Kirsten Gillibrand, the upstate New York Congresswoman appointed to replace the outgoing Hillary Rodham Clinton, was officially sworn into office on Jan 27. The 42-year-old mother of two becomes the youngest current member of the U.S. Senate, and the first Senator from New York to support full marriage rights for gays and lesbians.
Gillibrand, a pro-gun Democrat who had represented the heavily Republican district around Albany since 2006, made the surprise statement about gay rights during the press conference where Democratic Governor David Paterson announced her selection on Jan 23.
“I will strive for marriage equality,” said Gillibrand at the event, flanked by the state’s political heavyweights.
The statement radically advanced her most recently expressed position. In January, she told Inside/Out, a gay publication based in the Hudson Valley, that she supported civil unions for all 50 states, with individual states deciding whether or not to call them marriage.
Gillibrand’s pro-marriage stance goes beyond the one held by the state’s senior senator, Democrat Charles Schumer, who supports civil unions but opposes gay marriage. Clinton has repeatedly expressed the same position.
According to The New York Observer, support for gay marriage was a prerequisite for anyone seeking the appointment by Paterson. The pro-gay governor ordered the state to recognize out-of-state gay marriages in May, and has vowed to support the gay marriage bill that awaits action in the upper chamber of the state legislature, now controlled by Democrats.
Hours before Paterson selected Gillibrand, a member of his circle reportedly notified her that to secure her selection, she would need to earn the approval of two key gay leaders, New York City Council Speaker Christine Quinn, and Alan Van Capelle, executive director of the Empire State Pride Agenda.
ESPA, the state’s gay advocacy group, later confirmed that Gillibrand supports full marriage equality, repeal of the Defense of Marriage Act, the elimination of the military’s Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell ban on gays, and legislation to outlaw discrimination against transgender people. In the Democratically-controlled U.S. Senate, during the Obama administration, she could have an opportunity to act on each of those issues.
Notably, the last serious contender for the Senate seat to be notified she had not been selected was openly gay labor leader Randi Weingarten, who reportedly did not receive a call from the governor until after midnight on Jan 23. This suggests that New York was close to becoming the first state ever to have an openly LGBT senator.
However, Gillibrand prevailed in a controversial, drawn-out process of almost two months’ duration. During that time, Caroline Kennedy, daughter of the former president, was often presumed to be the pick, until she abruptly withdrew her name from consideration on Jan 22. The about-face led to speculation about her motives, which she claimed were personal. An anonymous source in the governor’s office cited potentially damaging tax and marital issues. GIllibrand now faces a special election in 2010, when anti-gun advocates have already said they would challenge her views, forged in the hunting culture of upstate New York. The new senator has sought to distinguish hunters’ rights from the violence concerns of inner cities, and pledged in her first days at work to embark on a “listening tour” to meet voters around the state.
Hillary Rodham Clinton famously did the same when she was elected in 2000.