WASHINGTON - As Congress neared the end of session in December 2010, Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand met with a key Republican who was blocking the Zadroga 9/11 health bill.

During that 20-minute meeting in his Russell Senate Building office, Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) presented his demand: Cut the cost from $7 billion to $4 billion and its 10-year span in half.

"Even though that might have been a deal-breaker to somebody else, to me that was a meaningful request that I thought could be accommodated," Gillibrand said in an interview last week.

As she runs for re-election this year, the New York Democrat cites passage of the law to aid ailing 9/11 first responders as one of her signature achievements.

Those who have worked with Gillibrand say it also shows her legislative approach during the three years she has been in the Senate: persistent pursuit of her goals by winning support from powerful insiders while organizing pressure from advocates and outsiders, and a willingness to compromise.

But with less than nine months before the election, polls show about 30 percent of New York voters don't know who she is.

Republicans and Gillibrand will battle during the campaign to define her record as she steps into the spotlight in the only statewide race.

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While Republicans have not settled on a candidate, state GOP chairman Ed Cox has launched attacks on Gillibrand for her support of President Barack Obama and the Democrats' agenda, and what he described as her "flip flops" on gun rights and gay marriage.

"We believe Senator Gillibrand is vulnerable," Cox said.

Jay Jacobs, chairman of the New York State and Nassau County Democrats, said any Republican faces an uphill climb against Gillibrand, who has $8 million in campaign funds.

"She's a genuine moderate who should appeal to Republicans and upstate," he said.

Gillibrand hasn't begun formal campaigning yet, but has laid out her top issues for this year: job creation and growing the economy, transparency in government and women's economic empowerment.

It's the agenda she'll run on as she defends her transformation from a self-described conservative Democrat representing an upstate House district to a senator for all of New York who says she is liberal on some issues and moderate on others.


Developing her style

Gillibrand, 46, of upstate Brunswick, was a surprise appointment by former Gov. David A. Paterson to fill Hillary Rodham Clinton's seat in 2009 after Clinton was named Secretary of State. Gillibrand remains in the shadow of the senior senator from New York, Charles Schumer, the third-ranking Senate Democrat.

Yet she's drawing notice as a Senate sponsor and advocate for the Zadroga law and for last week's approval of a national broadband network for emergency first responders. And she's attracting attention for pushing a ban on insider trading by lawmakers and defending a rule requiring insurance to cover contraceptives.

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"She kept her head low for a while, and now is picking and choosing her spots a little more," said political consultant Jim Manley, former spokesman for Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.).

Gillibrand sits on the armed services and agriculture committees, reflecting her interest in farm policy and state military bases such as Fort Drum.

She has the support of the influential Schumer, chairman of the Senate Democratic Policy and Communications Center.

"We work as a team," Schumer said, noting Gillibrand works well with legislators and interest groups. "She's very good at figuring out who can be helpful."

She has had politically awkward moments. In 2010, Gillibrand said she would offer an amendment in committee to ease a ban on banks trading derivatives in the Dodd Frank financial regulation bill, but backed off when she couldn't muster support.

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Yet GOP strategist Jay Townsend, who lost to Schumer in 2010 and disagrees with most of Gillibrand's positions, said, "I don't see anything I would consider a misstep."

"She wants to be liked," Manley said. "She just doesn't play it mean."

Gillibrand is not a top national target of Republicans, who are focusing on Senate seats in more competitive states.


Issues her rivals may raise

Nassau County Comptroller George Maragos, seeking the GOP nomination to run against Gillibrand, has criticized her votes for the Obama health care law and Dodd Frank. Both are "driving jobs from New York," he said.

Gillibrand said new regulation was needed. "The worst thing in the world for New York would be another financial collapse," she said.

Conservatives also attack her stand for the gay and lesbian right to serve openly in the military, enter same-sex marriages and adopt children, as well as a woman's right to abortion and contraception.

Tom McClusky of the Family Research Council Action, a conservative anti-abortion group here, said Gillibrand "was from a heavily Catholic district, but she seems to have left her roots behind."

Gillibrand insisted she has always supported gay rights, and cites the repeal of the "Don't Ask Don't Tell" law for gays and lesbians in the military as a top achievement.

Her early and highly visible advocacy for that bill prompted key Democrats such as Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin (D-Mich.) and the White House to make it a legislative priority, said activist Richard Socarides, a former Clinton White House aide. "Her willingness to stick her neck out first was really important," he said.

Cox criticized her for defending the new federal rule requiring employer insurance coverage for contraceptives against Catholic bishops' charge that it violates religious freedom.

"I rely on my faith as a Catholic," Gillibrand said, but she added, "You have to be true to your convictions."

Yet even Maragos said, "On the Zadroga bill, I think she deserves some credit."

Last week, Gillibrand recalled the Dec. 20 meeting with Coburn that broke the logjam after years of work on a bill once considered dead. Coburn's office confirmed the meeting, but he declined to comment. Gillibrand coordinated first-responder lobbying and worked on GOP opponents.

But Gillibrand also acknowledged all the others who pushed the bill forward: first responders who lobbied for it, New Yorkers in the House, television host Jon Stewart, and Reid and Schumer, who sealed the deal in a final meeting with Coburn and Sen. Mike Enzi (R-Wyo.).

John Feal, the 9/11 activist who lobbied Congress with the first responders, singled out Gillibrand for her passion and persistence on the bill. "The 9/11 community owes her a debt of gratitude," he said.



Gillibrand's Senate record


Here are bills Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) sponsored and votes she made that Republicans say they likely will raise during the campaign:




UPSTATE WORKS ACT: Seeks to use grants, guaranteed loans and tax credits to create jobs in manufacturing of solar energy and similar technology, help farmers and fund job training.

Status: Pending

The debate: Gillibrand says it's needed for job creation. Critics say it will cause more dependence on government and that slashing regulations would help more.


PROTECT IP ACT: Sought to preserve copyrights being stolen by foreign websites.

Status: Being rewritten.

The debate: Gillibrand says Internet piracy of American movies, music and books must be stopped because it's costing billions of dollars in lost revenues. Critics say the original measure would have curtailed free speech and entrepreneurship and hurt New York's tech community.


REPEAL OF "DON'T ASK DON'T TELL" POLICY that allowed gays to serve in the U.S. military as long as they kept their sexual orientation private

Status: Passed.

The debate: Gillibrand called it step for equality. Opponents noted the opposition of military brass who said the measure could cause it might be disruptive to troops.





Vote: For

Status: Passed

The debate: Gillibrand said President Barack Obama's health care overhaul would allow nearly everyone to get health care. Critics said it would kill jobs and raise costs.



Vote: For

Status: Passed

The debate: Gillibrand said the bill would help stave off financial disasters of that type that have rocked Wall Street. Critics say the law is driving jobs and investment overseas.



Vote: Against

Status: Passed

The debate: Gillibrand said she wanted the ceiling raised but that automatic cuts in the deal would harm New York's military and medical institutions. Critics said the deal's failure would have harmed Medicare and Social Security recipients.

Compiled by Tom Brune