Gillibrand’s wide appeal

When Hillary Clinton announced that she would give up her Senate seat to become President Obama’s secretary of State in late 2008, few Democrats worried about her successor being reelected to a full term in 2010 in one of the bluest states of all.

So when Gov. David Paterson surprised many political observers by selecting Kirsten Gillibrand, a relative unknown, little did Empire State Democrats know that come 2010 the political climate would have changed so dramatically that Paterson’s pick would look increasingly prescient. New York may not yet be a red state, but polls show its independents and moderate Republicans are not much different from their counterparts in other states in their frustration with the incumbents in Washington.

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The fact is, if you had to invent a Democrat who has the capability appealing broadly to the center — once she becomes better-known, which she surely will — I can’t think of anyone better than Gillibrand. In a little more than one term in the House and about 18 months in the Senate, Gillibrand has established herself as a serious progressive Democrat with appeal to political independents and even some conservatives — exactly the purple tint Democrats will need to be sure the state elects a Democrat.

In 2006, Gillibrand ran for the House from an Albany-suburban and rural district widely seen as a safe conservative Republican seat, with a popular incumbent, John Sweeney. Yet, showing the broad appeal just mentioned, including among rural voters who valued their right to gun ownership (now constitutionally upheld by the Supreme Court), she won, 53-47. Then in 2008, Rep. Gillibrand proved her broad appeal was for real, winning by a landslide, 62-38.

As a senator representing the entire state, Gillibrand has consistently supported the Obama administration’s key legislative initiatives: the $787 billion stimulus bill, the president’s national healthcare proposal and the strengthened financial services regulatory legislation.

One theme of her first few months in the Senate that has quickly emerged — not surprisingly, a theme that has transcendent bipartisan appeal — is transparency and reform of the often dysfunctional Senate. For example, she has co-sponsored — along with leading conservative Republican Sens. John McCain (Ariz.) and Tom Coburn (Okla.) — the “Earmark Transparency Act,” which requires all earmarks to be posted on the Internet, with full disclosure concerning who is making the request, for how much money, for what purpose and benefit and whether there is private money also involved in financing the project.

Also significant has been Gillibrand’s bipartisan effort to end the “secret” or “silent hold” rule in the Senate, which allows a single member out of 100, without revealing him- or herself, to prevent legislation from being voted upon. She and a group of 67 senators wrote the majority and minority leaders a letter asking for an end to this practice — or, at the very least, requiring senators seeking to exercise the “hold” privilege (a privilege I still cannot accept) to be fully transparent.

Thus, Gillibrand’s brand of progressive centrism should not only be successful in her New York Senate campaign but could serve as a model for other Democrats looking to escape what many political observers believe will be an anti-Democrat, anti-incumbent deluge in the fall congressional elections.

Mr. Davis is a Washington D.C. attorney and principal in the legal crisis management firm of Lanny J. Davis & Associates. He served as President Clinton’s special counsel in 1996-98 and as a member of President George W. Bush’s Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board in 2006-07. He is the author of Scandal: How ‘Gotcha’ Politics Is Destroying America (Palgrave Macmillan 2006).


This article was revised at 9:19 a.m. on July 29.