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From Dartmouth Alumni Magazine, Nov/Dec 2007 issue

Climbing the Hill



In upstate New York during the 1940s Polly Noonan formed the Albany Democratic Women’s Club. Although never elected to public office (how many women were back then?) Noonan was a close advisor to the city’s mayor and a button-pusher in its legendary political machine.

Which partly explains how her granddaughter in the summer of 2007 found herself wrapped in full body armor, surrounded by a couple dozen American troops, descending in a C-130 transport to land in Baghdad. The entourage had departed Kuwait at 4 o’clock in the morning and finished the flight into the Iraqi capital with a steep and rapid spiral to the tarmac to avoid anti-aircraft fire. Noonan’s descendant was not a soldier. But Kirsten (Rutnik) Gillibrand would not have taken that flight if she hadn’t inherited some of her ancestor’s combativeness. Like her grandmother, Gillibrand is a path-breaking woman: the first Dartmouth alumna elected to the U.S. Congress. And she gained that post only by outpunching a powerful Republican incumbent in one of the nastiest congressional streetfights of the 2006 election cycle.

Whether she will be able to maintain that perch in 2008 is an open question. But her party, recognizing Gillibrand’s place among the most “at-risk” (and, hence, valuable) members of its freshly minted majority on Capitol Hill, immediately appointed her to a pair of panels that could help. Both the Armed Services and Agriculture Committees track closely with a home district that counts more than its share of farmers and veterans.

It was as a member of the Armed Services Committee that Gillibrand (the “G” is soft, by the way) joined the congressional delegation to Baghdad in July.And although the sojourn lasted only 14 hours its effect on her still resonated a few weeks later on Capitol Hill.

The congresswoman had just completed a brisk walk through the catacombs connecting her office to the Capitol building, aides flanking her to answer her string of peppered questions about an upcoming procedural vote. As she neared the entrance to the House floor Gillibrand encountered fellow Democrat Jane Harmon of California, a longtime House veteran and a major player on intelligence matters. Heavily coiffed, bejeweled and clearly on speaking terms with a wide variety of cosmetics products, Harmon made Gillibrand—with her simple corn-silk mane and evident lack of foundation—appear the ingénue by contrast. But the two conferred intently about the Iraq trip, gazing past each other, whispering cheekbone to cheekbone in the feverish manner of lobby talk.

The junior House member recalls the war zone visit with a display of nuanced realpolitik that was more Clinton than Fonda.

“My stomach was in my mouth during that descent, I’ll say that,” she says. “And it’s true that having a 3-year-old adds to what you feel in that situation. But the administration has gotten so much wrong, and now it’s our job to try to get it right. I’ve always said that we need to use timing as leverage, to make the Iraqis confront their own problems, but while we’re figuring out how to leave we have to make sure our forces have what they need to do the job and stay as safe as they can. I was only there for 14 hours but while I was in the embassy—the embassy, okay?—it took two rounds of fire. And someone was abducted from it a couple of days after I left.”

But is Iraq policy of real moment in upstate New York? Aren’t her constituents more concerned about the region’s spotty economy? Or health care? Or farm subsidies?

“Sure those are big issues—plus the price of gas,” she replies, “but Iraq is easily the most important question in my district.”

Indeed, the war—plus sex scandals and pork-barrel corruption—was widely credited with sweeping a number of Democratic challengers into Congress in 2006. But few upsets were as startling as Gillibrand’s. Her district, comprising much of the Hudson Valley from Poughkeepsie to Plattsburgh, counts roughly 80,000 more registered Republicans than Democrats.

On a mid-August visit to Saratoga Springs, which is in her district, Gillibrand reflected on the campaign. During an intermission from the economic development conference she had convened (she’s trying to lure high-tech employers to the region) the congresswoman doodled a map of her district, upside-down, on a piece of scratch paper. She traced the borders of at least a half-dozen counties and marked the major towns as she ruminated. She talked economics (average family income: $40,000) and demographics, (20 percent veterans) in a staccato patter that was both chirpy and raspy.

But then she was asked whether she could have won over her constituency against eight-year incumbent John Sweeney without the war to hang around his neck. Her eyes narrowed and the jaw clenched momentarily: “Oh yes, absolutely,” she said (the chirp was gone). “We had run the numbers. A lot of the Republicans up here are Republicans in name only—they’re really independents.”

It’s true, by all accounts, that Gillibrand ran a tough, professional campaign. (Harold Wolfson, a Clinton adviser, was on hand, among others.) Her opponent also helped, committing a variety of gaffes that included, believe it or not, a visit to a Union College frat party at 1 in the morning. But, war or no war, Gillibrand might not have prevailed by an astonishing margin of 6 percent had it not been for press revelations during the final week of the campaign that Sweeney’s wife had called local police in 2005 to complain that he was “knocking her around.” Gillibrand’s staff refused to confirm or deny whether they had been the source of that media leak, just as Gillibrand refused Sweeney’s repeated demands that she release her tax returns. (For the record, she points out that her financial disclosure form—which is posted on her Web site,—is “10 times longer” than her tax returns, on which she demurred because of personal information, such as her son’s Social Security number.)

