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The Gillibrand Enigma

June 11, 2010

What is projected by a pol and what is real about a pol can be two different things.   

Think Spitzer. He was a white knight. This image was earned through his work as AG, but he couldn’t live up to it personally. In fact, he seems to have gone out of his way to destroy it, perhaps on purpose. How else does one explain that conduct? 

Think Joe Bruno. He was Uncle Joe, friend to all. But one of the revelations of his corruption trial was that he wasn’t very nice to staff members. He used them and could be abusive, so much so that it drove one of his secretaries to steal from him out of revenge. 

Less dark, but equally dichotomous was George Pataki. He had that Jimmy Stewart thing going. But the truth about the man was that he was extraordinarily smart and calculating. The sheer fact that he survived three terms in an overwhelmingly Democratic state proved that. 

And then there’s Andrew Cuomo. He’s no phony, but the public figure and private man are very different. He’s a performer in public. He projects strength, confidence and vision. Privately, he’s complicated. Sometimes he’s charming, and sometimes he’s overbearing, controlling and volatile. 

Not all politicians are so complicated. 

Take Chuck Schumer. He is exactly who he is. He desperately wants to be perceived as the most hardworking public official in America and he works extremely hard at it. Of course he was rude to the stewardess. That’s because she was interfering with his work. 

Take Shelly Silver. It’s actually amusing to think of Silver being something other that he is — serious, deliberative and cautious. What? Do the Orthodox get wild and crazy on some days? 

All of this is a roundabout way of introducing the topic we really wanted to raise – the enigma of the state’s junior senator, Kirstin Gillibrand. 

KG has been packaged as the upstate Everywoman, but who is she really? 

First, some background: 

She’s the daughter of a famed lobbyist  with close ties to Al D’Amato. She’s the granddaughter of women’s rights proponent. 

She’s a Dartmouth grad with a degree in Asian studies. She went to UCLA for her law degree and clerked with a federal judge. She worked for Cuomo at HUD. 

She was an associate at Davis Polk, where she represented Phillip Morris. 

She won her Congressional seat after a bare-knuckle fight with John Sweeney. She beat Sandy Treadwell for re-election. 

It’s a fascinating storyline, but, again, who is she? 

She’s Schumer’s protégé and a self-described “centrist Democrat” who has “evolved” on gay rights, gun control and immigration. 

Her colleagues in Washington don’t especially like her, but they don’t dislike her either. 

She’s visible. She attends lots of events. She does interviews, but doesn’t really say anything.   

It’s hard to get a sense of who KG really is. You see a person who is clearly smart and capable, but no defined personality has emerged. Neither is there a sense of where she stands — independent from Schumer, that is.   

A broader question is whether this matters? And the answer for the Dems is: Apparently not. She gives them a much-needed Demographic boost as a woman and upstater. She’s right on the issues. She handles herself fairly well. So nothing else seems to matter.

Still, we can’t help wondering about her…

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