How Kirsten Gillibrand changed her political stripes

It’s a name you might not have heard very much of unless you live here in New York… yet. But a lot of people have been not too quietly talking about the higher political aspirations of New York’s junior Senator, Kirsten Gillibrand. There’s been buzz about her as a possible Vice Presidential nominee or cabinet pick, and some of the more rabid fans already want to draft her to skip over Hillary (whose seat she inherited) and run for the brass ring in 2016. She gets frequent face time on the cable news shows – no small feat when you work with Chuck Schumer, trust me – and is one of the Democrats’ fundraising stars despite her very junior status.

It’s not hard to understand, at least for Democrats. With a background as a litigator, a face made for TV, two terms in the House and a few years in the Senate it’s not a bad resume. But if she gets too ambitious, voters will be reminded that Senator Gillibrand has a lot of history out there waiting to be explored. There’s a very lengthy piece this week at National Journal (yes… yes.. I know, but bear with me) which should be a must read for watchers of national politics.

They delve into her long history which is much more colorful than the generic, thumbnail, perfect candidate resume I briefly listed above. First of all, during her time as an attorney, she worked for a prominent New York City firm and her top money earning clients were not exactly popular among her party faithful.

Gillibrand’s tenure at Davis Polk is best known for her work as a defense attorney for Tobacco company Philip Morris during major litigation, including both civil lawsuits and U.S. Justice Department criminal and civil racketeering probes. She became a senior associate while working on Philip Morris litigation. Gillibrand’s campaign finance records show that she received $23,200 in contributions from the company employees during her 2006 campaign for Congress. In her 2008 campaign she accepted $18,200 from company employees, putting her among the top dozen Democrats in such contributions.

It’s true that Gillibrand was twice elected to the House after she decided to ditch the law game for a life in politics, but it wasn’t a path built on establishing firm liberal credentials. She ran in the NY 20th, which is a district which was carved out in one of the famous Albany gerrymandering deals as a token for the Republicans.She was riding the wave of Democratic resurgence in 2006 and Barack Obama’s coattails in 2008, but she still had to run fairly hard to the right to take that particular seat.

Gillibrand is good at having it both ways, and not just when she’s splitting the difference between looking healthy and authentic at Beef Day. This upstate native who once bragged about keeping shotguns under her bed also raises more money from the financial sector than any of her Senate colleagues (her haul included $89,700 from Goldman Sachs last cycle, the most among current members of Congress). Self-adorned with the humble goal of giving a “voice to the voiceless,” she spent 15 years representing, among other clients, Philip Morris. Once the proud owner of an A rating from the National Rifle Association, Gillibrand watched her grade plummet to an F after she was appointed to the Senate…

She talked a good game in her house races, tough on supporting gun rights, tough on immigration and a number of other subjects. She even proudly joined the Blue Dog Coalition. But when Hillary was anointed to the State Department, NY’s Governor David Paterson (briefly filling in for Client Number Nine) appointed her to the Senate. Then the worm turned. Able to run as a full bore liberal in a statewide election, she quickly put on an entirely new face.

In 2009, two days before Gillibrand was sworn in to the Senate as Hillary Clinton’s successor, the 100-year-old Spanish-language newspaper, El Diario, splashed her picture across their cover with the headline: “Anti Inmigrante.” The piece quoted Peter Rivera, an Assembly member and now New York’s commissioner of labor, as saying her “hard-line stance” of opposing amnesty for undocumented immigrants “borders on xenophobia.” At the same time, a slew of House members, such as Reps. Carolyn Maloney and Carolyn McCarthy, threatened to run against her in 2010 because of her conservative record on guns.

But none of that mattered. Read the rest of the article to see how her A rating with the NRA crashed to an F in what may be record time. She was suddenly in love with all the things she professed to despise and the public ate it up with a spoon. National Journal’s own “rankings” of members of Congress probably tells this story the best.

National Journal’s vote ratings help tell the story of Gillibrand’s political journey. In 2007, after her first year in Congress, NJ ranked her as the 185th most liberal member of the House. By 2010, one year into her Senate tenure, she had become Schumer’s ideological twin, tied with him as the 10th most liberal member of the chamber. The following year, she sat atop those rankings, along with Oregon’s Jeff Merkley.

Kirsten Gillibrand is a machine politician with ideological purity which is a mile wide and an inch deep. A perfect mold for whatever you want her to be, as long as she wins the next race. So if her name bubbles closer to the top in the next couple years, keep all of this in your back pocket.