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Schumer the unseen hand in N.Y. Senate choice

Democratic insiders say the selection of Rep. Kirsten Gillibrand to fill New York's vacant U.S. Senate seat showed the pivotal influence of senior Sen. Charles Schumer.
APTOPIX NY Senate Seat
Rep. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., gets a hug from Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., during a news conference in Albany on Friday. Her appointment to the Senate was announced.Mike Groll / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

Democratic insiders say the selection of Rep. Kirsten Gillibrand to fill New York's vacant U.S. Senate seat showed the pivotal influence of senior Sen. Charles Schumer.

Gov. David Paterson selected the little-known congresswoman over candidates Caroline Kennedy, backed by President Barack Obama and New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, and Andrew Cuomo, backed by Hillary Rodham Clinton and former President Bill Clinton.

But at the news conference introducing Paterson's choice Friday, one big smile gave it all away, and it was on the Schumer's face.

"Schumer was pushing her, he was really pushing," said a Democrat on Saturday who was told by Paterson that Schumer favored Gillibrand. The Democrat was familiar with the inner workings of Paterson's selection but spoke on condition of anonymity because he wasn't authorized to speak publicly about the process.

Schumer insisted he was neutral in the seven weeks since the Senate seat was opened by Hillary Clinton's secretary of state nomination.

"Each one of them would make an excellent senator," Schumer said in December, declaring he would not back any individual.

Coronation interrupted
Publicly, Paterson's process was, by all accounts, moving toward a coronation for Kennedy, daughter of slain President John F. Kennedy. She was praised by Bloomberg and by Obama, whom she had given an early and critical endorsement in last year's presidential primaries.

But internally, Paterson always had Gillibrand high on his list. And by the time he attended Tuesday's inauguration of Obama, Paterson started to focus on her, according to the Democrat who spoke Saturday.

She had been inspired by Hillary Clinton, worked on the former first lady's 2000 Senate campaign, and has many of the same qualities: Unflappable, a bright and focused attorney, a work horse in devouring information on issues, and well-schooled in the retail politics that gets New Yorkers elected.

Then came Wednesday. Back in New York, a chaotic few hours began in the afternoon with Kennedy's viability as the front-runner questioned, then dashed. Kennedy told Paterson she was rethinking her interest in the seat. She mentioned a new and pressing personal issue.

Meanwhile, Paterson had dinner with his closest advisers to try to finish the job by his self-imposed deadline of Saturday after a process that was becoming increasingly criticized as out of control. Paterson was sending mixed signals, even though he supposedly had settled on Kennedy.

As Paterson dined in a Manhattan restaurant, Gillibrand's chances grew. For Paterson, she started to seem much like Schumer was before he was a star, when he toppled Republican Sen. Alfonse D'Amato in 1998. Gillibrand is also young for the job at 42.

Back at their offices, phone lines and Blackberries were burning up between Paterson and Kennedy camps. Shortly after midnight, after bouncing between rethinking her commitment and saying she was still in, Kennedy transmitted her shocking withdrawal, an e-mail to Paterson and reporters that said she was leaving for personal reasons.

Cuomo in the spotlight
By Thursday morning, all the public attention shifted to Cuomo, who Paterson — true to a secretive process that drew criticism — didn't even confirm was under consideration until Tuesday. Appointing Cuomo, however, would require naming a new attorney general. And besides, Paterson has said he wanted to appoint a woman.

The other women in contention were all from New York City. And Gillibrand, from Columbia County south of Albany, was the upstate woman who would fix Paterson's New York City-centric, all-male 2010 ticket.

Paterson placed a midday call to Gillibrand on Thursday, told her she was the likely choice, but he still wanted to check with others one last time. The last call, by this time just before 2 a.m. Friday, was to Gillibrand. She would be New York's next senator.

After she screamed in excitement loud enough to be heard over the phone by others in the room, she thanked him and accepted.

Schumer ran the Senate Democrats' national campaign efforts in two successful elections, and he says Gillibrand has the qualities of a winner.

"I found women candidates run better and win more easily," he said Friday at Gillibrand's news conference. "But above all, talent, ability, work ethic are the most important attributes for the U.S. Senate, and Kirsten Gillibrand fits that bill.

"She's a go-to person," Schumer said. "She will get it done."

Two years ago, she took on entrenched incumbent Republican Rep. John Sweeney, who had deep ties to the GOP in New York. She upset him in a brawl considered one of the nastiest campaigns in the country. Last fall, she faced the millionaire former chairman of the state Republican party, Sandy Treadwell, and beat him badly in the Republican district.

It was reminiscent of the 1998 campaign in which Schumer, then a congressman, toppled D'Amato in what is still considered one of the nastiest Senate campaigns ever.