Railroad. That Corning was a political associate of Martin Van Buren, a future president, who forged the 19th-century political machine that controlled state politics known as the Albany Regency.


Mayor Corning's father, Edwin Corning, was lieutenant governor under Al Smith, chair of the state Democratic Party and owner of a steel mill. The mayor's uncle, Parker Corning, was a seven-term congressman and an owner of the company that became Albany International.


"Corning was an influence on Kirsten,'' Douglas Rutnik said, "but she cut her teeth politically at her grandmother's side."


Corning and Noonan became close in 1937, when Corning, 28, was a Democratic state senator who headed the Scenic Hudson Commission and Noonan, 22, was hired as the commission's secretary. He was a product of Groton and Yale; she was a tenacious Scot who touted her tartan but did not have a college degree.


The two were linked through Albany political boss Dan O'Connell, who groomed both for their roles in the machine. O'Connell tapped Corning as mayor in 1941 and he served 11 consecutive terms until he died in office. Noonan's secretarial position was a patronage reward through O'Connell and political power broker Mary Marcy, for Noonan's efforts at organizing the women's wing of the Democratic organization known as "Mary's girls." She was the longtime president of the Albany County Democratic Women.


While Gillibrand pointedly celebrated her U.S. Senate appointment Friday as a victory for women in politics and a shattering of the glass ceiling, such a thing was unthinkable in her grandmother's day.


"Dan used to say a woman's place was in the kitchen," said novelist William Kennedy, a chronicler of Albany political history. He said Gillibrand's appointment buries the gender issue that kept her grandmother behind the scenes. "This is like a flag going up for the future," he said.


"The torch is passed," said Assemblyman Jack McEneny, an Albany historian and longtime friend of the Noonans, whose daughter, Rachel, is Gillibrand's communications director.


Gillibrand singled out McEneny in the audience on Friday, calling him "my adopted political dad."


"In her grandmother's day, women were the secretaries and the men held political office," McEneny said. "Kirsten has now realized the dream of full equality for women."


Gillibrand's friends from her days as a student at Albany's Academy of Holy Names and Emma Willard School in Troy, from which she graduated in 1984, celebrated her good fortune.


"She's intelligent, always brings people together and builds consensus. She's an amazing woman," said friend Elaine Bartley, a lawyer with the state.


"She's fun, kind, loving and very loyal, with a lot of moral courage," said Jennifer Whalen, an attorney in private practice in Albany and a classmate of Gillibrand's at Emma Willard.


"This day means that anything's possible," said Gillibrand's uncle, Chris Rutnik. "I think Polly Noonan is watching over this, shedding a tear and bubbling with pride."


Staff writer Paul Grondahl is the biographer of Mayor Corning. He can be reached at 454-5623 or by e-mail at pgrondahl@timesunion.com.


BOX:


U.S. senators from the Capital Region


Philip Schuyler, Albany, 1789, 1797


John Armstrong, Rhinebeck, 1800, 1801, 1803, 1804


Martin Van Buren, Kinderhook, 1821, 1827, 1829


Charles E. Dudley, Albany, 1829


William L. Marcy, Albany, 1831


John A. Dix, Albany, 1845


Ira Harris, Albany, 1861


Edward Murphy Jr., Troy, 1892


Kirsten Gillibrand, Greenport, 2009


Source: The New York Red Book


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Inside


C1 Hopefuls line up for 20th.


A9 U.S. senators from the region.