Tuesday, January 27th, 2009
James Besser in Washington
Politicos are still puzzling over last week’s appointment of Kirsten Gillibrand to Hillary Clinton’s seat in the U.S. Senate and Gov. David Paterson’s missteps in announcing his choice – a “mishandled circus,” according to CUNY political scientist Douglas Muzzio..
But one thing you can take to the bank: Gillibrand, who will face voters statewide in 2010, is going to be eating a lot of kosher chicken in the months ahead.
Gillibrand brings to the job a thin foreign policy resume and a mostly blank slate on the Middle East. The word “Israel” never appears on her official congressional Web site, although she called herself an “unwavering supporter of the special friendship that exists between the US and Israel” in a 2006 position paper.
You don’t need to be a high-powered political consultant to know what happens next: an aggressive outreach campaign as Gillibrand introduces herself to a politically influential Jewish community and tries to convince them she will be as strong an advocate for Jewish causes as her predecessor – and the Republican who appeared at the event announcing her appointment, former Sen. Alfonse D’Amato.
“Her district is overwhelmingly white and Christian, and she hasn’t had much contact with all kinds of different religious, racial and ethnic groups,” said Muzzio. “So she has her work cut out for her; she has to work 24/7 to learn not just about the issues, but about the folks who she wants to vote for her.”
It’s not only her lack of foreign policy and Israel experience that could bother Jewish voters; so could her pro-gun views and policies on immigration that prompted expressions of concern from the New York Immigration Coalition, which noted her opposition to a path to citizenship for illegal immigrations – something supported by a number of major Jewish groups.
Assemblyman Peter Rivera, the senior Latino in the Albany legislator, said her stance on immigration “borders on xenophobia,” according to press reports.
That, along with her perfect score from the National Rifle Association, makes Gillibrand a “curious choice for a state where Democratic politics are more liberal than almost any other,” Muzzio said.
And it almost guarantees a strong primary challenge from a Democrat more in tune with liberal downstaters – all the more reason Gillibrand has to to start working the Jewish community now.
But Kean University political scientist Gilbert Kahn said effective outreach could bridge the gap Gillibrand faces.
“She’s very bright, she lived in New York City for a few years and she’s a quick learner,” Kahn said. “Barring bad mistakes and with a good staff, she should quickly get on board.”
Kahn pointed out that Hillary Clinton started her first Senate run in 2000 with some big negatives with Jewish voters – including her too-friendly encounter with Suha Arafat – and ended up a favorite with pro-Israel Jews.