Carrie Woerner did not know much about Kirsten Gillibrand in 2005 when Woerner agreed to host a house party for Gillibrand, who was just launching her first bid for the U.S. House of Representatives.
“I was not really involved in Democratic politics at the time,” Woener, now a state Assemblywoman from Round Lake, said in a recent interview. “She was a woman running for office. I’m very supportive of women running for office.”
Woerner said Gillibrand made an immediate impression on the women who gathered to eat cake, sip coffee and talk politics.
“Everybody was in the living room and the front door leads into the living room,” Woerner recalled. “She had barely gotten over the threshold when the questions started. If she had a prepared statement, I don’t think she got through much of it.”
It’s been a decade since Gillibrand, now a U.S. Senator, showed up on the local political scene to mount a successful campaign to unseat four-term incumbent Rep. John Sweeney, R-Clifton Park, in 2006.
She started her campaign in early 2005, just months after Sweeney won re-election in 2004 with 66 percent of the vote.
National Journal, a nonpartisan political magazine, characterized the 2005-06 race as “one of, if not the, nastiest races in the country.”
Sweeney and his supporters accused Gillibrand of being “in cahoot with Communists,” called her “a New York City elitist,” and falsely accused Gillibrand’s husband of working for a company based in Dubai.
Gillibrand and her supporters criticized Sweeney for holding a $2,000-per-person fundraising event at a ski resort in Utah, named Sweeney “Rubber Stamp of the Week,” and criticized Sweeney’s campaign for employing the congressman’s wife as a fundraising consultant on a commission basis.
The campaign took an interesting twist when Sweeney attended a fraternity party at Union College in April 2006, and more unusual developments would come.
Just days before the election, Sweeney and his wife acknowledged on Nov. 1, 2006, that State Police came to their home the previous December, but they disputed published reports that described the incident as domestic violence.
On Nov. 3, 2006, Warren Redlich, a Republican running against Rep. Michael McNulty, D-Green Island, in the Albany area, crossed party lines to endorse Gillibrand.
On Nov. 6, 2006, the day before the election, former President Bill Clinton flew into Warren County airport to campaign with Gillibrand, after a new poll showed Gillibrand leading Sweeney by 3 percentage points, within the margin of error.
“No one thought when she stuck her neck out she had a ghost of a chance,” Clinton said at the time. “A lot of people that were helping her were helping her because they liked her and they admired her and they believed in what she stood for. But it’s only become apparent for a few weeks now that she could actually win this thing.”
Clinton had previously campaigned with Gillibrand at Albany International Airport in October.
Former New York Rangers goalie Mike Richter, Gen. Wesley Clark and several prominent Democratic congressmen also campaigned with Gillibrand during the course of the campaign.
First Lady Laura Bush, U.S. Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., and former New York City Mayor Rudolph Guiliani campaigned with Sweeney.
Gillibrand, a little known lawyer and former federal Department of Housing and Urban Development official from the Hudson Valley, won the election, after nearly two years of campaigning.
She became the first Democrat to represent the Glens Falls region in Congress since 1978.
Gillibrand made her first public campaign speech Oct. 22, 2005 at a Washington County Women’s Democratic Club luncheon in Hudson Falls.
She had already been holding house parties and introducing herself to political groups for months, including an April 2005 visit to the Greater Glens Falls Democracy for America meeting, where she said she was just there to listen.
“I remember being at stuff with her with only three or four people, and then, as she grew, being in places where there were 100 or more people,” said Warren County Democratic Chairwoman Lynne Boecher, in a recent interview.
Gillibrand’s October speech in Hudson Falls included anecdotes about a neighbor who couldn’t afford to buy gas for his snow-plowing business, another neighbor who couldn’t afford medication, and a married couple who operated a dairy farm in Columbia County and went by the nicknames Hansel and Gretel.
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“I thought she reminded me of a younger version of our favorite senator — Hillary Clinton,” Washington County Democratic Chairwoman Sheila Comar said, at the time.
Gillibrand would go on replace Clinton in the Senate in January 2009, when Clinton became U.S. Secretary of State.
Clinton, now a Democratic presidential candidate, wrote the foreward to Gillibrand’s 2014 memoir, “Off the Sidelines,” a New York Times best-seller.
Gillibrand’s political success has been a combination of timing and skill.
Controversy over the Iraq War made President George W. Bush and Republican politicians in general unpopular in 2006, in a Democratic landslide election that made U.S. Rep. Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., Speaker of the House for four years.
Liberal political advocacy group MoveOn.org ran television commercials suggesting Sweeney was “caught red handed” voting with the President on Iraq, and the group protested outside Sweeney events.
Gillibrand was able to put together a coalition of voters from across the political spectrum, said MoveOn.org organizer Joe Seeman, in a recent interview.
“She wasn’t afraid of people saying, ‘Well, she is too liberal,’” he said. “She stood up for peace and opposed war. She stood up on the bread and butter economic issues.”
Two potential Democratic primary opponents, who had said Gillibrand was too moderate, dropped out of the race in July 2006.
A big break came in August 2006, when the state AFL-CIO endorsed Gillibrand in a floor vote at its convention, after union leadership recommended remaining neutral.
Gillibrand supporters early on recognized she was a high caliber politician, but did not realize how quickly she would rise on the national scene, said Moreau Supervisor Preston Jenkins.
Gilliband won re-election in 2008, in one of the most expensive congressional races in the nation.
Gillibrand spent $4.09 million on the campaign, and Republican opponent Alexander “Sandy” Treadwell spent $6.74 million, including $5.9 million he personally contributed to his campaign.
In January 2009, Gov. David Paterson appointed Gillibrand to the Senate seat Hillary Clinton vacated to become Secretary of State.
Some Democrats criticized the pick, suggesting Gillibrand was not liberal enough on gun control and immigration.
Lynn Boecher, the Warren County Democratic chairwoman, recalled a state Democratic Committee meeting she attended in the New York City area shortly after Gillibrand was appointed to the Senate.
People were leery of Gillibrand, but she won them over in due time, Boecher said.
“Her greatest skill was her ability to listen,” Boecher said.
Gillibrand won a special election in 2010 to keep her Senate seat, and won re-election to a full six-year term in 2012.
Presently, she has a “strong favorability rating,” even though about a quarter of voters in a recent poll said they are not familiar enough with her to have an opinion, said Steven Greenberg, Siena pollster.
“Three-to-one positive — 54 percent of New Yorkers, as of the last time Siena polled on her in July, viewed her favorably compared with 18 percent who viewed her unfavorably,” he said.
Unlike most statewide elected Democrats, Greenberg said, she has a higher favorability rating upstate than downstate.
“I think that reflects the fact that she was a congresswoman from an upstate district and is from upstate,” Greenberg said.