She Ate His Lunch
Lloyd Grove talks to Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand about how she saw off a primary challenge from Harold Ford.
Tennessee transplant Harold Ford ended his quest to be New York’s junior senator Tuesday, and Senator Kirsten Gillibrand—who won’t have to face him in September’s Democratic primary—took a calm and measured victory lap.
“I have always been underestimated—not only by potential opponents but by the media and by people who don’t know me well,” Gillibrand told me a few hours after the former Memphis congressman turned in a remarkably grumpy performance on MSNBC’s Morning Joe program. On the show, Ford lashed out petulantly at Gillibrand and the Democratic Party power brokers, such as New York’s senior senator, Chuck Schumer, and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, who worked to strangle Ford’s candidacy in the crib.
“I don’t think he had a path to victory,” Gillibrand said of Ford.
“I was appointed,” said Gillibrand, a former upstate New York congresswoman, acknowledging that scandal-plagued Governor David Paterson lifted her out of obscurity to succeed Hillary Clinton, who left to become President Obama’s Secretary of State. “So it takes time for voters to know me. But I know voters, and I know New Yorkers, and I’ve been connecting with them for over a year.”
The political press treated the 39-year-old Ford’s withdrawal as big news, but the 43-year-old native New Yorker saw it as a foregone conclusion. “Every candidate makes their own decision about whether to run and whether they can win,” Gillibrand said, “but I don’t think he had a path to victory.”
As for Paterson, the man who appointed her, whom she had previously endorsed for the governorship, Gillibrand is not among the New York Democrats calling for his resignation—at least not yet. “The allegations, as reported, are very serious, and there is no place for domestic violence or abuse of power in society and certainly not in government,” she said, adding that she wants to see the results of Attorney General Andrew Cuomo’s investigation. “I think the governor made the right decision to not run for election.”
• Peter Beinart: Harold Ford’s Bumbling ExitWhat of her own vaunted vulnerability, as indicated by various polls?
“I don’t think it’s true,” Gillibrand said. “I think that’s just punditry.”
Ford had given up his own paid gig in punditry—to say nothing of a multimillion-dollar sinecure at Merrill Lynch—to explore his options and travel the state. And in his less-than-triumphal return Tuesday morning to MSNBC after a two-month absence—“I’m home!” he announced to hosts Joe Scarborough and Mika Brzezinski—he sounded like the sore loser of a high-school student-body election.
“We would have won a primary,” Ford claimed, adding that he selflessly opted out because “the last thing I wanted to see is for this seat to go Republican… It would have a close, tough, tough fight—a brutal fight….I spent seven weeks traveling and listening, and I can assure you the voters don’t know the junior senator. They can’t name a single positive outcome from her… She will be labeled for the failures of Washington, the failures of Albany.”
In a veritable fusillade of parting shots, Ford added that he visited the upstate city of Syracuse on Monday and “in the seven weeks that I paid for my own way to get around the state, I was there more times than Kirsten Gillibrand was since she’s been a United States senator.” (“His facts are wrong,” Gillibrand responded.) Ford went on: “There’s a lot of work for Democrats to do, and even a lot more work for her to do.”
If Ford was not in a gracious mood, who could blame him? In the past several weeks, Gillibrand—in the form of her combat-ready campaign—never once took her spiky heel off his Adam’s apple, mass-emailing negative press releases about his allegedly flip-flopping positions on abortion rights and gay marriage, his seven-figure Wall Street bonuses, his ambiguous New York tax status, and a host of other damaging personal attacks. The senator makes no apology.
“If you look at my last two elections,” she said, referring to her House campaigns in 2006 and 2008, “you can see what a fighter I am. In my first election, I ran against an eight-year incumbent in a Republican district—an incumbent who was on the Appropriations Committee and well liked.”
Gillibrand fixed that. She beat Republican Rep. John Sweeney after the Albany Times Union published an October surprise days before the election—an account of a domestic violence police report involving Sweeney and his wife. It’s widely assumed in political circles, though never proved, that the Gillibrand campaign alerted the paper to the report. Today, Gillibrand’s operatives decline to take credit, but the episode serves as warning to anyone who’d doubt her will to win.
In the past year, Gillibrand has traveled to all 62 of New York’s counties, gathered endorsements in every corner of the state from public officials and key advocacy groups, and aggressively starting raising the many millions of dollars necessary for a fall campaign. (So far, only former mayoral candidate Bruce Blakeman has jumped into the race, while former governor George Pataki and former Bush administration official Dan Senor are reportedly weighing their prospects; billionaire Daily News owner Mort Zuckerman dropped out of the running Tuesday night.) For a decidedly unflashy politician who tends to speak in talking points, Gillibrand has mounted a formidable operation.
“I think when Harold started looking at this, he didn’t appreciate what a strong record Kirsten has,” said Gillibrand supporter Nita Lowey, who represents New York’s 18th Congressional District comprising Westchester County. “I served with him in the House but I don’t know what motivates him. Maybe he missed being out of office, he missed being a candidate, and he enjoyed all the attention he was getting. And then after the responses to some of his requests for money, I think he really knew he couldn’t win.”
Former New York City Public Advocate Betsy Gotbaum, another Gillibrand supporter, told me she was irked by the subtle sexism of New York politics circa 2010. “I never understood why people were saying that she hadn’t done anything since she’s been a senator—that made me so angry,” Gotbaum said. “Kirsten has done a good number of things, and she’s very smart. It’s just that she’s not a press hound… I never understood why people would think Harold Ford would represent New York any better than she would.”
Discussing her only announced Republican opponent, Blakeman, Gillibrand told me: “I think at the end of the day I will run a vigorous campaign on my record, and my record will be very different than his… I’m just going to keep doing what I’m doing, and that’s trying to be the best senator I can be.”
Lloyd Grove is editor at large for The Daily Beast. He is also a frequent contributor to New York magazine and was a contributing editor for Condé Nast Portfolio. He wrote a gossip column for the New York Daily News from 2003 to 2006. Prior to that, he wrote the Reliable Source column for the Washington Post, where he spent 23 years covering politics, the media, and other subjects.