Rita Henley Jensen

NEW YORK (WOMENSENEWS)–I am only human after all. I have sworn to uphold the basic creed of my profession by maintaining a healthy skepticism, often going as far as suspicion, of all elected officials.

I, however, am writing this now to admit I fail in the case of Kirsten Gillibrand, the new junior U.S. senator for New York, with whom I share the upstate-downstate, New York identity.

I have followed her closely for a few years now because she represented the mountainous northern district where I vote and own a cabin. There the political sensibilities are shaped by forever-wild forests, crystal-clear lakes, mining, timber, hunting and winning Olympic winter sports teams.

Now that she has come down to New York, where I spend my hours not in reclusion, but with a cosmopolitan throng of colleagues, friends and neighbors, I have been checking myself to see just how staunch my political support for her might be in the new context.

After watching her step into the limelight, and up to the pressure of her new constituency this past week, I am ready to say she’s still the senator for me, even down here, where the air comes rushing in from the Atlantic over Lady Liberty and into my neighborhood filled with new immigrants from the Dominican Republic.

Like others I have been unhappy about her opposition to gun control and the way she fell short on the rights of immigrants. I also have deep respect for Rep. Carolyn McCarthy, the U.S. lawmaker from Long Island, an ardent advocate of gun control, who has pledged to run against Gillibrand in the primary. (A gun in a home is the most significant factor in transforming domestic violence into domestic homicide.)

But as I watch Gillibrand open up to her new, statewide constituency, and show such candid willingness to revise and recalibrate her positions on everything from the constitutionality of gun control to whether police officers should double as immigration cops, I feel she deserves my downstate fandom now, as much as she did when she was running upstate.

I first noticed Gillibrand when I saw her name in a news article about congressional candidates in 2006 races. At that point, all I needed to know was that she indeed was a “she,” an important but not decisive characteristic. She was running for a seat in the mountainous northeastern section of my home state, where I spend too few extremely precious hours, often with my family but, occasionally, in glorious solitude.

‘Who Is She?’

Hmm. A woman running for Congress in a district where I could vote if I changed my registration to upstate? Maybe I should? Who is she?

I suggested to our editors that we assign a story about this remarkable candidate from the Land of Macho.

The profile we ran in October included the information that she was born and raised in Albany, the state’s capital, and had learned electoral politics literally at her grandmother’s knee, spending hours licking envelopes for mass mailings. Sweet.

She was against the war in Iraq, odd for a candidate from the northern part of the state, and had been trained at Yale’s Women’s Campaign School. Also rare. She was an attorney working as an associate in Manhattan in the law firm of David Boies, the lawyer who represented Al Gore in the Supreme Court case Gore v. Bush, challenging the Florida election of 2000. Sweeter. I am a big fan of all the votes being counted.

But whom was she running against? After all, my best friend is a Republican, as are some outstanding members of the Congress, and she was 19 points behind in the polls. A bit of research turned up that her opponent, John E. Sweeney, a four-term incumbent, was in the leader of the Republican-led demonstration outside the Miami Board of Elections in 2000 that demanded the board members stop counting the votes in the disputed election. Sweetest.

Committed to Voting for Her

I switched my registration.

She needed my vote and I was going to give it to her, even though I would need to drive 8.5 hours to do it and that I would no longer be able to vote in the local elections affecting my Manhattan neighborhood, where I had cast my ballot for 20 years in the YMHA directly across the street from my building.

I followed her campaign remotely from my home Internet connection. Women’s eNews had already done our story about her and, as a journalist, I could do no more than watch and worry.

As I drove toward my cabin on the Saturday before the election, I listened to the local public radio station. A reporter from the Albany Times Union newspaper was being interviewed about why the paper ran with a story about a 9-1-1 call from Sweeney’s wife, Gaia, stating Sweeney was “knocking her around the house.” When asked about the call, Sweeney and spouse said the report was “inaccurate” but did not specifically deny its contents. (Last seen, the couple was in divorce court.)

The reporter said he had just finished a multi-part series on domestic violence and had insisted the women he featured permit him to use their names. He would have dishonored all those brave women, he said, if he had not run the story.

Challenged a Suspected Abuser

I basked. I was going to be able to vote for a woman challenging a suspected wife abuser who had led the Republican protests in Miami to stop counting the votes.

I had a magical, solitary weekend with warm temperatures, long hikes and quiet work amid the splendor of autumn in a hardwood forest. Monday morning, checking Gillibrand’s Web site, I learned Bill Clinton would make a personal appearance at a local airstrip to support her. I rushed off to meet them, anxious to see Gillibrand in person.

There she was, shaking hands, standing next to the Big Guy in a jam-packed hangar. I signed in as editor of Women’s eNews and soon two press aides emerged from the crowd to greet me and thank me for the story we published about her candidacy. It was the first significant press she received, they said, and was included in all of her press packets. I floated over to get in line to shake her hand.

In New York City’s newspapers, the newest senator is often described as a conservative because she votes with the National Rifle Association, even though she is pro-choice and voted against the war and the Wall Street bailout.

She may not be perfect by every downstate New York standard, but she is reaching out to the constituencies that strongly opposed her appointment and beginning to shift her views.

Upstate or downstate, that’s my gal.

Rita Henley Jensen is editor in chief of Women’s eNews.

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