Monday, July 4, 2011

A Gillibrand Campaign: More Women in Politics

By RAYMOND HERNANDEZ, from New York Times

WASHINGTON — As a girl, Kirsten E. Gillibrand learned about politics from her grandmother, Dorothea Noonan, a secretary in the New York State Legislature who defied the norms of her day and organized other women into what became a formidable political club in Albany.

Ms. Noonan, known as Polly, would take her granddaughter to the Albany Democratic Women’s Club when election season rolled around and had her stuff envelopes, work phone banks, slap bumper stickers on cars, hand out fliers and knock on doors. “I grew up watching her run these campaigns,” Ms. Gillibrand said of her grandmother, who rose to become a major figure in the legendary political machine operating in Albany during the mayoralty of Erastus Corning 2nd. “It was pretty important to me.”

Now, Ms. Gillibrand is a senator, embarking on a similar effort — albeit on a far larger stage. She has begun a campaign, called Off the Sidelines, to mobilize women across the country, in advance of the national elections next year and as evidence emerges that the slow but steady progress made by women in elective politics has begun to stall.

In the past few months, Ms. Gillibrand activated her network of donors to help female candidates, emerged as a headliner among audiences of women, tried to recruit female candidates, advised women thinking about running, and started a Web site, Her efforts were most recently on display during a special election in May to fill an open House seat in New York’s 26th District, one of the most conservative regions of the state, where the Democrats faced an uphill battle.

While top Democrats in Washington were initially reluctant to get behind the Democrat in the race, Kathy Hochul, Ms. Gillibrand was not: she raised money, campaigned for Ms. Hochul and dispatched her closest advisers to the district.

Ms. Hochul, a former Erie County clerk, won the race. In an interview last week, she said the support Ms. Gillibrand provided had been a turning point for her. “She gave me legitimacy at a time when other people were not taking our race seriously,” she said. “We spoke frequently on the phone. She gave me a lot of encouragement.”

Ms. Gillibrand said that part of what was driving her was a little-noticed outcome of the 2010 elections: the number of women in Congress actually declined — by a small fraction — for the first time in 30 years.

Ms. Gillibrand said the decline was all the more astonishing given that it came just two years after Hillary Rodham Clinton, her predecessor in the Senate, had waged a historic campaign for the White House.

Women in elective politics face hurdles outside Congress. Currently, women hold 22.1 percent of available statewide executive positions, down from 27.6 percent 10 years ago, according to the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University.

In many ways, Ms. Gillibrand, who is 44, epitomizes the ways in which women are asserting themselves in politics these days.

For decades, women in elective office felt compelled to blur the distinctions between them and men: presenting themselves as tough and able while largely concealing their softer qualities. But like many political women of her generation, Ms. Gillibrand feels no such constraints, regularly talking about the demands she faces as a mother and a wife.

In fact, Ms. Gillibrand goes a step further, arguing that an infusion of women into the political system would go a long way toward changing the tone in Congress, a male-dominated world of fiercely clashing egos.

“We tend to be more results-oriented and less concerned with getting the credit,” Ms. Gillibrand explained. “The female approach is more conciliatory and less combative. We tend to use a more civil tone.”

Beyond that, Ms. Gillibrand contends, it should be a source of concern to women that the issues that are important to them — like workplace discrimination and access to child care — are being decided by lawmakers who are almost exclusively male.

Ms. Gillibrand’s efforts represent a distinct phase in her own political evolution since 2009, when David A. Paterson, then the governor, appointed her to the Senate seat vacated by Mrs. Clinton, who left to become secretary of state.

Since then, Ms. Gillibrand, a former upstate congresswoman, has gone on to win election to the Senate on her own and accumulate a string of legislative victories that have silenced some of the early criticism that she lacked the credentials to replace the likes of Mrs. Clinton.

The extent to which Ms. Gillibrand can energize women for next year’s races remains to be seen. But Representative Debbie Wasserman Schultz of Florida, who heads the Democratic National Committee, indicated that the party stood to benefit.

“I look at this effort as significant and important,” she said, while stressing that Ms. Gillibrand, not the party, was the force behind the initiative.

Long before embarking on this campaign, Ms. Gillibrand had an interest in getting more women elected to Congress. In the last election, for example, Ms. Gillibrand persuaded an old friend, Terri Sewell, to run for a House seat in Alabama. In the end, Ms. Sewell won, becoming the first black woman elected to Congress from that state.

Ms. Gillibrand made it clear who her role model was. “When women’s voices are heard,” she said, “the outcomes are better. That is what my grandmother taught me.”

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