Kirsten Gillibrand

(WOMENSENEWS)–Kirsten Gillibrand, a 39-year-old Democrat running in a northern New York district that her party hopes to wrest from the GOP, is waging a strong final-push campaign against four-term Republican incumbent Congressman John Sweeney.

A Siena College poll of 628 registered voters conducted 10 weeks ahead of the election Aug. 21-23 showed Sweeney leading Gillibrand by 19 percentage points, with 53 percent of the vote compared to her 34 percent.

But late last week, an online campaign-monitoring service, re-rated the race to “no clear favorite,” from “leans Republican.”

“A 19-point lead in August is a nice cushion, but you’re not ordering the champagne yet,” said Steven Greenberg, spokesperson for the pollster, Siena Research Institute, when asked by Women’s eNews if he believed Gillibrand could win. “It’s certainly not a done deal.”

“If I was a Republican incumbent running in New York this year, I wouldn’t be sitting back trusting those polls,” said Carrie Giddins, deputy communications director at EMILY’s List, a pro-choice Democrat political action committee that has endorsed Gillibrand. “We’re seeing that across the country, women putting together really strong campaigns and surprising incumbents.”

Greenberg said the Siena Institute will probably conduct another poll on the race in about two weeks.

“I really prepared myself for this race,” said Gillibrand (pronounced Jill-uh-brand), an attorney who is taking time off from a Manhattan-based law firm to give Sweeney, 51, the biggest battle of his career.

Gillibrand’s home is in Hudson, two hours north of Manhattan and the county seat of Columbia County, part of New York’s 20th congressional district. The district covers all or parts of 10 upstate counties. While it skirts Albany and other cities, it draws in many GOP-dominated suburban areas.

Gillibrand’s ability to keep pace with Sweeney in fundraising is a key factor in her campaign’s viability, Greenberg said. According to the two campaigns, Sweeney has so far raised $2.3 million and Gillibrand $1.8 million.

Many state workers live in and around Albany, the state capital, giving union endorsements significant political sway.

But while key union endorsements have been split between the candidates, dairy farmers and small-town voters give the GOP a solid edge. The district has the lowest percentage of minorities in the state; 53 percent of voters chose George W. Bush in the 2004 presidential election.

Testing War Attitudes

To an extent, the race is testing the district’s stance on the war in Iraq and voters’ satisfaction with Republican leadership in both houses of Congress and the executive office.

Both campaigns have been running television commercials for months and Gillibrand billboards have recently begun popping up throughout the district.

Gillibrand’s ads reiterate her stump message: It’s time to change the country’s direction. She supports a detailed exit strategy for Iraq and her campaign has criticized Sweeney’s support of Bush, especially as regards the war.

John Sweeney

Sweeney’s campaign spokesperson, Maureen O’Brien Donovan, said the congressman believes it’s not about when U.S. soldiers leave Iraq or how long they stay. “Iraq needs to be a better place than what it was when we got there,” she said.

Gillibrand says Sweeney’s voting record–against raising the minimum wage and for cutting education, Medicare, Medicaid and veterans’ health care funding–goes against “working families.”

Gillibrand says she supports tax-deductible college tuition, increasing research and development for alternative energy, fully funding and reforming the “No Child Left Behind” education act. She is against the privatization of Social Security; Sweeney has not indicated his stance.

Sweeney, who is also an attorney, was previously executive director and chief counsel to the New York State Republican Party.

A member of the Homeland Security and Appropriations committees, Sweeney has steered three-quarters of a billion dollars back to his district during his time in Congress, Donovan said. Funded projects have included a breast cancer research center in Albany, transportation improvements, dairy subsidies to farmers and alternative energy research.

Women’s Campaign School Graduate

Gillibrand literally grew up in the lap of politics. Her father is a lobbyist and from a young age she helped her late grandmother, Polly Noonan, founder of the first women’s Democratic Club in Albany, canvass door to door.

Before she entered the political fray, Gillibrand attended the Women’s Campaign School at Yale University, a nonpartisan political training program for female candidates and campaign staff.

She also spent 10 years raising funds for other candidates and organizing support for leading state Democrats such as Andrew Cuomo, now running for state attorney general, and Eliot Spitzer, the favored candidate in the race for New York governor. In 2003 she helped form the Women’s Leadership Forum in Washington, D.C., to help engage women under 40 in national politics.

Gillibrand worked as special counsel in the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development in 2000, where her work included representing abused women and their children and tenants seeking safe housing.

The race has often been vitriolic.

Gillibrand has accused Sweeney of taking lobbyist-paid ski trips and said his attacks against her place of residence, her family and her failure to release tax returns–she filed all required papers, Gillibrand said–are just meant to distract from his own record.

Sweeney has painted Gillibrand as an out-of-touch, prep school-educated interloper from Manhattan who doesn’t understand the constituents’ needs.

Sweeney accused Gillibrand of latching onto the national Democratic Party and its agenda. One press release headline read, “Kirsten Can’t Cut It; Depends on Outside Attacks From Liberal Groups.”

Attacks on Both Sides

The politically progressive political action group has run ads attacking Sweeney, saying he was “caught red-handed” frittering tax dollars by supporting wasteful Iraq projects. It showed a black and white picture of Sweeney with his hand painted red.

The nonpartisan Annenberg Political Fact Check of the University of Pennsylvania has pointed out that Democratic lawmakers generally voted the same way on most of the same measures. endorsed three congressional candidates with similar voting records, Fact Check said.

Sweeney countered with a flyer saying Gillibrand and her allies were “caught red-faced” lying about him, and accused her of “war profiteering.” The flyer featured unflattering photos of Gillibrand shaded red.

A solidly pro-choice Democrat, Gillibrand has been endorsed by abortion rights advocacy groups Planned Parenthood Advocates of New York, Planned Parenthood Action Fund and NARAL Pro-Choice America.

Sweeney’s record on reproductive health is mixed. Six out of eight votes Sweeney cast for reproductive rights issues were considered anti-choice by Planned Parenthood Action Fund, the political arm of Planned Parenthood Federation of America.

Sweeney, however, also voted to lift the “global gag rule,” which bars foreign nongovernmental organizations from receiving U.S. family planning assistance if the organization provides abortion services or information, or advocates for legalization of abortion laws and policies in their own country. Sweeney also voted against prohibiting the Food and Drug Administration from spending funds to test, develop or approve any drug that induces an abortion, including RU-486.

Taitia Shelow is a journalist in upstate New York.

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Women’s eNews Spotlight on 2006 Midterm Election Races:

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