Gillibrand fails a trust test

U.S. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., speaks May 7, 2018, at the Adirondack North Country Association office in Saranac Lake. (Enterprise photo — Peter Crowley)

The notion had been floated years ago that Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand might run for president in 2020. So in that light, it shouldn’t have been a surprise when the upstate New York Democrat launched her exploratory campaign earlier this month.

Except that she had deceived New Yorkers about it.

Asked in 2017 at Fort Drum about a potential presidential run, Gillibrand told Spectrum News she was “ruling it out.” Yet Chele Farley, Gillibrand’s Republican challenger last year, repeatedly told newspaper editorial boards she believed her opponent would run for president instead of committing to a six-year Senate term. During the candidates’ lone debate about two weeks before the November election, Gillibrand was asked if her focus was on New York residents or a presidential run; she answered that, if re-elected, “I will serve my six-year term.” Farley countered by saying, “Honestly, I don’t believe that. … She’s been in five other states, including New Hampshire, this month.”

And last week Gillibrand was in Iowa, home of the caucuses in which the first votes of the 2020 presidential race will be cast a year from now.

We all know a presidential campaign doesn’t come together in just a few weeks. At the very least she must have been considering it in the fall, and yet she told voters it was off the table.

This is disappointing for us because we generally like Gillibrand. She visits the North Country often — at least three times in 2018 — takes time to talk to people and knows the people and issues. We have interviewed her several times and thought she was a good, attentive, bipartisan congresswoman from 2006 to 2009 when she represented New York’s old 20th Congressional District — a Republican-majority gerrymander that reached from the edge of Poughkeepsie north to Saranac Lake. We applauded 10 years ago when Gov. David Paterson made her senator to succeed one of her mentors, Hillary Clinton, whom president-elect Barack Obama had picked for secretary of state.

Many were surprised to see Gillibrand change her politics so quickly after that, flipping from conservative to progressive on guns and immigration. Yet it made sense: She had suddenly gone from a conservative rural constituency to a statewide one that included New York City. Plus, a lot of better-known Democrats threatened to challenge her in the 2010 primary (only to be talked out of it by bigger partly leaders, including Obama).

You can call it flip-flopping, weathervane watching or careerist of you like, but she was just trying to represent the majority of the people she served and convince those voters to keep her in office. Politicians usually aren’t open about this, but their first job is to get elected.

Strange as it may sound, this political sensitivity — you could even call it flexibility — is something we like about Gillibrand. She pays attention to what people are saying and sometimes is willing to change her approach to do what she thinks most of her constituents want. She does have some unshakable beliefs — for women and families, especially — but she is not an intractable ideologue.

It has worked for her, too. She won the 2010 and 2018 elections with more than 60 percent of the vote, and the 2012 election with more than 70 percent.

Yet she shrouds her 2009 policy switches with stories about how women in Brooklyn made her realize the error of her ways, and how she is ashamed of those old positions now. That makes one wonder whether she is also embarrassed by her old rural congressional constituents — and current neighbors — whose beliefs she echoed at the time. She may need those people further down the campaign trail. Progressives and city dwellers alone won’t be enough.

We prefer Gillibrand to many of the other people who are running for president, or considering it. But we wish she’d been honest with New Yorkers about running for the White House — or at least not dishonest. It was unnecessary; she would have won in November anyway. She could have just said nothing. Now she appears to have a big lie on her record, and that may be hard to explain away.