By Claudia Ricci
It's official, Kirsten Gillibrand, a "Blue Dog" Democrat from upstate New York, has been appointed to fill Hillary Clinton's U.S. Senate seat.
Like so many others, I'd been hearing rumors that the little-known Congresswoman was on Governor Paterson's short list. But still, it comes as a bit of a shock to learn that Kirsten's going to get Hillary's job.
Less than three years ago, on a winter Sunday afternoon, she sat in the den of my 1850s farmhouse in upstate New York, contemplating her very first run for office. She was there with her husband, and as I recall she took the leather sofa. My husband, a political activist, took the rocking chair by the stone fireplace. He spent the next couple of hours offering Kirsten his best insights, and his encouragement and advice on how to go public with her campaign.
I would like to say that my reaction to Kirsten that afternoon was love at first sight. But honestly, I found her a bit cold. And even, a little frightening. She was certainly friendly, polite, upbeat and completely enthusiastic about the prospect of defeating then cong John Sweeney, a rather vile Republican who held the seat.
But in the course of the meeting, she spoke about the work she'd done as a high-powered corporate attorney defending cigarette companies. I sat there in my own rocking chair feeling that she would certainly be a big improvement over Sweeney, but she wouldn't be my first choice for a candidate.
What is amazing is how that meeting in my den began to transform Kirsten into the candidate that would win a seat in Congress. She confessed to us that afternoon that as a female lawyer, working in a tough and largely male corporate world, she felt compelled to project that very cold hard persona I saw. She said that she couldn't do her work without embracing that facade.
My husband, wisely, advised her to take an important step: embrace a new public persona, that of a strong woman who could speak to the powers that be, but one who would still reflect her heart and soul, and even, her femininity.
Well, so, she did that. (And she has publicly acknowledged my husband's role in helping her realize that she needed to make the change.) She defeated Sweeney that November in a tight, and somewhat ugly race. (My youngest child, Noah, then a senior in high school, volunteered on her campaign.) I voted for her, and she became our Congresswoman.
Her last election, this past November, was expected to be a tight race, but lo and behold, she blew her opponent, Sandy Treadwell, a ridiculously rich businessman from the Albany area, away. Her success at this last run demonstrated her extraordinary fund-raising ability, and, her popularity with her largely rural upstate constituency.
For my part, I've come to like her. I respect her hard work on the job. I respect -- and marvel -- at the fact that she manages to balance a very demanding career with her mothering. She's done right by us, and she deserves her success.
And while she's still a "Blue Dog," her voting record has been liberal.
While she will have her detractors for sure, Gillibrand is poised to play an important role in the Senate as part of the Obama era, and she is well positioned to be a force for change in Congress.