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Gillibrand says she's the 'voice of the voiceless'

NY Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand is interviewed by Newsday

NY Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand is interviewed by Newsday in her office. (Jan. 27, 2010) Credit: Newsday /Alejandra Villa

WASHINGTON - Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand insists she's no Martha Coakley.

Despite what appears to be a tough political year for incumbents, the appointed junior senator from New York said she won't suffer an upset loss this fall as Massachusetts Democratic Senate candidate Coakley did in a Jan. 19 special election.

"We do not have a Martha Coakley problem in New York," Gillibrand said. "I am someone who will stand on my record, who will fight very hard for New Yorkers. There will be no doubt who I am fighting for at the end of this race. I just don't think the same circumstances will apply in any respect."

And despite recent slights - potential rival Harold Ford Jr., the outspoken former Tennessee congressman, called her "weak" and a "parakeet" for top Democrats - Gillibrand refused to play the gender card.

"I don't think it's an issue with regard to the voters at all," Gillibrand said.


Unknown by many

In an interview Wednesday on the first anniversary of her appointment, Gillibrand predicted voters will reward her with their votes in the fall for her hard work and commitment to New York. But analysts and pollsters said they are not so sure.

Surveys find many New Yorkers still don't know her, and less than half support her.

"There is not yet an identifiable Gillibrand brand to take the electorate," said David Birdsell, a Baruch College expert.

Meanwhile, politics now are too fluid in the wake of Coakley's loss to make a prediction.

"Can she win? Yes," said Lee Miringoff of the Marist Poll. "Can she be defeated? Yes."

Gillibrand has had a year to mend fences with unhappy Long Island and city members of the House, and to put her morphing from upstate conservative to downstate liberal on guns and immigration behind her.

"I think voters are just getting to know me," she said, and predicted they will appreciate her jobs agenda, her work to protect children, on terrorism and regulatory reform.

She touts her role as a champion of women, immigrants and gays, especially in her bid to end the "don't ask, don't tell" military policy for gays. And she's put on miles visiting every county in New York.

She's also trying to emerge from the shadow of Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.), her mentor and protector from challengers. They're close on issues: They disagreed on just seven roll call votes out of 380. "We both support Obama's agenda," she said.


Branding herself

But she's still searching for the memorable image to impress upon voters before an opponent defines her.

Ford, as he makes a splash across the state while weighing a challenge, may help her do that. She is tacking to his left. And she's unveiled a new image of herself: "the voice of the voiceless."

Could Gillibrand lose like Coakley?

Many reasons are cited for Coakley's loss: Her failure to campaign hard enough, her lack of money, her opponent's political skills, her inability to spot a coming voter backlash.

So far Gillibrand faces a thin field of challengers. But Coakley faced a little-known opponent in Republican victor Scott Brown.

Gillibrand declined to talk specifically about Coakley or why she lost, but signaled she'll take nothing for granted in the Senate election. She said in her two House races, she was outspent but never outworked.

But last week some analysts also blamed Coakley's loss to Brown on a political "glass ceiling" in Massachusetts. Few women, they say, have won statewide races there. That's also true in New York.

Hillary Rodham Clinton was an exception - but she had star power from her White House years most can't match.

Officials at the State League of Women Voters and the Eleanor Roosevelt Legacy project, which seeks to get more women into elected offices, acknowledge hurdles in New York.

Asked if a Coakley upset could happen to Gillibrand, Marcia Pappas of the feminist NOW-New York State said, "The answer is that yes, it could, and we're going to work hard so it doesn't."

Gillibrand acknowledged she is the brunt of gender-related gibes from pundits and news media. But she said she faced that in her two House races - dismissed as just another "pretty face" - and won anyway.

"Any woman who has been in a professional atmosphere or worked in a law firm or worked in an American business knows there is some gender bias in every single industry," she said. "But that's the playing field you work on, so you work around it. That's the playing field we're in and you have to win the support of voters regardless."

PHOTOS: Click here to see photos of Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand

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