World and Nation

New York’s Junior Senator Quickly Evolves On The Job

That smile never disappears.

A Long Island congresswoman is so angry about the new U.S. senator’s views on gun rights that she threatens a primary challenge next year? Sen. Kirsten E. Gillibrand murmurs that she really looks forward to working with her.

A Latina New York City councilwoman describes the senator’s views on immigration as insensitive, not to mention Paleolithic? Gillibrand gently holds her hand, peers up into her eyes and thanks her so much for sharing.

And so often now, Gillibrand stands ready to “evolve” — that decorous political verb of choice — on policy questions. At present, the senator is evolving at a particularly rapid rate on immigration, an issue on which she previously favored tough enforcement. She now inclines to the view that “cowboy” tactics in immigration raids are uncivilized.

“These stories are terrible,” she told Latino leaders early Monday morning at a meeting in Lower Manhattan with the Hispanic Federation, which represents major social service agencies. “It’s disturbing to who we are as Americans.”

Eyes red-rimmed from lack of sleep, careening from the port of Buffalo to downtown Brooklyn to Manhattan fundraisers for a Senate primary election that is still 20 months away (she attended 19 events in three days in three cities), Gillibrand’s maiden voyage as New York’s junior senator has an occasional stranger-in-a-strange-land quality. Ten days ago, Gov. David A. Paterson tapped this 42-year-old Democratic congresswoman from a largely rural and politically conservative swath of eastern New York to fill the seat of Hillary Rodham Clinton, who stepped down to become secretary of state.

Her appointment occasioned yawps of disappointment from downstate Democrats, who tend to view Senate seats as proprietary possessions. Charles E. Goodell, who was appointed to fill Robert F. Kennedy’s seat in 1968, was the last senator to come from outside New York City or its suburbs. That Gillibrand was an ardent National Rifle Association supporter and a hard-liner on immigration soothed few hurt feelings. (She is more liberal on economic issues, opposing privatizing Social Security; favors a withdrawal from Iraq; and earns high scores from gay and civil liberties groups.)

Gillibrand, a meticulous student of politics, has crafted her own political adult education course. Clinton’s former staff members, inherited by Gillibrand, made phone calls and churned out memos at a prodigious rate, and Gillibrand began dialing up congressional representatives and mayors from Rochester to Yonkers to the Bronx. Among them were Reps. Jerrold L. Nadler, Nydia M. Velazquez, Jose E. Serrano and Anthony D. Weiner; some were said to desire appointment to that Senate seat, and all heard from her, an aide said.

Gillibrand talks of her progress as an honors student might of acing an upcoming exam.

“I didn’t know about milking cows, but I quickly informed myself and asked to be on the Agriculture Committee,” she said in an interview late Sunday. “The same thing will happen on immigration issues and gun issues. Now that I am a senator for the whole state I will immerse myself in these issues.