Friday was a happening day politically in the Capital District of New York state. On one hand, there was descent. A federal grand jury indicted former state Senate Majority Leader Joseph L. Bruno on felony charges alleging he used his elected position to extract $3.2 million in private consulting fees from clients who sought to use his influence. Joe, who represented an area east of Albany for a number of years has his name on the relatively new minor league ballpark in Troy, among other things. I freely admit to experiencing a bit of schadenfreude over his fall, and it’s based on a connection I’m just not going to get into just now; maybe someday.
The other story was an ascent, one you might have heard about, even out of state or out of country: Gov. David Paterson picked Rep. Kirsten Gillibrand to the U.S. Senate, succeeding Hillary Clinton, who resigned after her confirmation as Secretary of State in the Obama administration. One of the out-of-town headlines read: “Little-known, pro-gun Democrat gets Clinton’s Senate seat.” I thought it was unfairly reductivist, so for the benefit of those of you not the Albany area, a primer.
The Congressional District east and south of Albany, currently the 20th, was gerrymandered to sustain a Republican member of Congress. While the adjoining 20th (where I live) contains the Democratic-leaning cities of Albany, Schenectady and Troy, the vast 20th, largely rural and small towns was a GOP delight. The Congressman there for 20 years was the late Gerald Solomon, who was very conservative. He was succeeded in 1999 by John Sweeney, similarly conservative – he helped George W. Bush in Florida in 2000 – but a bit of a party animal. He was seen as drinking at a college frat house, e.g.
Still, when Kirsten Gillibrand challenged Sweeney in 2006, she was not given much of a chance to defeat him, such was the nature of the district. Then there were allegations of possible spousal abuse in the Sweeney household. This probably sealed the seat for Gillibrand.
The best time to knock off an incumbent is after his or her first term in office. The GOP candidate in 2008 against Kirsten Gillibrand was Sandy Treadwell, who is quite wealthy. I started seeing his ads – it’s the same media market – months before I saw hers. Yet she won the general election with 62% of the vote.
A successful Democrat in a conservative district, who was able to do some meaningful fundraising, became one of the front runners for the Clinton seat. Here’s a dichotomy in the narrative. When Gov. Paterson announced her at the press conference, he said that she was picked because she was best qualified, not because she was a woman or from upstate. Yet Gillibrand’s new Senate colleague, Chuck Schumer of Brooklyn said at that same press conference that it was important that the selection be a woman because there are only 16 women in the Senate. He added that it was also important that the candidate be from upstate, something that hasn’t happened in 38 years, because upstaters can speak better to the needs of upstaters. (I discussed the odd, complicated upstate/downstate tension here.)
Kirsten Gillibrand is no wide-eyed liberal, but she’s no hick. My wife suggested I not write this, but write it I must: she’s no Sarah Palin. She’s descended from political royalty in these parts, She received her first experiences in Albany politics from her grandmother, the legendary “Polly” Noonan. City of Albany politics, because it’s been one party for so long, engenders a certain conservativeness, a complaint about Gillibrand that she attempted to quell.
“I will represent the many diverse views and voices of New York state,” said Gillibrand, adding that she would work with Congresswoman Carolyn McCarthy, a Long Island Democrat who has criticized Gillibrand’s A rating from the National Rifle Association. “I will look for ways to find common ground between upstate and downstate.” On December 7, 1993, McCarthy’s husband Dennis and five others were killed, and her son Kevin and 18 others wounded on a Long Island Railroad commuter train by Colin Ferguson.
The New York Immigration Coalition also suggested now-Senator Gillibrand must reconsider her positions on immigration. During her tenure in the House, Representative Gillibrand took positions on immigration that are deeply troubling, to say the least. She sponsored legislation that sought to require local police officers to take on immigration enforcement duties, even though police chiefs have testified it would impair their ability to protect the public. She strongly supported throwing more resources toward ineffective border enforcement, but appeared to oppose any path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants. Simply put, these are positions that put her at odds with the majority of New Yorkers, whose values reflect our state’s history of welcoming immigrants, as well as with President Barack Obama, who supports a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants.
I could be wrong, but I think, as a statewide representative, she’ll be more liberal, if only because she’ll have to be to get the nomination. On the very day Gillibrand was named to the Senate seat, Carolyn McCarthy vowed to challenge Gillibrand, directly or indirectly, in the 2010 Democratic primary. The seat will also require candidates in 2012, when Senator Clinton’s term would have been up.
Here’s an interesting perspective in the New York Times about the whole process of naming Hillary Clinton’s successor:
Now that Gov. David Paterson of New York has completed his operatic quest to fill Hillary Clinton’s Senate seat and Roland Burris, chosen by the embattled Illinois governor to succeed Barack Obama, has made it past Capitol Hill security, we can safely conclude that appointing senators might not be such a good idea.
Actually, Americans came to that conclusion in 1913, when the 17th Amendment mandated regular senatorial elections…
The very problems the amendment was meant to address persist. Consider this: Nearly a quarter of the United States senators who have taken office since the 17th Amendment took effect have done so via appointment. Once Representative Kirsten Gillibrand, Mr. Paterson’s choice, joins the Senate, she will be one of more than 180 senators named by governors since 1913.
By contrast, the Constitution mandates special elections for all vacancies in the House — even though representatives are far less powerful than senators.
Yet only a handful of states routinely fill vacated Senate seats by special election. The result is a tyranny of appointments.
Not so incidentally, the race for the Gillibrand House seat will have at least three well-known Republicans, including the wealthy Sandy Treadwell, whose ads netted him 150,000 votes in 2008, but only a couple unknown Democrats. The seat will almost certainly go back to the Republican column. It may be better for Gov. Paterson, who’s up for election in 2010, to have an upstate woman on the ticket running with him than to worry about one House seat. Moreover, New York will lose one, maybe two Congressional seats in 2012, after the 2010 Census, and the map, drawn by the state legislature, currently controlled in both houses by the Democrats, might well gerrymander the district out of existence.