Kirsten Gillibrand

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The six-week drama came to an end this afternoon. New York’s new Senator made her debut today with a joke about how unknown she is. It was a wry reference to the far more famous names, including Caroline Kennedy and Andrew Cuomo, who had been in the running for the job. But there is one group of people who know Gillibrand well — the veterans of the 2000 campaign in which Hillary Clinton won that seat.

Hillary Clinton adviser Ann Lewis tells me that in 1999, Gillibrand, then a young lawyer, literally “wandered in off the street” into the campaign’s windowless headquarters on Herald Square: “She just came in and said, ‘How can I help?'” The campaign quickly discovered that Gillibrand was, in Lewis’ words, “a natural organizer,” and put her to work marshaling young women for Clinton. Many of them later became part of Gillibrand’s own political network. Occasionally, Lewis recalls, Gillibrand would mention that her real dream was to move back home to Upstate New York and run for Congress.

Those upstate roots are deep. It turns out that Gillibrand has an interesting political pedigree of her own. Her father is Doug Rutnik, a well-known Republican* lobbyist in Albany. (That probably explains the presence of former GOP Senator Alfonse D’Amato over her shoulder at the announcement news conference.) And her grandmother Polly Noonan–whom Gillibrand cites as her inspiration–was a powerful political player at a time that few other women were. Noonan founded the Albany Democratic Women’s Club and was an important figure in the Mayor Erastus Corning‘s legendary machine there.

Gillibrand proved her own political skills in 2006, when she beat heavily favored four-term incumbent John Sweeney in a Hudson Valley district that leans GOP. (It was one of only six New York congressional districts to vote for George W. Bush in 2000, and one of only nine to do it in 2004.) Her conservative centrist voting record–key to a Democrat surviving in that district–makes some Democrats uncomfortable with Governor David Paterson’s decision to pick her.

Or particular concern to liberals is Gillibrand’s strong support for gun rights; she has a 100% voting record score with the National Rifle Association. Indeed, New York Congresswoman Carolyn McCarthy, an ardent gun control advocate, has declared the pick unacceptable and indicated that she may run against Gillibrand when the Senate seat is put to a special election in 2010. It was notable that, in her speech today, Gillibrand lauded McCarthy and promised to work with her on McCarthy’s legislation that would impose stronger background checks on gun purchasers.

Whoever wins the 2010 special election will again be on the ballot in 2012, when the Senate term that Hillary Clinton won in 2006 ends. She may need to raise as much as $100 million to run two races in four years. Gillibrand is going to need every bit of those political skills that so impressed the Clinton veterans.

CORRECTION: Room Eight, the New York political blog, points out that Mr. Rutnik is in fact a registered Democrat, though he is known for ties to powerful Republicans, including to former Governor George Pataki and former Senator Al D’Amato.