Gillibrand on get-to-know NYC tour

January 24, 2009 4:56:10 PM PST
Senator-designate Kirsten Gillibrand began a statewide get-to-know-you tour on Saturday with a visit to the Rev. Al Sharpton's headquarters in Harlem. The upstate congresswoman spoke to a few hundred people at Sharpton's weekly rally, telling the crowd her number one priority was the economy.

She also fielded questions from the audience about her stance on gun control.

It was one of her first public appearances since being appointed by Gov. David Paterson on Friday.

Gillibrand is a centrist Democrat who has gotten high ratings from the National Rifle Association, but also supports gay marriage.

She is largely unknown in the city, and the visit with Sharpton was seen as part of a campaign to win over liberals.

In fact, even before the governor took the podium Friday to introduce little-known upstate Rep. Kirsten Gillibrand as his pick, a Long Island congresswoman elected on a pledge to stem gun violence was telling reporters she would either challenge Gillibrand in the Democratic primary next year or find someone who would.

"I don't think someone with a 100 percent NRA rating should be the next senator from New York," said Rep. Carolyn McCarthy, who ran for Congress after her husband was killed and son wounded in the 1993 Long Island Rail Road shooting massacre. "The majority of New Yorkers believe in trying to reduce gun violence."

After the announcement, New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, in a lukewarm endorsement of Gillibrand, noted his "strong disagreement with one area of her record as a member of Congress: illegal guns."

The Democrat-turned-Republican-turned-independent mayor, who has been one of the nation's most vocal gun control advocates, said Gillibrand "has actively opposed the efforts of New York City, and cities around the state and nation, to enact commonsense measures that keep illegal guns out of the hands of criminals."

Bloomberg and McCarthy both said Gillibrand co-sponsored legislation to deny information cities and police need to track illegal gun criminals. The legislation passed in the House but was never considered by the Senate, McCarthy said.

Recently sworn in for her seventh two-year term, McCarthy conceded that Democratic leaders have warned her to temper her remarks, but she appeared unrepentant: "I told the governor my feelings. I said I am strongly against one person and I gave him my reasons for it. Believe me, this is a personal issue for me."

A group called New Yorkers Against Gun Violence also criticized Gillibrand. "In fact some of her gun control stances are detrimental to law enforcement and their efforts to prevent crime by going after illegal guns," the group said in a statement.

Democratic strategist Hank Sheinkopf said Paterson's first year in office, after succeeding the disgraced Eliot Spitzer, has been so hectic that he has not had time to establish himself as the unchallenged leader of his party.

"He's had to manage one crisis after another, from the economic meltdown to the search to replace Hillary Clinton," Sheinkopf said. "He needs to find the time, find the people and put an operation together to make clear who's the boss."

Lawrence Levy, executive director of the National Center for Suburban Studies at Hofstra University, said it was possible Gillibrand might change her views on gun control now that she represents the entire state.

"She's no longer representing a district with an 80,000 margin of registered Republicans, so who knows?" he said. "She has to ask herself if she is going to modify her position, how much risk is involved."

Jay Jacobs, the Democratic leader in Nassau County, where McCarthy lives, agreed.

"I'm hopeful as our new senator begins to recognize she now represents the entire state of New York rather than a small Republican congressional district, that she will modify and moderate her views," he said.

Gillibrand appeared to offer an olive branch to McCarthy during her news conference after being introduced by the governor. She complimented the state's entire female House delegation, saying McCarthy has "provided outstanding leadership in fighting against gun violence and keeping our children safe. I pledge to work with her on her signature bill for updating background checks to keep guns out of the hands of criminals."

A spokesman for McCarthy said afterward that the congresswoman's position had not softened.


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