2009 Newsmaker: Kirsten Gillibrand
In January 2009, there was a huge sense of hope and optimism over the election of Barack Obama. His decision to pick Hillary Clinton as secretary of state created a ton of buzz in New York, where Gov. David Paterson was tasked with appointing her replacement. New York Democrats in Congress were jumping over themselves trying to get Paterson to pick them. However, high-profile Obama supporter Caroline Kennedy seemed to have pole position, with the national media already anointing her as the replacement to the seat once held by her uncle Robert F. Kennedy.
And then things got crazy. Kennedy’s upstate listening tour was a failure. Elected officials throughout the state started to make plays for the seat. Paterson vetted a few candidates, including then-Attorney General Andrew Cuomo.
On Jan. 22, a day after Clinton took over as secretary of state, the media and political class still wasn’t sure what Paterson would do. The next day, he surprised many by appointing one-term Congresswoman Kirsten Gillibrand, a 42-year-old representative of one of the most moderate districts in the state. Progressives lost their minds. At the time, Gillibrand had a 100 percent positive rating from the National Rifle Association. She boasted of shooting her own turkey on Thanksgiving. Veteran Democrats who had toiled in Congress for decades were openly talking of challenging her in a primary the following year.
But Gillibrand outfoxed her opponents, shifting her positions to quell anger on the left while securing her support among moderates. She has hardly been challenged in elections since. The elevation of Gillibrand to the U.S. Senate, just years after she was simply a lawyer who state Senate Democrats were trying to recruit to run for office, was one of the most impressive political leaps the state has ever seen. That is why she is our newsmaker of the year for 2009.
2009 Newsmaker, Runner-up: Pedro Espada Jr.
It was a beautiful day on June 8, 2009, the second-to-last Monday of the legislative session. The state Senate was going about its business as usual when Republican state Sen. Tom Libous stood up and called for a motion of no confidence. And that started a monthlong tragedy where state Sen. Pedro Espada Jr. was the lead character (with plenty of intriguing supporting cast members – see below).
Espada was upset that Senate President Malcolm Smith, a fellow Democrat, hadn’t given him funds he wanted in the budget earlier in the year. So he plotted this maneuver with several GOP state senators, including Dean Skelos, George Maziarz and Libous, as well as upstate billionaire Tom Golisano and Western New York political operative Steve Pigeon.
Espada, along with fellow Democrat Hiram Monserrate, announced that they would caucus with the Republicans, giving the GOP the majority. The Democrats, unsure of what to do, gaveled out of session, walked out of the chamber and turned the lights off on their way out the door. Over the next month, government came to a standstill. Monserrate rejoined the Democrats, but that left a 31-31 split in the chamber. At the time, there was no lieutenant governor who could break the tie because David Paterson had become governor the year before and there was no process in place for him to name a replacement. And so the chamber became a parliamentary minefield for weeks. Any business lobbyists and lawmakers had hoped to get done in the final days was scrapped.
Finally, in early July, Democrats cut a deal with Espada that made him the state Senate majority leader – as part of a power play that left Smith as Senate president but with no power, and John Sampson as the leader of the Senate Democratic conference.
Espada’s bold move made him one of the most hated people in state politics, a title he still holds to this day, but there is no doubt he was one of the biggest newsmakers in 2009.