ALBANY, N.Y. (AP) — After trading barbs for several weeks, Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand and her potential Democratic primary challenger, Harold Ford Jr., each made their case — and even shook hands — at the annual meeting of the state's minority lawmakers Sunday night.
Ford, a former congressman from Tennessee, was the keynote dinner speaker at the annual meeting of the New York State Association of Black and Puerto Rican Legislators. Gillibrand attended two days of the weekend meeting and spoke Sunday.
Seated at the same table, Gillibrand approached Ford for a quick predinner handshake and a "welcome." Also at the table were Gov. David Paterson and state Attorney General Andrew Cuomo, a potential Democratic rival in the governor's race this year.
Ford has publicly flirted with whether to challenge Gillibrand in a primary. He says he will decide whether to run in the next few weeks, though he has been meeting with voters and party leaders around the state since January.
The caucus includes dozens of state senators and Assembly members, most from the New York City area, whose support is crucial for Democrats running for statewide office. Ford and Gillibrand cast themselves as fighters for New York, with Ford asking the caucus to be open-minded.
"Those of you who think you know my record, those of you who don't know my record, those of you who have been nice and even those of you who have not been so nice, I thank you not only for the chance to listen and the chance to learn, but hopefully if I decide to go forward, you'll give me the opportunty to show you that indeed I can lead," Ford said.
Gillibrand is seeking election to the seat to which she was appointed a year ago when Hillary Rodham Clinton became secretary of state.
Gillibrand had represented a largely rural upstate district as a congresswoman and has worked hard to shore up support in New York City since becoming a senator. She kept a busy schedule of luncheons, receptions and politicking at the meeting this weekend.
"I will be your fighter," Gillibrand told a brunch crowd Sunday. "I will fight for you as hard as I fight for my own children."
Paterson, who appointed Gillibrand, was among the politicians who praised her at the annual meeting, telling the brunch crowd that "she has come to our communities" and learned about the issues. The governor later posed for pictures arm in arm with Ford at dinner.
The meeting caps a week in which Gillibrand was endorsed by the local Democratic organizations in Manhattan and the Bronx. Her campaign says she has now received endorsements from 58 of the 62 county party organizations.
U.S. Rep. Charles Rangel of New York City hugged Gillibrand at the dinner reception and told reporters she was doing a "terrific" job.
"We'll have enough problems without fighting over this seat," Rangel said.
Ford came to Albany only for the dinner and was greeted warmly. Even some Gillibrand supporters like Paterson cited Ford's right to wage a primary challenge.
Ford moved to New York City from Tennessee after his 2006 loss in a U.S. Senate race. He has said he would be a more independent voice in the Senate than Gillibrand, who is considered vulnerable by some political analysts.
"At the end of the day, many people in the state don't know Sen. Gillibrand, don't know a whole lot about her," Ford said on NBC television's "Meet the Press" on Sunday.
Gillibrand told reporters on Sunday she is not concerned about a challenge from Ford.
"I'm not worried because at the end of the day, anyone is welcome to move here from Tennessee and run for the Senate," she said. "But I'm running on my record."