U.S. Senator Kirsten Gillibrand (D-New York) was the headline speaker on Sunday at the 42nd annual Ruth and Arthur Coller Memorial Lecture at the Hillcrest Jewish Community Center in Flushing.
The breakfast has been sponsored by Edmond and Dr. Barry Coller since 1970 in memory of their parents. Ellen Miller, co-chairwoman of the event, said the Collers were very active in Democratic politics.
Gillibrand is the sixth sitting U.S. senator to speak at the event. It also has featured members of congress, presidential candidates, a United States attorney general (Ramsey Clark in 1970) and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netenyahu.
“It often is someone connected with a topic important to the Jewish community, but not always,” Edmond Coller said. “And it would be fair to say I’m a supporter of Senator Gillibrand.”
Gillibrand said, while she always was interested in public service, it was Hillary Clinton’s speech on women’s rights in Bejing in 1995 that inspired her to do more than think about it.
Having successfully run for Congress, she was appointed by Gov. David Patterson to replace Clinton in the senate in January 2009 when the former first lady became U.S. Secretary of State. She was elected in her own right in 2010.
Gillibrand said the U.S. commitment to Israel, the only democracy in the Middle East, must be steadfast, particularly in light of the instability in recent months rocking places like Egypt, Yemen and Syria.
“The United Nations’ attitude toward Israel has been abhorrent,” she said, citing things like support of the flotilla aimed at breaking the Gaza arms blockade and the subsequent Goldstone Report that accused Israel of atrocities — and was quietly repealed in the face of controverting evidence. She also mentioned the recent attempt by the Palestinians to declare an independent state without negotiations.
Assemblyman David Weprin (D-Little Neck), who attended the breakfast, credited Gillibrand forshepherding through Congress suchinitiatives as the Zadroga Act, which provides health care assistance for first responders at the World Trade Center; and the repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t tell,” the policy that banned homosexuals fromserving openly in the military.
“She’s been great,” Weprin said. “She has been a very effective advocate for New York.” Gillibrand admitted she was proud of both achievements.
“There was resistance to the Zadroga bill from people who didn’t want to give another $4 billion to New York City,” she said. “We convinced them it was not about New York. It was about first responders.”
During the question and answer session, Gillibrand said the economy is her priority.
The senator said she would like to create an infrastructure bank not only for building roads and bridges, but things like high-speed rail, modernizing the power grid and expanding renewable energy research and intelligent technology.
She also defended herself against criticism for voting against the recent debt ceiling agreement.
“I wanted to vote to increase the debt ceiling,” she said. “But not this deal. Not a deal that was bad for New York and that cost the state so much.”
A former congresswoman from upstate, Gillibrand said she has great concerns about hydrofracking, a process that could produce thousands of jobs but has been challenged on safety and environmental grounds.
She would lean toward extending a state moratorium on the practice.
“Probably,” she said. “But I need to study it more.”