Show Us What You've Got, Gillibrand Gov. David Paterson wanted to fill Hillary Clinton's Senate seat with a woman. But would-be New York senators aren't interchangeable, regardless of gender. Commentator Eleanor Clift says Kirsten Gillebrand isn't a Clinton, but she's no Kennedy, either.
NPR logo Show Us What You've Got, Gillibrand

Show Us What You've Got, Gillibrand

Kirsten Gillibrand, shown during a Jan. 23 news conference announcing her appointment to represent New York in the U.S. Senate. She fills the seat vacated by new Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. Caroline Kennedy withdrew her name from consideration a day before the announcement. Mario Tama/Getty Images hide caption

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Mario Tama/Getty Images

Eleanor Clift is a contributing editor at Newsweek hide caption

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After weeks of Kennedy talk, we have a new senator from New York. And she is no Caroline Kennedy. Kirsten Gillibrand has a 100 percent rating from the National Rifle Association, and in her previous life as a corporate lawyer, she defended Altria, the parent company of Philip Morris. Critics complained they didn't know what Kennedy stood for. News flash: She didn't stand for the NRA or Big Tobacco. Progressive politics are in Kennedy's DNA; Gillibrand plays both sides of the aisle, a fashionable formula in the post-partisan Obama era.

Gov. David Paterson said he wanted to fill Hillary Clinton's seat with a woman, a laudable goal. The Senate is mostly white and male, with only one African-American and just 17 women, including Gillibrand. She will be its youngest member. But New York women, like all women, are not interchangeable. Gillibrand is to Kennedy what Sarah Palin was to Clinton: a very different political package. Women who supported Clinton did not flock to Palin once they knew what she stood for. Gillibrand is pro-choice and she won't be gunning down wolves from a helicopter like Palin, but her pro-gun position is at odds with every other Democrat in the New York delegation, men and women alike. Maintaining the Senate's gender balance won't be much consolation to New Yorkers who back gun control.

Now that Gillibrand has the entire state to represent, she may moderate her views. Former House leader Rahm Emanuel, now White House chief of staff, recruited her to run in '06 in a district long held by Republicans. She won and she raised $4 million, more than any other House candidate. Unlike most politicians who loathe asking for money, Gillibrand seems to relish it, mining her her various resources — and publishing information about every dollar on her Web site. Her openness disarms critics who might otherwise say she is too cozy with special interests. She voted against the bailout despite substantial campaign contributions from the financial community.

Gillibrand brings a mixed political pedigree, an attribute in the post-partisan age of Obama. She interned for former Republican Sen. Al D'Amato when she was in college, and he managed to position himself in her press conference so he was in all the camera shots. Winning depends on her ability to divide and conquer and bring along enough Republican support to offset angry liberals. She was an ardent supporter of Hillary Clinton during the presidential primaries. Her effusive praise of Clinton upon being named her successor should help her tap into Clinton's money people. Gillibrand is no Clinton when it comes to her policies, but the fact that she's not a Kennedy goes a long way in the dueling dynasties. It would have been a far more bitter pill for Clinton to see her seat go to someone whose endorsement of Barack Obama helped doom her presidential chances.

The filling of this seat is personal as much as it is about policies. Kennedy will get over the way she was slighted and find her revenge, perhaps in a future race when she is more prepared. Clinton is surely relieved. Now it's up to Gillibrand to show her stuff. She's proved herself adaptable or she wouldn't be where she is. Now let's see who she is.

Eleanor Clift is a contributing editor at Newsweek.