She has been likened more to Sarah Palin than to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. Which would be just peachy if she were a Republican. But she is a Democrat.
She is Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, who was just beginning her third year in the House representing a conservative, upstate New York district, when she was appointed by New York Gov. David Paterson to fill the Senate seat recently vacated by Clinton.
The decision annoyed some of the nation’s top Hispanic leaders, who are dismayed by what they describe as Gillibrand’s “anti-immigrant” record. (Gillibrand’s promotion to the Senate was praised by the Federation for American Immigration Reform, an immigration restrictionist group.)
Either top Democratic leaders like Paterson and New York Sen. Charles Schumer did not know all of Gillibrand’s positions on key Latino issues when she was hurriedly picked or they let them slide, banking instead on her strong ability to dial for dollars and pull in New York’s conservative voters when Paterson and Gillibrand are up for election in 2010.
Bet on the latter. It’s all about winning the next election, not what a person stands for, Democrats remind us. (Gillibrand raised a staggering $4.7 million for her last House race.)
The result is a new senator who is an immigration hard-liner from an ethnically rich state where the Statue of Liberty is an enduring symbol of freedom; where more than one in five residents are foreign-born; and where more than half of the immigrants are citizens and eligible to vote.
Instead of being a rock-solid bet to keep the seat vacated by Clinton, who is a rock star to Latinos, Gillibrand cannot rule out a primary challenge. (She also has been backed by the National Rifle Association, scratching against the grain of New York’s liberal Democratic base.)
What’s more, Schumer’s replacement as head of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee — the arm charged with making sure incumbents like Gillibrand hold on to Democratic seats — is Sen. Robert Menendez of New Jersey, the highest-ranking congressional Hispanic and a fierce advocate of immigrants’ rights.
With no way to go but up after being thrown into the deep end of the political pool by her bobbling governor, Gillibrand is setting out to prove she’s unsinkable. She has hired Bronx political veteran Roberto Ramirez to help plug up opposition as she assembles her campaign team for next year’s statewide race.
The “Educating Kirsten” campaign has begun.
Since being sworn into office last week, Gillibrand has met with Menendez and became the 45th member of the Senate Hispanic Task Force.
On Sunday, she sat in a Brooklyn meeting room for two hours with 15 state and local Hispanic leaders who grilled her about her House record, which included opposition to legalizing 12 million undocumented immigrants and backing penalties for cities, such as New York, that protect undocumented immigrants. She was a favorite of “English only” groups.
At the meeting, Gillibrand took copious notes on the Hispanics’ concerns, offered to take a walking tour in immigrant neighborhoods and agreed to receive a 100-day report card, according to a meeting participant. Talks with other leaders in Washington are continuing this week.
Gillibrand has a lot to learn about Hispanics and immigrants, even as a New Yorker.
Recent killings of Latinos in New York have prompted the U.S. Department of Justice to review how local authorities handled the cases. Hate crimes against Hispanics were not on Gillibrand’s radar as a House member, but they will be now, predicted John Trasvina, president of the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund and chairman of the National Hispanic Leadership Agenda, a coalition of 26 groups.
“We are looking forward; we are not looking backwards,” Trasvina said of Gillibrand’s position on immigration. Gillibrand “is an adult. She’s an elected official. She has to be accountable, and she will be accountable for her [future] votes,” he added.
In limited public statements, Gillibrand has shown a willingness to bend her previous hard-line positions, mindful that she is now representing the whole state, not just the conservative Albany area.
For example, she previously favored an immigrant work force only when farmers could not find U.S. citizens to do the work, but as a new senator she floated the idea of temporary worker visas for five consecutive years and then letting workers apply for legal permanent residency.
The lingering question is whether Gillibrand’s enforcement-only immigration stance can be modified enough to satisfy immigrant and civil rights advocates. Is it even possible for Gillibrand to credibly reposition herself on immigration if it is not in her political DNA?
The situation reminded one activist of Palin, whose own words and limited public record could not be gussied up enough by handlers to increase her credibility during her unsuccessful GOP vice presidential run last fall.
“I am still open to [Gillibrand] being able to conform her ability to run as a U.S. senator to some of the positions she has taken before. I don’t know if it’s possible,” said New York state Assemblyman Peter M. Rivera, the longest-serving Hispanic in the state Legislature. Before the Brooklyn meeting, Rivera observed that Gillibrand’s immigration record “borders on xenophobia.”
But after listening to Gillibrand, Rivera wished her “the best,” while noting that she does not have a lot of time to transform her anti-immigration image.
“We started a relationship on which we can build upon, but really, the rest of it is up to her. There is skepticism that she will be able to change, particularly that she can become a champion for Latinos. Only time will tell,” Rivera said.
Party leaders are trying to put behind them the botched process that led to Gillibrand’s appointment, and Schumer wants time for her to prove her savvy.
“She is doing a great job of reaching out, and we will have to see where that leads,” Schumer said.
Gillibrand’s plight highlights how disconnected most lawmakers are from Hispanics, observed Courtney Cavagnaro, a neighborhood organizer from New Jersey who was in Washington last week with the Campaign for Community Values to lobby for the economic stimulus bill and children’s health care programs.
“We need to ask: ‘How often has [Gillibrand] been in the Latino communities?’” Cavagnaro asked. “‘How often have any of them been in the Latino communities?’” The answer is, not enough, or they would know how Hispanics are disproportionately affected by a bad economy, poor schools and other issues.
Gillibrand will be in those neighborhoods as she works to keep her political career alive.
Gebe Martinez is a longtime journalist in Washington and a frequent lecturer and commentator on the policy and politics of Capitol Hill.