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Gillibrand drops in on Queens

She may not have been a household name just days ago, but newly minted U.S. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D−N.Y.) wasted no time in making sure southeast Queens’ political leadership knew her by the end of last weekend.

Gillibrand, selected as the successor to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton by Gov. David Paterson Friday, made Queens her first stop on what she called a statewide “listening tour” Saturday.

A bevy of southeastern Queens leaders packed a small conference room at 94−43 Sutphin Blvd. in downtown Jamaica to greet Gillibrand, many of whom admitted they were only vaguely familiar with her or her politics just days before.

The greeting party included U.S. Rep Gregory Meeks (D−Jamaica), state Senate Majority Leader Malcolm Smith (D−St. Albans), state Sen. Toby Stavisky (D−Whitestone), City Councilman Leroy Comrie (D−St. Albans), Assemblyman William Scarborough (D−St. Albans) Assemblywoman Vivian Cook (D−Jamaica), Assemblyman Rory Lancman (D−Fresh Meadows) and other community leaders, each of whom expressed guarded optimism after meeting Gillibrand.

“She was very eager to listen and to learn,” Meeks said after the meeting, which lasted about an hour. “She took meticulous notes, she asked questions back. In fact, just before leaving she whispered to me that we need to sit down in Washington and discuss how we’re going to take action on some of the items we talked about. So this is a dialogue we’re going to continue.”

Gillibrand was an unfamiliar face for many New Yorkers before she was cast into the spotlight by Paterson’s appointment. The 42−year−old Democrat represented a fairly conservative agricultural community made up of small towns in upstate New York and said she can understand the skepticism surrounding her appointment.

“It’s going to take time because as of yesterday did you know who Kirsten Gillibrand was? No. That’s why I’m here today,” she said, speaking to reporters following the meeting.

Gillibrand said she understands that making the switch from the House of Representatives to the Senate means she now has to think of a statewide constituency rather than a small enclave of the state and acknowledges that she is unfamiliar with the issues facing an urban, ethnically diverse area like Queens.

“I don’t have urban areas or cities in my district,” Gillibrand said. “But when I go into a community and I can sit down with people one−on−one, I can get to know the issues facing them instantly. I don’t have to hear about them at a government hearing or read about them on the Internet, and that’s why I’m doing this.”

Meeks said President Barack Obama’s planned economic stimulus package largely dominated the discussion. He said the assemblage of Queens leaders conveyed the dire need of federal funding to triage some of the borough’s core infrastructure, including the antiquated sewer systems in southeast Queens, deep funding cuts to education and the rapidly rising foreclosure rate.

Though Gillibrand has been labeled a conservative on several issues such as gun control and immigration, Comrie said he was impressed by her willingness to step outside the box of her former congressional district.

“She said it herself, she comes from a hunter’s family so she’s always going to protect hunter’s rights. But a hunter doesn’t need an AK−47. A hunter doesn’t need a 40−shot clip. A hunter doesn’t need a handheld automatic weapon like what you’re seeing on the streets around here, and she knows that,” Comrie said. “As you change positions in life, you have to change your stance to better serve your constituents and she clearly understands that.”

Reach reporter Stephen Stirling by e−mail at sstirling@timesledger.com or by phone at 718−229−0300, Ext. 138.

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