They are accomplished attorneys with sparkling resumes who passionately defend their political beliefs.
Democratic incumbent Kirsten E. Gillibrand and Republican challenger Wendy Long are also Catholic and Ivy League-educated. And their contest marks the first time in history two women have faced each other for a U.S. Senate seat from New York.
But that’s where the similarities for these two women end.
Long invokes the late President Ronald Reagan as she makes the case for a conservative agenda for New York. Gillibrand embraces a more liberal platform based heavily on women’s issues and support for President Obama.
“Ronald Reagan won this state twice,” Long recently told the editorial board of The Buffalo News. “New Yorkers have not had a practical menu of choices offered to them in a long time. And New Yorkers are open to new ideas.”
Gillibrand, meanwhile, points to several accomplishments since succeeding Hillary Rodham Clinton in the Senate – on national issues like championing transparency in government and locally helping to preserve the Niagara Falls Air Reserve Station.
“I try to be a voice for all of New York,” she said in a separate session at The News, adding that she embraces a bipartisan approach to several problems and issues.
Long, 52, emerged from the legal profession onto the statewide scene earlier this year to declare her Republican candidacy. After dispatching two opponents in the June primary, she has crisscrossed the state in search of any media exposure possible. Saturating the airwaves with ads is only a dream for Long after raising just $722,000 so far, compared with the more than $15 million collected by Gillibrand.
But Long brings a list of accomplishments to the race, including a stint as law clerk to U.S. Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas. A Dartmouth graduate, she was press secretary to Republican Sens. William L. Armstrong of Colorado and Gordon J. Humphrey of New Hampshire, before becoming a litigator in Manhattan and getting involved in legal and judicial affairs.
Now Long must overcome huge obstacles posed by a senator whom New Yorkers are still getting to know, but apparently getting to like. The latest Marist poll shows Gillibrand handily beating Long, 68 percent to 24 percent. Marist also reported the senator’s approval rating climbed above 50 percent for the first time since she took office in March of 2009 – 55 percent think Gillibrand is doing either an excellent or good job.
None of the impediments deter Long. She lists the nation’s $16 trillion debt as a top concern, charging Democrats and Republicans alike with paying no more than lip service to the issue.
“She hasn’t addressed herself to anything serious in terms of cutting the debt and deficit,” Long said of Gillibrand. “I believe in the Reagan model – we’re in debt because the federal government spends too much.”
Long criticizes her fellow Dartmouth graduate’s support for what she calls big government programs, asking why Washington must get involved in health care, education, student loans or the auto industry.
“I don’t want the federal goverwnment running everything like the Post Office,” she said, singling out health care as her main target.
Instead of a massive program like “Obamacare,” she said the government can encourage free-market solutions like allowing sale of insurance across state lines, reforming malpractice litigation laws and moving to models that discourage costly and unnecessary tests.
Long would have voted against Obama’s stimulus program and would have cut taxes instead. To her, it all comes down to spending.
“Kirsten Gillibrand goes around like she’s got a big bag of goodies and acting like the fairy godmother,” she said. “Where is all that money coming from?”
Long rejects tax hikes for taming the federal deficit and points to government spending as the root of the problem. She dismisses the concept of the Simpson-Bowles Commission, which issued deficit recommendations.
“I have a problem with farming out the business of government to independent commissions,” she said. “But on the merits, it’s certainly a step in the right direction – better than anything our elected officials did.”
Just about anything that Long supports, Gillibrand is against. Long opposes abortion and same-sex marriage; Gillibrand has championed both as basic civil rights. Long supports several measures to cut federal spending, while Gillibrand questions the effects of potential “sequestration” cuts on programs that fund food stamps and “cops on the beat.”
“Too many Republicans signed that pledge to Grover Norquist, an unelected third-party lobbyist,” she said, referring to the activist who asks candidates to sign his anti-tax pledge.
The senator said the next Congress will prove cooperative enough to avoid the “fiscal cliff” and sequestration cuts.
“I believe we’ll have bipartisan Republicans for a bipartisan deal, and I’ll work with President Obama and my colleagues to pass a deal as soon as possible,” she said.
Gillibrand, 45, has come to Buffalo on several occasions to tout tax breaks she believes will stimulate the economy or help disadvantaged groups, such as one proposal to grant tax breaks to companies hiring veterans.
While Long asks how the tax revenue will be replaced, the senator says she insists that any tax cut made must be paid for.
“It’s a choice you make,” she said. “I prefer a tax cut for hiring a veteran rather than one for an oil company.”
The one criticism stinging Gillibrand in the years since she left her Hudson Valley seat in the House to become a statewide figure may lie in her leftward political shift. On gun control, for example, Gillibrand has moved from ardent Second Amendment supporter to a willingness to back some controls.
“In my previous district, there was very little gun violence in relation to other parts of the state,” she explained. “That’s my responsibility as a senator for a state as big and diverse as this.”
Gillibrand rejects “labels” such as liberal and conservative, as well as the “most liberal member of the Senate” tag pinned on her by the National Journal.
She said the rating stemmed from belief that voting for measures like Hurricane Irene relief constituted a “liberal” point of view.
“That’s a vote I was very proud of,” she said.
With such a wide lead in polling and fundraising, Gillibrand has mostly ignored her opponent. They have debated only once, in an October encounter in Saratoga Springs.
But the senator also does not shy away from painting Long as a candidate out of political sync with the state.
“The difference in our viewpoints is very clear,” Gillibrand said. “Wendy Long’s values and priorities don’t align with most New Yorkers.
“It’s a very clear contrast,” she added, “I think New Yorkers have a very clear choice on who they want to represent them in Washington.”
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