No longer vulnerable, Kirsten Gillibrand dabbles in king-making

Kirsten Gillibrand and Nydia Velazquez. (Reid Pillifant)
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When Nydia Velazquez decided she needed a big show of support during her first tough primary in years, she called on Kirsten Gillibrand. 

This morning, returning a favor from a few years ago, Gillibrand served as the headliner at a rainy endorsement press conference for Velazquez on the steps of City Hall.

"I feel privileged to call Nydia a dear friend and a true partner who I've worked with closely since my very first days in the House and the Senate," Gillibrand said.

It wasn't so long ago that Gillibrand was the one looking for support from wherever she could find it among lower-level elected Democrats in New York. 

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After then-governor David Paterson plucked her from an upstate House district in 2009 to serve out the remainder of Hillary Clinton's Senate term, Gillibrand's first order of business was to blunt the almost-naked hostility she faced from her more experienced Democratic colleagues, and to reassure a skeptical base of activists and donors that she wasn't as nearly as conservative as she had appeared to be while representing her right-leaning upstate district.

It worked.

"Today I can say that I love this lady," Velazquez told reporters back in June of 2009, in what was seen as an important early affirmation from a Latina official for Gillibrand. "I could stand before New Yorkers today and say that Kirsten Gillibrand has been not only listening but she is in the mainstream of New York. She’s not out of step of the average New Yorker."

In 2010, Gillibrand submitted herself to the statewide electorate for the first time. After seeing off a threatened primary challenge, she wound up trouncing her Republican opponent by about the same margin as Andrew Cuomo and Chuck Schumer beat theirs that November. 

Up for election this year to her first full term, Gillibrand faces no more primary threats, and will be a heavy favorite against whichever Republican emerges to run against her in the general.

Things have finally gotten to the point, it seems, where other Democrats need Gillibrand more than she needs them.

"She has done a good job of consolidating her base, and the Democratic base, and people view her as an asset," said Doug Forand, a consultant who is working on a number of state and congressional races this cycle.

In terms of using her relatively newfound power as an endorser of other candidates, Gillibrand has mostly focused her efforts on helping other women. 

For example, Gillibrand was scheduled to be accompanied this morning at the Velazquez endorsement by congresswomen Yvette Clarke and Nita Lowey. As it happens, Gillibrand has helped both of them, too: Last week, she endorsed Clarke's re-election against a primary challenger, and Gillibrand's leadership committee, Empire PAC, has contributed to both congresswomen, including $2,000 last month to Lowey, who is facing a wealthy Republican challenger in November.

Unrelated, Gillibrand suggested in an unofficial capacity last month that she was prepared to help Assemblywoman Grace Meng in her bid to win election in a newly drawn congressional district in Queens. Meng is running in a primary against Assemblyman Rory Lancman and City Councilwoman Elizabeth Crowley.

The senator has given modest donations to most of the women in the delegation who face contested elections this year, and in late March sent out an email solicitation headlined "Kathy and Louise," to benefit her upstate colleagues Kathy Hochul and Louise Slaughter, who are each facing tough fights for survival in reconfigured districts.

On May 3, Gillibrand was the special guest at a New York City fund-raiser for Westchester state senator Andrea Stewart-Cousins.

"She certainly is a star, so to have Senator Gillibrand as your special guest, it brought a level of excitement that I think a lot of people were happy about," Stewart-Cousins said in an interview. "She's extremely busy. And the fact that she took the time and accepted my invitation is humbling in some sense."

The fund-raiser wasn't billed as a women-only event, but Stewart-Cousins said a "lot of people were happy to support women in government, to support progressive women in government."

Gillibrand has put herself at the disposal of male Democrats too. Earlier this month, she weighed in for Albany state senator Neil Breslin, a longtime friend, in what could be a tough primary challenge against County Legislator Shawn Morse. She also endorsed Staten Island's Mark Murphy, who is trying to unseat Republican Michael Grimm in a swing district.

But the preponderance of female candidates on what might be called Kirsten's List isn't accidental. In the course of carving out a political profile for herself that is complementary to and distinct from Chuck Schumer's—both prerequisites for harmonious coexistence—Gillibrand has made women's issues a central part of her agenda.  

She has in particular been among the most successful proponents of the idea that Washington Republicans are pursuing a "war on women," and was affirmed as the sort of official Democratic point-person on it when "Meet the Press" booked her opposite Minnesota congresswoman Michele Bachmann to put out a fire started by Democratic operative Hilary Rosen.

Prior to that, Gillibrand appeared with Michelle Obama at a campaign fund-raiser at the Mayflower Hotel on the theme of "women in technology."

(The first lady said, among other things: "And I also want to thank Senator Gillibrand, who has been just an amazing friend, supporter, senator, fighter, worker, and she's gorgeous, and gets the job done.")

At the press conference for Velazquez this morning, Gillibrand said, "We don't have to look very far to see how important it is for women's voices to be heard in this election. Just look at the ideologic legislative fight that has raged in Washington over women's basic access to health care. Seriously, in the year 2012, can you believe we are still debating contraception?"

Gillibrand's decision to wade into local races isn't just partisan cheerleading. Her support for Velazquez, for example, puts her at odds with Brooklyn's Democratic chairman, Assemblyman Vito Lopez, who is strongly backing a challenge to the congresswoman from term-limited councilman Erik Dilan.

Lopez publicly entertained a number of Gillibrand's would-be challengers in 2010, including the former Tennessee congressman Harold Ford Jr. At the time, he said he'd be shocked if two out of ten people knew who Gillibrand was, while saying Ford had "a little bit of celebrity." 

Lopez eventually endorsed Gillibrand in April of 2010, by which it had become clear that she wasn't going to face any credible opposition from within her party.

The senator waded into another divisive primary recently when she agreed to appear as a "special guest" at a June 3 fund-raiser for Councilmember Letitia James, who is planning a run for public advocate.

That race is likely to include State Senator Daniel Squadron, a former aide and personal favorite of Gillibrand's mentor, Chuck Schumer, who co-wrote his 2007 book Positively American with Squadron.

(After news of the fund-raiser was first reported, a spokesman for Gillibrand clarified that her appearance for James did not constitute an endorsement in the race.)

It should be said that Gillibrand is still relatively selective about where she gets involved in local fights between Democrats, in which respect she seems to be patterning her behavior on Schumer's.

After having told Meng at the event last month promoting equal pay for women that "we're making sure you win," Gillibrand has carefully avoided saying anything decisive about that contest in public, and her campaign has insisted that her expression of support did not constitute an endorsement. 

That's what they're sticking with, for now.

"We'd love the senator's endorsement but understand and respect that will be on the senator's timetable," said Michael Tobman, Meng's spokesman.