In the end none of Sweeney’s attacks stuck. Part of the reason was that, in addition to his bumbles, Gillibrand could offer up a life story that her neighbors could embrace as hometown girl made good. Her mother, Polly Noonan Rutnik, is an attorney, as is her father, Douglas, a lobbyist with professional links to former New

York Gov. George Pataki. (The couple is divorced.) Gillibrand credits her own teenage decision to seek a similar sheepskin—“Mom was a role model for me and some of my friends”—with liberating

her to pursue a relatively exotic line of studies. A standout on the tennis team at the all-girls Emma Willard School in Troy, New York, she was also inspired by the prep school’s tradition of promoting travel, which led her to spend a semester in France.

It all helped solidify her sense of self, which, in turn, led her to pick Dartmouth. “I remember visiting Princeton and it was all dressup and pumps for dinner clubs,” she says. “Then I went to Dartmouth and I saw a bunch of girls walking around in sweats and I said, ‘This is for me.’ ”

She switched from tennis to squash and captained the varsity her senior year. She was an officer at Kappa Kappa Gamma. More enduringly influential, though, she became an Asian studies major, learned Chinese and traveled extensively with her mother between trimesters. Her senior thesis on the durability of religious practice in Tibet even led to a meeting with the Dalai Lama. All of which might have made law school, at UCLA, seem a bit pedestrian. But Gillibrand knew that such a pedigree could provide flexibility: “I was always thinking about applying it to some kind of public service.”

As dreamt of in Gillibrand’s philosophy, public service would include bipartisan seasoning. She had interned for her home state’s sharp-elbowed Republican Sen. Alphone D’Amato while still at Dartmouth. He remembered her as “bright and inquisitive” in a 2006 profile for the Albany Times Union. She followed law school by clerking for U.S. Court of Appeals Justice Roger Miner, a staunch conservative who was appointed by Ronald Reagan. (He recalls fondly that he made campaign calls on her behalf when she ran for the House—as did his wife, a former vice chair of the state Republican Party.)

Gillibrand spent her late 20s and early 30s on the partner track at the white-shoe firm of Davis, Polk & Wardwell in New York City, where she litigated complex financial issues and performed corporate investigations that she credits with sharpening her committee cross-examinations today. She also met a British national who was getting his M.B.A. at Columbia, Jonathan Gillibrand, and the two were married in 2001. Their son Theo came along in 2004.

But her professional turning point came in 1999, when Gillibrand attended a speech by Andrew Cuomo, who was then Secretary of Housing and Urban Development for President Bill Clinton. “He was championing public service, despite its financial sacrifices, and I went up to him afterwards and said, ‘It’s not that easy. You need to know how to get the right public service post for what you have to offer,’ ” Gillibrand recalls. The next day Cuomo’s office offeredher a job as special counsel.

The cabinet stint would be short-lived. When the Republicans regained the White House in 2000, Gillibrand returned to law practice, this time for a very different kind of shop, Boies, Schiller & Flexner. (Name partner David Boies is known for serving, among other things, as contract counsel for the Clinton Justice Department’s antitrust prosecution against Microsoft and for arguing Al Gore’s election claims before the U.S. Supreme Court.) Gillibrand stayed there for four years, and when she reached those dry-eyed conclusions about the ripeness of her congressional district she,went on leave with what eventually came to $100,000 in contributions from members of the firm. She would amass a total war chest of more than $2 million.

Such fundraising prowess will be crucial now, as the 2008 reelection campaign looms. Gillibrand already has made headlines for raising more money—$1.5 million by mid-2007—than any other freshman House member. To which Ken Spain, spokesman for the National Republican Congressional Committee, responds: “She’ll need every red cent.”

It does seem unlikely that next year will offer Gillibrand the kind of “perfect storm” from which she benefited in her first election cycle. Among other things, she won’t enjoy an opponent as cooperatively unappealing as her last. Four Republicans already have thrown their hats into the next primary’s ring—including a former state party chairman, an Iraqi veteran who served in the Green Berets and an ex-staffer to New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg.

Given the registration differential, her eventual opponent is sure to paint her as a Democratic Party animal. She worked on Sen. Hillary Clinton’s 2000 campaign, after all, as well as the Eleanor Roosevelt Legacy Committee, which promotes the candidacies of pro-choice women. She also founded a youth-oriented version of the Democratic Party’s Women’s Leadership Forum. And, according to The Washington Post’s congressional database, she voted with the majority of her Democratic colleagues 91.7 percent of the time through August 2007.

