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Kirsten Gillibrand, NY-20, has been off to an excellent start in Congress after decisively defeating Miami Mob Leader John Sweeney, a four-term incumbent often mentioned as a possible statewide candidate, last year.

She has held more than 10 issues forums and more than 20 Congress at Your Corner meet-and-greet events, working at such events almost every weekend.

Her voting record is near-perfect, and her constituent service is top-notch.

In that regard, the Albany Times-Union has a story about her today that deserves wider attention.

Which it will get here.

Details, below, plus a bonus Miami Mob Leader update.

Gillibrand has come up with an embarrassingly obvious way to get money for her district -- help local governments and nonprofits apply for federal grants.

Earmarks for any freshman, even one who is near the top of the GOP's target list, are limited:

(Gillibrand) submitted 26 pages' worth of earmark requests totaling more than $150 million to House committees. But with House leaders promising to cut back on earmarks this year, Gillibrand knew that only a few of those projects might survive and win funding in the federal budget.

So Gillibrand came up with a brilliant Plan B:

A lawmaker who submits more than 200 funding requests "might get 20 and the President might veto them all anyway," Gillibrand said. "So I wanted to make sure we have a resource for federal investment (in local projects and infrastructure)."

In March, Gillibrand launched "grants central" on her Web site, and staff members in her D.C. office began counseling local officials on how to apply for grants.

Gillibrand's aides do not write the applications for the groups and officials seeking help. Instead, she said, she and her staff "facilitate" the grants by giving information to local residents and writing letters of support to accompany the applications.

Gillibrand jokes that half of her 15 staff members have become "experts" on grants. Staffers at the nonpartisan Congressional Research Service say no other office has contacted them for as much information about available grants.

Gillibrand also started up a regular electronic newsletter listing funding for farmers, firefighters, schools and local government. At first, the newsletter had about 30 subscribers. Now it has topped 1,000.

As a result, Gillibrand has helped local governments and nonprofits get $11.7 million in federal grants.

In her first 10 months in office.

The grant process is competitive, but so is the earmark process, such as it is.

Gillibrand's staff cannot actually write the grants, but they can, and do, help local governments and nonprofits get their act together to apply for federal grants.

This strategy of promoting and enabling federal grants is "a rare approach in Washington," so rare that Gillibrand's staff are teaching others how to do it:

Gillibrand's program has attracted attention from other lawmakers on Capitol Hill. Aides have advised staff for two other lawmakers on how to set up their own grant assistance program. And Gillibrand's staff members have given small talks on how it works to regular large meetings of congressional aides.

"Grants are harder to do," she said. "Appropriations might just take a call to your congressman. With a grant application, you actually have to fill it out, and some people feel intimidated that they don't have a grant writer.

"But what we've found is that with just a little encouragement and taking the time to explain what the grant application is like, people are more (willing to apply)," Gillibrand said.

Gillibrand's excellent idea has been praised even by Citizens Against Government Waste, which rarely praises Democrats:

Critics have labeled earmarks wasteful "pork." Members of Congress have become "addicted" to earmarks, complained Leslie Paige, a media director for Citizens Against Government Waste. Gillibrand's approach is a step in the right direction, Paige said.

"If it's the difference between getting a secretive, nonaccountable earmark in an appropriations bill or educating a member of your constituency as to how to apply through a transparent process (and) compete for a grant, we'd certainly prefer the latter," Paige said.

The programs are competitive, and grants aren't automatic, she noted. "It's a preferable process to what Congress has gotten addicted to," Paige said.

The story leads with Gillibrand helping the Saratoga Rural Preservation Co.'s program for homeless veterans secure a $125,896 grant from the Labor Department.

Because, and this should be highlighted on Veterans Day, Democrats care about providing decent services for veterans, and penny-pinching Republicans want to send them to lousy wars, and screw them on benefits when they come home wounded, physically and/or psychologically.

It also mentions a $184,000 grant from the USDA to help the town of Schroon, Essex County, pay for the final upgrades to a wastewater treatment plant; a $172,900 grant from the Department of Homeland Security to help the Davenport, Delaware County, Fire Department buy new vehicles; and a $278,000 USDA grant to help the small Catskill Mountain region town of Margaretville, Delaware County, replace a well destroyed by flooding.

Here's what the Margaretville mayor said about Gillibrand's excellent idea:

The bottom line is if it weren't for Kirsten Gillibrand, we wouldn't have a well house.

Professorial political pundit and TV regular Larry Sabato weighed in on Gillibrand's excellent idea:

Larry Sabato, an expert in politics at the University of Virginia, said the grant program is an especially smart project for Gillibrand, whose seat in Congress is being targeted by Republicans.

"If you are in a competitive district -- and she is -- you want to make as many connections as quickly as possible," Sabato said. By helping locals apply for and win grants, Gillibrand can break through a primarily Republican district and reach influential local leaders, he added.

Steering federal funds back to a home district helps "produce votes" for the lawmaker in the next election, he said. Grants and earmarks "build ties between a congressperson and key interest groups."

I worked a lot for Gillibrand last year, at first because she was not the Miami Mob Leader.

But as I met and talked with her several times during the campaign, I switched to more working for the hard-working, smart Gillibrand, and less for working against a Bushite thug.

Her excellent grant idea is news to me, but it's the kind of thing that hard-working, smart Democrats can come up with, once they're elected to replace slacker Bushites.

Speaking of which, the latest news on the Miami Mob Leader is that he finally, after skating for years due to his political connections, got a DWI this morning.

It happened as he swerved around the Northway at around 1:20 a.m. (prime time for DWI) in his home town of Clifton Park; according to a radio news report, Sweeney evidently blew a .18, bad enough for an aggravated DWI ticket, which carries higher fines and other penalties.

Schadenfreude has its limits -- I hope Sweeney's arrest will help him to finally come to terms with his well-known alcoholism.

But I will never forgive him for helping to steal the 2000 election with his "Shut it down" order to the GOP Congressional staff mob who obeyed Sweeney's order to illegally disrupt the legal vote-counting process in Miami-Dade.  

Originally posted to devtob on Sun Nov 11, 2007 at 02:44 PM PST.

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