Governor Paterson’s appointment of Rep. Kirsten Gillibrand to Clinton’s vacant U.S. Senate seat has some members of the Democratic Party’s left wing crying foul. While I agree that some of her votes, particularly on immigration and gun control are quite revolting, I have to recommend that progressives take a wait-and-see approach to Gillibrand before they go gunning for her.
Most of Gillibrand’s detractors are progressive democrats who understandably feel that that her positions are too far to the right and thus out of step with the positions of most New York democrats. To be sure, her record does leave a lot to be desired. She is a member of the Blue Dog Democrat coalition and received an A rating from the National Rifle Association and voted to support funding for a wall between the U.S. and Mexico and to penalize sanctuary cities, as well as for a host of other nasty anti-immigrant legislation. Long Island Congresswoman Carolyn McCarthy, who is known for her one-issue advocacy of gun control has already announced that she will challenge Gillibrand in a primary in 2010.
It certainly isn’t my intention to make light of these awful positions (and there are more to be sure). And I definitely don’t want to suggest that coming from a Republican-leaning district gives her a pass for these votes. However, there is reason to believe that she will begin jettisoning some of her more unsavory Blue Dog positions now that she no longer has to pander to the Deliverance-vote in places like Essex and Delaware Counties (by the way, I can say that because I’m from Schoharie County). Already, according to the Empire State Pride Agenda, Gillibrand is coming around on the gay marriage issue, assuring the group that she now supports marriage equality.
Furthermore, many of the liberal democrats who are griping about Gillibrand are completely ignoring her strong support for working families. Not only does she support the Employee Free Choice Act (which would allow unionization through card check) but she was a co-sponsor of the legislation.
For Upstate New Yorkers, this choice is potentially very good news. Gillibrand will be in a position to bring millions of economic stimulus dollars to Upstate’s desperate communities. And while she does not have as progressive a voting record as say fellow Hudson Valley Congressman Maurice Hinchey, she has two years to show downstate democrats that she is not as conservative as they think, something she will have to do in order to head off a major primary challenge from a more liberal democrat.
Meanwhile, other democrats have more pragmatic reasons for questioning Gillibrand’s appointment, namely the fact that a special election to fill Gillibrand’s seat would likely result in a Republican pick-up.
In fact, Republicans ought to be lining up to meet New York Governor David Paterson and shake his hand. By plucking Kirsten Gillibrand out of the House and appointing her to Hillary Clinton’s vacant Senate seat, he has given Republicans their first glimmer of hope of taking back some of the hard-won Democratic seats in the House of Representatives.
The 20th District is perhaps one of the most culturally conservative in Upstate NY. It stretches from the Adirondack mountains in the north to Poughkeepsie in the south and leaves out virtually all of the Democratic zip codes in between, and yes, there are a few of them. In 2006, newcomer Kirsten Gillibrand barely squeaked by against the scandal-plagued incumbent Republican John Sweeney. At the time, Sweeney was under investigation for domestic abuse. Hard to say if this behavior is considered a positive or a negative in such a district. Despite this district’s leanings, it twice sent Gillibrand to Congress. Is there another democrat who can win in the 20th? Maybe, but not in the next two months.
In the past election cycle, Gillibrand spent nearly $5 million dollars (a lot for a congressional seat) holding the seat against powerful Republican challenger Sandy Treadwell in one of the most hotly contested races in the country. Despite all the hard work by Democrats, Governor Paterson has virtually given this seat back to the Republicans. With a line of potential replacements that stretched out the door, the Republicans settled on Assembly Minority Leader Jim Tedisco, one of Upstate NY’s most powerful and well-known Republicans behind the disgraced Joe Bruno. The Democrats had to pick someone from a pathetic list of nobodies, settling on investor Scott Murphy. Murphy was an easy choice for Democratic Party chairs: he is wealthy and can self-finance his campaign, which is a good thing, because the Democratic Party would be criminally stupid to waste a dime on this race.
In the end, one can only look at the upcoming special election with bemusement. If the blue collar voters of this district want a Republican who is going to vote against union rights, healthcare and economic stimulus funding while feeding them the same stale old platitudes about the free market then let them have Tedisco. Better to have a Republican who will hold the line on gay marriage then a Democrat who can bring money into the district, right?
While Gillibrand would not have been my first choice, she is by turns more qualified and engaged than Caroline Kennedy. That we finally have an Upstate democrat at the top of New York’s political food chain is also something to be thankful for. While other democrats react to this news with reckless pessimism, I believe some cautious optimism is in order. While I would have preferred to keep Gillibrand in the 20th District, keeping the seat in the democratic column, her ascendency may mean that Upstate NY finally has a real voice in Washington.