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Politics & Poker: Gillibrand Family Has Deep Ties in Albany

Every good politician is a successful contortionist.

Newly appointed Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) is living proof of this axiom.

[IMGCAP(1)]It seems like just yesterday that Republicans were running attack ads against Gillibrand featuring the high-rise apartment building on Manhattan’s Upper East Side where she and her husband used to live. It was a none-too-subtle way of trying to convince upstate New York voters that Gillibrand really wasn’t one of them — even though she grew up around Albany and comes from a long line of political insiders there.

Now, Gillibrand’s critics on the left are painting her as some scary conservative from the sticks, unqualified to represent the entire state, especially the metropolis 140 miles south of her political base.

In the days since her appointment, Gillibrand has worked mightily to reach out to her foes. She says she wants to collaborate with a potential primary challenger, Rep. Carolyn McCarthy (D), on gun safety legislation — without interfering with hunters’ rights. She says she’s looking for common ground with Latino leaders who don’t like her hard line on illegal immigration — even though she’s still pretty enthusiastic about making English the official language of the United States.

Gillibrand presents herself as the girl next door. Congressional colleagues are just as likely to describe her as a barracuda.

Paul Grondahl watches Gillibrand and sees her political bloodlines at work.

“She knows how to play both sides,” he muses.

Grondahl, a features writer at the Albany Times Union, is the biographer of Erastus Corning 2nd, the sturdy patrician who served as mayor of Albany from 1941 to 1983 and helped preside over a fearsome Democratic machine. Gillibrand’s grandmother, Dorothea “Polly” Noonan, was at Corning’s side from the time that he was elected to the state Senate in 1937 until he died, first as his secretary, then as his friend and political lieutenant — and maybe more.

Gillibrand’s parents, Penny Noonan Rutnik and Doug Rutnik, were also cogs in the Albany machine, and he remains a plugged-in statehouse lobbyist to this day.

Gillibrand calls her grandmother her role model, and certainly there is a heroic tale to tell there. Polly Noonan is invariably described as an earthy, savvy political operator with a heart of gold, a friend to the disenfranchised, able to

mobilize a vast network on behalf of favored candidates and causes. Late in life, Noonan became a certified counselor for alcoholics.

Gillibrand “learned well at the feet of the master,” says New York state Assemblyman John McEneny (D), a historian of Albany politics — and, in another sign that in Albany there aren’t six degrees of separation but one or two, the father of Gillibrand’s communications director, Rachel McEneny. “The grandmother was a very loving grandmother. She took those kids everywhere.”

But Albany, like most state capitals, has an “anything goes” mentality that Gillibrand no doubt also absorbed. As an illustration, state legislators from New York City refer to something called the “Bear Mountain Compact.” The rules of the compact: Anything that happens north of Bear Mountain, a state park roughly 50 miles away from the city, doesn’t get discussed south of Bear Mountain.

Through the years, Gillibrand’s family has been part of the gossip. First and foremost: Were Polly Noonan and Corning longtime lovers?

“It’s an unusual, complicated, mythic relationship,” Grondahl says. “People keep bringing it up because it’s never been resolved.”

What is known is that most nights, after making his political rounds, Corning would appear at the Noonan home and sit with Noonan and her family (including her husband); the mayor was Penny Rutnik’s godfather.

Corning operated the most successful insurance business in Albany, a firm that feasted off of government contracts. When he died, he left the majority of the business not to his own children, but to Noonan’s.

Gillibrand’s parents ran their own law firm, Rutnik & Rutnik, that prospered from their political associations. Penny Rutnik later became an attorney with the city of Albany, and Doug Rutnik became a top- earning statehouse lobbyist.

But Doug Rutnik’s ticket to lobbying fortune surprised his fellow foot solidiers in the city’s Democratic organization: After Corning died, Rutnik became friendly with a number of influential Republicans, including then-Sen. Al D’Amato, then-Gov. George Pataki and Joe Bruno, who until last year was the longtime Majority Leader of the state Senate. D’Amato and Rutnik even double-dated, the Village Voice recently reported.

Rutnik, after separating from Gillibrand’s mother, was romantically involved for several years with Zenia Mucha, a top aide to D’Amato and Pataki who eventually fled the fantasyland of New York politics for a corporate position with the Walt Disney Co.

Rutnik also, according to the Voice, is in real estate partnerships with Bruno — who was indicted last month on public corruption charges, raising the question of whether Rutnik could also be in legal jeopardy.

The family’s bipartisan ties served Gillibrand well. They helped her land internships in D’Amato’s Senate office when she was in college and then a job after law school working with Andrew Cuomo, the son of former Gov. Mario Cuomo, when he was secretary of the Department of Housing and Urban Development. (Corning was an early and influential supporter of Mario Cuomo when he was involved in his epic 1982 Democratic primary battle for governor with Ed Koch, and as governor, Mario Cuomo helped make Polly Noonan vice chairwoman of the state Democratic Party.)

Later, as a lawyer in New York City working for the firm that represented Al Gore during the 2000 Florida recount, Gillibrand connected on her own with other top New York Democrats, like Sen. Charles Schumer and then-Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton.

Today, some improbable people are basking in Gillibrand’s reflected power and glory.

D’Amato was at Gillibrand’s side in Albany 10 days ago when New York Gov. David Paterson (D) announced that she was his pick to succeed Clinton in the Senate. In recent days, New York media have focused on D’Amato’s significant campaign contributions to Paterson, and a New York Times columnist speculated Sunday that D’Amato is bankrolling Paterson because he hates the Republicans’ dream 2010 candidate for governor: former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani.

Giuliani and D’Amato have had an on-again, off-again relationship for decades, to be sure. But that’s probably not what’s fueling D’Amato’s contributions to Paterson. D’Amato is no longer a Republican leader — he’s a lobbyist, with offices in New York City, Albany, Long Island, Buffalo and Washington, D.C. Thus he is the ultimate contortionist.

Last week, when Latino state legislators held a news conference in Albany to blast Gillibrand’s record on immigration, a former colleague named Roberto Ramirez helped them put it together. Two days later, Gillibrand hired Ramirez, a former chairman of the Bronx Democratic Party who runs his own political consulting firm, to work for her Senate campaign.

Which only goes to show that some New York political players aren’t just contortionists — but a word that rhymes with it as well.

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