For Coming-Out Party, New Senator Stops in Harlem and Queens

On one of the biggest days of her political life — the day after she was named successor to Hillary Rodham Clinton in the United States Senate — Representative Kirsten E. Gillibrand went to Harlem and southeast Queens on Saturday, meeting with black leaders and seeking to win over a constituency that might have been skeptical of an upstate congresswoman whose district is 2.7 percent black.

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Nicole Bengiveno/The New York Times

Representative Kirsten E. Gillibrand, center, met members of the National Action Network on West 145th Street on Saturday.

Ms. Gillibrand turned her first public appearances since Gov. David A. Paterson announced her appointment on Friday into what amounted to a daylong introduction.

In the morning, she stood before dozens of black New Yorkers at the Rev. Al Sharpton’s National Action Network headquarters on West 145th Street, discussing the Wall Street bailout, unemployment and police brutality. In the afternoon, she met in Jamaica with Queens elected officials, including the new State Senate majority leader, Malcolm A. Smith, and talked with them behind closed doors about gun control and other issues.

“I am here to listen to you,” Ms. Gillibrand told the audience in Harlem, adding, “I’m here to represent all of New York.”

Ms. Gillibrand’s two-borough tour was part of a whirlwind day in the city for a little-known, 42-year-old congresswoman from a mostly rural upstate district that is home to dairy farms and 677,000 people. Her schedule became a showcase for black leaders and for her as well, as she displayed a folksy charm and a knack for keeping cool when handling tough questions.

In Harlem, Ms. Gillibrand briefly visited Sylvia’s restaurant, a soul food institution, where she shook hands and posed for pictures with customers and workers. “She was so upbeat, so cordial,” said Lorraine Benton-Horne, 52, the president of a group eating in the restaurant at the time, Ministers’ Wives and Widows of the United Missionary Baptist Association. “She asked us to keep her in our prayers.”

Ms. Gillibrand also later met with Hispanic leaders and strategists, including Representative Nydia M. Velázquez and Roberto Ramirez, the former Bronx Democratic Party chairman.

Throughout the day, the New Yorkers she met formally and informally seemed to want reassurances that she was flexible on some of the positions that have made her a popular Democrat in a heavily Republican Congressional district, and Ms. Gillibrand seemed eager to provide those assurances.

Ms. Gillibrand grew up in a hunter’s family — both her mother and father hunt, she said — and she has been endorsed by the National Rifle Association. After meeting with Queens leaders, she said: “I will always protect hunter’s rights. But that is a far different issue than the issues that we face here in this community.”

She added that she supports reducing gun violence, but that she never had a reason to focus on the issue because it rarely came up in her district, which runs from the mid-Hudson Valley to Lake Placid. When a reporter held up Saturday’s edition of the Spanish-language newspaper El Diario, which called her anti-immigrant in its front page headline, she replied, “It’s understandable. They don’t know me.”

Ms. Gillibrand answered questions from reporters after her speech at Mr. Sharpton’s headquarters, but it was a question from a man in the audience about Sean Bell that provided an awkward moment. The man asked her if she thought the police shooting deaths of Mr. Bell, Amadou Diallo and Oscar Grant III — a young, unarmed black man shot and killed by a transit officer in Oakland, Calif., on New Year’s Day — were murders.

“I think each of the cases were terrible instances of things we need to right in our community, and I think that your concern and your anger and your outrage is valid, important and just,” Ms. Gillibrand replied.

The man pushed further, asking her again if she thought the shooting deaths were crimes and if she had seen the videotape of Mr. Grant’s shooting, which has been shown on Internet and news sites. “Based on the videotape, it looked like a crime to me,” she said.

Mr. Sharpton praised Ms. Gillibrand for selecting Harlem and his weekly “action rally” as the site of her first visit on Saturday. “Reporter said to me this morning, ‘Well, do you know her well?’ No,” Mr. Sharpton told the audience. “But I would rather it was someone I didn’t know that reached out, than somebody that I do know that takes us for granted.”

In Harlem, Ms. Gillibrand made no mention of Caroline Kennedy, who had been considered a top contender for the post before she announced her withdrawal from consideration early Thursday. Talking to reporters in Queens, Ms. Gillibrand said she had not spoken to her yet, but looked forward to working with her. “I admire her and respect her very much,” she said.

Representative Peter T. King, a Republican from Long Island, who had declared his intention to challenge Caroline Kennedy if she was given the Senate seat, called on the governor to give a detailed description of his selection process to explain when and how he settled on his choice of Ms. Gillibrand. “The people of New York are entitled to know, since this whole process was such a circus atmosphere from the start, why he decided on her, a one-term member of Congress whose views seem to be out of step with the Democratic party in New York,” Mr. King said in an interview.

Ms. Gillibrand seemed to make a good impression among those she met face to face on Saturday.

She had a disarming, down-to-earth style that surprised many of those she met. One staffer said it was not an affectation, but her natural personality. After she appeared with the governor at a news conference on Friday, she took one of her two children to the doctor for a cold.

“We could have been having this meeting about a neighborhood issue, as opposed to having it with New York’s new junior senator,” said Assemblyman Rory I. Lancman, a Queens Democrat, after meeting with Ms. Gillibrand. “And I hope that she keeps that same humility.”


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