Brendan Quinn, a longtime GOP operative who is advising the soldier candidate in the GOP quartet, handicaps the race with a predictable bit of derision. He accuses Gillibrand of bowing to the party leadership by flip-flopping on an immigration question attached to a big farm bill vote during the summer. He also argues that an unusually low number of Republicans cast ballots during the 2006 race, a dynamic that he predicts would not repeat itself in 2008.

But then he makes a surprising remark.

“Was she in the right place at the right time the last time? Yes, she was,” he says. “But since then she’s visited throughout the district a lot. The best shot at an incumbent is on their first reelection attempt, so she is a target for 2008. But she’s attended many, many community events and been very, very visible. I don’t think she’s going to be an easy opponent to defeat.”

She’ll also be able to run on a record. A so-called “Blue Dog” Democrat because of her hawkishness on budgetary matters, Gillibrand benefits from a no-apologies support of gun owners’ rights—more than a little helpful in her neck of the woods. On charges of kowtowing, she can point to a marked break with her leadership(and Majority Leader Nancy Pelosi, in particular) last spring, when she voted against a bill that would have made troop funding contingent on an Iraq withdrawal date. The issue arose again during the summer, she says, at which time she was able to vote for a timetable because munitions and materiel were not in play. It’s all part of the gavotte a Democrat in a Republican district must dance between the anti-war left and her home-base constituents.

In a bit of political legerdemain she even exploited the vote Quinn had called a flip-flop. At issue was a farm spending bill to which Republicans had attached an amendment that would have sent the legislation back to committee to make sure illegal immigrants wouldn’t receive any of the benefits. Gillibrand, who said similar language was already part of the bill, initially voted for the motion, reckoning that it would die a symbolic gesture’s death. But as the tally mounted, passage appeared increasingly likely. As members often do, Gillibrand changed her vote before it became official, making her one of four key switchers to deny the rider and approve the bill whole. Gillibrand’s defense: “I hadn’t changed my view, but I thought it was more important to pass the ag bill,” she says. And in early August, according to a dispatch in the Glens Falls Post-Star, when she gave that explanation to an agricultural forum in Hudson Falls she actually received applause.

The irritated admiration of political consultant Quinn is audible even over the phone. “She’s studied the Clinton playbook,” he says. “Just like with guns and the war, she’s learned how to triangulate.”

Perhaps. But Gillibrand has an unalloyed tale to tell too. She makes clever arguments about why fighting for home district pork is about more than home district pork. Take agricultural subsidies: “I don’t want my apples from China. And in a world where bioterrorism or transportation terrorism threatens our food supply, preserving regional production is actually a national security issue.” Historically, members of Congress have had to choose between guns or butter—Gillibrand has buttered the guns. (Oh, and she’s included language for tax easements that create land set-asides that she loves to point out “are great for hunters and fishermen.”)

This is one way she’s handled what many observers forget was a key component of the last election besides Iraq (or abusive, frat-partying congressmen): corruption. The whiff of scandal that became a miasma in 2006 gave Gillibrand a way to champion the much-criticized practice of “earmarks” (adding home district projects to bigger bills) by calling it…reform. Although she’s quadrupled the number of such requests, she puts all of them up on her Web site in a flourish of “transparency.” (More than one Capitol Hill wag has dubbed her “Little Miss Sunshine” as a result.)

Last, the tough New York litigator who defends guns and soldiers can wax maternal as needed. She is one of 10 congresswomen with a child under the age of 13. Gillibrand brings her 3-year-old son from her home in Hudson, New York, to Washington, D.C., with her when in session: “So I can make his breakfast, take him to school, put on his sunblock and be home by 6 or 7 to make dinner and have bath time and book time.”

It’s sweet. But her next opponent better not mistake that trait for docility. When asked in late summer about the leak regarding Sweeney’s spouse abuse (which his wife at least partially ended up confirming), the representative deflects the question by stressing Sweeney’s attacks on her father (the Albany lobbyist) and husband (whose work for a British defense contractor got him labeled “a war profiteer”).

So was her staff involved in the media tip? “We just didn’t comment on it at all. It was personal,” she says. But did she inquire? “It wasn’t something we were concerned about.”

Images of nailing Jell-O to a wall come to mind. But the point is that even a smart veteran or ex-party GOP chairman could have a tough time countering Gillibrand’s combination of wonkishness, fine-tuned emotional radar and street smarts. Which won’t, of course, stop them from trying. At the Saratoga Springs conference a Gillibrand aide noted that two of her opponents’ campaign managers were in the room. “That’s the way it’s going to be for the next year,” she says.

To which Gillibrand later shrugs with backhanded self-confidence. “I might well continue to be ‘at risk’—for the first two or three reelection campaigns anyway.”


Dirk Olin is director of the Institute for Judicial Studies in New York City

and editor-in-chief of




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Last Updated: 1/23/09