New Generation in the Senate (and Eat Local, too)

Kirsten Gillibrand officially became New York’s junior senator on Tuesday, and, at age 42, she’s the nation’s youngest. As JenX notes in her blog, there are six U.S. senators from Generation X.

Sen. Gillibrand is part of “a new generation of leadership,” as Governor David Paterson said in appointing her last Friday. He was talking about bridging New York’s upstate-downstate divide and perhaps was speaking extemporaneously.

But his comment highlights the rise of a new generation of leadership in this country, leadership that brings with it a pragmatic approach of considering ideas from both sides of the aisle. Generation X’ers (even with their previously and perhaps once again conservative leanings) and especially Millennials embrace this in a way that Boomers first embraced dogmatically idealistic notions as youth before selling out (whether for survival or greed, depending on your point of view) when they began to assume the leadership of the nation.

Sen. John McCain, Obama’s former rival for the presidency, has said “the American people are tired of the bitter partisanship” (at least, the Silent Generation senator must have felt that way until he backtracked on his earlier indication and opposed the confirmation of the new treasury secretary). This is a mantra and approach the new President has used time and again.

Gillibrand seems to get this, and seems to understand this beyond the old triangulation politics of Boomer President Bill Clinton. Just look at her politics:

Pro-choice. Pro-Environment. Pro-Gay Marriage. High marks from the ACLU and the Children’s Defense Fund. But she supports guns, held a hard-line on immigration, and voted against the bailout last fall.

Beyond these points, most impressively is that she is a New York politician who is pro-farmer. On Tuesday, she nabbed seats on the Senate’s Agriculture and Environment Committees (among others).

Downstate types wringing their hands over her appointment may blow this off as merely cow concerns, but if my fellow progressives from the City are serious about the Local Food Movement and Eating Local (to say nothing about supporting and eating organically, and though they’re not the same thing, we can support both approaches), then Gillibrand is a great pick in my book as the new senator from New York State.

If Eating Local and/or Eating Organically is merely a food fad to you, then you’re a hipster disgrace to meat-eating progressives like myself (and shit, you’re an insult to vegetarian and vegan liberals, too).

In the House, Gillibrand supported country-of-origin labeling for meat sold in supermarkets, and help for farmers converting traditional operations to organic farms.

The farm and food policy of this nation is killing two generations of children through the slow death of obesity, diabetes, and whatever toxins remain unregulated by the FDA but wind up in our food. It is leading to their enslavement to a broken health-insurance system and their ultimate untimely deaths. It’s an issue that Big Business would apparently rather sweep under the rug and debunk. But it is also a small-business issue, with local farms drying up and imported food coming over from less-than-well-regulated overseas nations. This is killing people.

Based on her support of local farmers, I am willing to give Gillibrand a chance to fight and change America’s food policies. I hope the foodies downstate remember this.

That said, let’s get back, for a moment, to the hand-wringing:

Gov. Paterson’s pick of Gillibrand from upstate sent the New York Times commenterati into angry hysteria (along with the oh-so-clever Boomer lady Maureen Dowd, upset she not longer has George W. Bush to fly her around any longer). The sense of entitlement and the lack of acceptance under the broad progressive tent our new President has championed smacks of the exact sort of exclusion that we long criticized the GOP of encouraging.

Even worse, though New Yorkers from the City are railing about Gillibrand’s mixed positions, more ridiculously, their criticism really boils down to two words: fuck upstate.

Nice.

Look, Gillibrand’s stances on three fairly big issues — guns, immigration and the economy (a big test for the new senator will be how she does with the President’s economic stimulus package, which just cleared the House without a single GOP vote) — may make progressives like this cynic groan, but she made a good point this week on opposing the bailout last fall (“In exchange for bailing out financial houses, she said, the government should have demanded preferred stock and a vote on the boards of the weakened houses, the better to block excessive bonuses and to force the banks to lend”, from Tuesday’s New York Times).

Of course, the Senate seat could have been Caroline Kennedy’s, if, as Gawker noted, she was more like Gillibrand in not completing “sentences without saying ‘uh, you know, well’ 47 times.” CK was sheltered from the beginning by her handlers, and it led to comparisons with Sarah Palin (great speaker on the podium, not so much anywhere else). Gillibrand’s mastery of the issues and professional demeanor on the podium and answering questions should put to rest any Sarah Palin comparisons to her (even though the catty commenters from the City couldn’t help themselves last Friday).

From a generational perspective, the problem with Baby Boomers like Rep. Carolyn McCarthy — the 65-year-old Democratic representative from Long Island who threatened a primary in 2010 even before Paterson officially made his announcement — is a preference to go to rhetorical war immediately without looking for ways to bring someone else around to your own position or, failing that, seeking compromise. It is the exact opposite of pragmatism. Though McCarthy has a damn good reason for her opposition — a madman shot and killed her husband and injured her son on a commuter train 15 years ago — I wonder if this floats dangerously close to the old Boomer politics of fuck you if you don’t agree with me.

(I’m not sure Rep. McCarthy nailed it, though, in her NPR interview last Friday. Her lone platform in response to a question about what she has to offer that Gillibrand doesn’t, other than her gun control position, was that she, McCarthy, was “an honest person” who is “fighting for the average person on a daily basis” and likes to “tell people how it is.” Then she noted she had a plate in her office that’s labeled “integrity” and spoke of not being a “typical politician.” That was it. Is there a politico alive that doesn’t say he or she is an honest, integrity-filled straight-shooter who fights for the working class? McCarthy had nothing else to offer in the interview, though I suppose she had done enough in implying Gillibrand was a lying hater of the working man who has no plate in her office. But I digress.)

I’m not saying Generation X’ers never take that approach. But as we begin to govern from the top of the ticket, it will serve our generation best if we avoid the older generation’s tendency to either tack closely to every poll (as went the criticism of President Clinton) or go down swinging in a rigid battle and accomplish nothing. Pragmatism will serve us, and the country, best.

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