Paterson to City: Drop Dead. The Governor Hands New York's Senate Seat to an Upstate Blue Dog Conservative

| Fri Jan. 23, 2009 1:58 PM EST

Governor David Paterson's appointment of Kirsten Gillibrand, a one-term Congresswoman from a conservative upstate district, to fill Hillary Clinton's Senate seat is a slap in the face to both New York liberals and to New York City in general. Yesterday, as Gillibrand emerged as the frontrunner, the Village Voice's Wayne Barrett branded her "too Republican to replace Clinton," and "out of step with New York voters, particularly Democrats, on a host of issues."

Gillibrand has described her own voting record as "one of the most conservative in the state." She opposes any path to citizenship for illegal immigrants, supports renewing the Bush tax cuts for individuals earning up to $1 million annually, and voted for the Bush-backed FISA bill that permits wiretapping of international calls. She was one of four Democratic freshmen in the country, and the only Democrat in the New York delegation, to vote for the Bush administration's bill to extend funding for the Iraq war shortly after she entered congress in 2007. While she now contends that she's always opposed the war and has voted for bills to end it, one upstate paper reported when she first ran for the seat: "She said she supports the war in Iraq." In addition to her vote to extend funding, she also missed a key vote to override a Bush veto of a Democratic bill with Iraq timetables.

Gillibrand's positions and voting record can be seen as especially offensive to New York City. As Barrett writes:

Gillibrand has a one hundred percent rating from the National Rifle Association ….Gillibrand even opposes any limitations on the sale of semiautomatic weapons or "cop-killer" bullets that can pierce armored vests….Gillibrand voted against both…financial service bailout bills last fall, which have delivered billions to New York, salvaging institutions like Citigroup. An editorial in Crain's, the city's premier business news magazine, said recently that Gillibrand "should be disqualified" from seeking the Senate seat "by her politically expedient vote" against the bailout.

Upstate residents may resent the city's perceived dominance of politics on both the state and local levels, but they are in fact biting the hand that feeds them: The city has historically paid about 20 percent more in federal taxes and twice as much in state taxes than it gets back in services from those governments. And it seems like the wrong time to do anything that could be hard on New York City, which is already hurting badly. As I wrote late last year, while the effects of the economic meltdown are felt nationwide, New York stands at its epicenter, and is taking the heat on two fronts: It is suffering, along with the rest of the country, from the far-reaching fallout of the Wall Street debacle. But it is also directly dependent upon the financial industry itself: Jobs, retail, services, the real estate market, and an astonishing 20 percent of the state's tax base all rest upon the now crumbling foundation of the financial sector. The trip from Wall Street to Main Street is a lot shorter in New York than it is anywhere else.

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And while there may be plenty of valid reasons to vote against TANF, Barrett writes that Gillibrand's "argument against the bill seemed to be both parochial and political, contending that 'upstate New York needs a plan that will actually work to stabilize our economy and protect taxpayers.'"

This statement connects to the most sobering fact about Gillibrand: Upon entering the House two years ago, Gillibrand joined the Blue Dogs, the coalition of Democrats that stands to the right of the Democratic Leadership Council, and is known for their conservative positions on both social and fiscal issues. Gillibrand made it clear that she is pro-choice, and quickly changed her previous position against gay marriage. But the biggest upcoming battles in the Senate will involve fiscal policy, and the Blue Dogs have already telegraphed their intention to demand cuts to offset Obama's big economic stimulus package, especially in such longtime conservative targets as social safety net programs and old-age entitlements. In fact, there are clear signs that Republicans are counting on the Blue Dogs to keep the president and Congressional Democrats in check.

It certainly seems like a strange move for Paterson, who had a solidly progressive voting record as a state senator from Harlem. But Paterson has changed since he stepped into the statehouse. Since becoming governor, he has dealt with the state's fiscal shortfalls by presenting a budget that containing severe cuts to Medicaid and other components of the social safety net, while refusing to consider a "millionaire's tax."

A number of Albany-watchers have suggested why Paterson might make such moves: basically, as an expedient to his own political ambitions. As Politico described it yesterday:

Gillibrand brings several important political attributes critical to Patterson, who became governor when Eliot Spitzer resigned and has never topped a statewide ticket, when both run for their offices in 2010: She represents a relatively conservative part of upstate the governor hopes to woo, she's a formidable fundraiser with connections to Hillary Clinton's cash-generating apparatus and she's a woman in a state that prides itself of inclusiveness.

WNYC public radio reporter Elaine Rivera mentioned the same factors this morning when she described Gillibrand as potentially a "tremendous" assett to Paterson when he runs for re-election. Less widely noted is the fact that she comes from a district that is 95 percent white, and that Paterson will be running as an African American in a state that has never had a black governor. In the end, it seems to be the upstate conservative chops that mattered: Another member of the shortlist, New York City Congresswoman Carolyn Maloney, is also a woman with ties to Hillary Clinton and a saavy politician, and is far more qualified than Gillibrand—but she's an urban liberal.

As the muckraking Barrett points out, Gillibrand's personal and family connections are far-reaching, connecting her not only to Hillary Clinton and other prominent state Democrats like Charles Schumer and both Andrew and Mario Cuomo, but also to state Republicans:

The irony is that Paterson may be swinging from the nation's most prominent Democratic family to one with strong Republican ties. Gillibrand's father, Doug Rutnik, is an Albany insider and lobbyist whose ties to former GOP powerhouses Joe Bruno, George Pataki and Al D'Amato are legendary. In fact, Gillibrand won her seat when a state police domestic violence report about the GOP incumbent, John Sweeney, was mysteriously leaked, ostensibly with the acquiescence of the Pataki administration, which had its own reasons to oppose Sweeney. Bruno is under federal investigation now, [He was indicted this morning] and some of the subpoenas in the case involved a real estate deal that partnered Rutnik with Bruno and another lobbyist. Rutnik dated, and eventually lived with, a top Pataki and D'Amato aide for many years, until he broke up with her in 2006 to marry a cousin of his, Gwen Lee, who'd worked in high-paying state jobs secured by the same aide. Rutnik and D'Amato have been registered lobbyists for some of the same clients.

Gillibrand once worked for both D'Amato and Andrew Cuomo, another candidate for the senate seat. She was a special counsel when Cuomo ran HUD in the 1990s and her father was close to both Senator D'Amato and Governor Mario Cuomo in the same time period. Her former law firm, Boies, Schiller & Flexner, has been the largest single donor to her House campaigns, and David Boies, the senior partner at the firm, contributed $25,000 to Paterson's campaign committee on December 23, 2008, while the governor was considering Gillibrand's candidacy. Boies' son Chris, also a partner in the firm, contributed another $25,000 on the same day.

All in all, it appears that what happened this morning has very little to do with anyone's positions on the burning policy questions of the day. What happened is that one consummate political animal gave the nod to another.

This post also appears on James Ridgeway's new blog, Unsilent Generation.