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Long IslandColumnistsDan Janison

Gillibrand enjoys electoral good fortune

New York State Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand is a

New York State Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand is a sponsor of the Paycheck Fairness Act, which she said is expected to come to a vote "in the coming weeks." (Aug. 24, 2011) Credit: Howard Schnapp

So far, Kirsten Gillibrand has led a charmed political life.

With a small portion of eligible Republicans having just picked Wendy Long to oppose her, Gillibrand starts out as the clear favorite in November to keep her once-appointed U.S. Senate seat for a full six-year term.

She pushes and she hustles. Her campaign promptly attacks critics. She's cemented powerful alliances.

"Right place, right time," added a jaded GOP operative.

Surely, her current status could not have been predicted.

Less than six years ago, Gillibrand was a 39-year-old Capital District lawyer with only an underdog's chance to unseat Republican Rep. John Sweeney, one-time executive director of the state GOP committee. It became her first and auspicious win. It did not hurt that during the campaign Sweeney -- then in a personal tailspin -- was the subject of a leaked police report regarding a domestic incident involving his wife.

Two years later, in 2008, with then-Sen. Barack Obama at the top of the ticket, Gillibrand beat one-time Republican chairman and former Secretary of State Alexander Treadwell, with more than 62 percent of the vote.

When Obama made Sen. Hillary Clinton U.S. Secretary of State in 2009, Gov. David A. Paterson presided over a carnival of speculation involving dozens of better-known names. He picked Gillibrand as Clinton's successor, pending a special election the following year.

The fallout was unusual.

Gillibrand had been a paid advocate for tobacco companies as a lawyer for a top-flight firm. Once in Congress, she had a 100 percent rating from the National Rifle Association. Her views on English-only and immigration issues stirred concerns among Latinos. She voted against the bank bailout.

Her parents were lawyers involved in Albany Democratic politics -- though her dad, Douglas P. Rutnik Sr., later became a lobbyist with Republican ties, friendly with former Sen. Alfonse D'Amato, for whom she'd once been a summer intern, and who stood in camera range as Paterson introduced her that January day in Albany.

A Democratic primary challenge seemed in store in 2010, when the special election would be held to fill the last two years of the Clinton term. Prospects surfaced, including Reps. Steve Israel, Carolyn McCarthy, and Carolyn Maloney, Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer, even former Tennessee Rep. Harold Ford Jr.

None made the move.

Democratic Party bigs closed ranks behind her -- from Obama and Sen. Charles Schumer on down to state chairman Jay Jacobs. Only an unknown Bloomberg administration lawyer, Gail Goode, came forward, with little message or impact, drawing 24 percent of the primary vote.

All the while, Gillibrand swiftly "evolved" her positions on issues to the point where -- as conservative detractors point out -- the National Journal last year declared her and Oregon's Jeff Merkley the "most liberal" senators in the United States based on their voting records.

Raising funds with vigor from law firms, financial firms, corporations and well-off individuals, she was one of the six Democratic candidates to win statewide in 2010, defeating former GOP Rep. Joe DioGuardi with 65 percent of the vote.

By the fall, we will know if all this electoral good fortune -- bolstered by three years of incumbency, high-profile legislative moments, and a pile of cash -- puts her in office through 2018.

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