Gillibrand Draws Fire for Scheduling Forum With Van Jones

FILE -- Jan. 28, 2009: Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, (D-N.Y.), listens to testimony on Capitol Hill in Washington during a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing.

FILE -- Jan. 28, 2009: Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, (D-N.Y.), listens to testimony on Capitol Hill in Washington during a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing.  (AP)

New York Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand's plan to attend a panel discussion next month with former Obama administration official Van Jones proves she's out of touch with New York voters, one of her election challengers says. 

Bruce Blakeman, Gillibrand's only announced Republican challenger for the upcoming November election, said the event shows the Democratic senator is now "pandering to the left-wing fringe of her party." 

"She shouldn't be meeting with him. She shouldn't be sharing the same platform with him. And I think it just proves she's out of touch with most New Yorkers," Blakeman told FoxNews.com.

Jones, the former White House green jobs adviser, was pushed out of the administration in September following criticism of his past remarks and the revelation that he once signed a petition supporting the "9/11 truther" movement -- which believes the Bush administration may have been involved in the Sept. 11 terror attacks. 

A best selling author, environmental activist and lightning rod for controversy, Jones has stayed largely out of the public eye since leaving the administration. So Gillibrand's decision to participate in a forum with him has raised eyebrows, particularly because she was billed as a moderate when she was appointed to fill Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's seat last year. 

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Blakeman, an attorney and a former commissioner with the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, said his nephew died trying to rescue people from the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001. 

"I am personally offended," he said of Jones' participation in the forum on jobs creation, will be held March 8 at the Harvard Club of New York City. 

Gillibrand spokesman Glen Caplin rejected the criticism, saying the senator's interest in finding ways to grow the New York economy is what drove her to accept the invitation to speak alongside Jones. 

"The discussion is about job creation -- Senator Gillibrand's number one priority. Van Jones is a national expert on creating good-paying jobs in emerging renewable energy markets," Caplin said. 

Jones, who had been serving as an adviser to the White House Council on Environmental Quality, became persona non grata in a matter of weeks last fall. He had to issue back-to-back apologies -- first, for calling Republicans "assholes" during a videotaped address earlier in the year, and second for signing a 2004 statement calling on then-New York Attorney General Eliot Spitzer and others to launch an investigation into evidence that suggested "people within the current administration may indeed have deliberately allowed 9/11 to happen, perhaps as a pretext for war." 

Jones subsequently stepped down, saying that the controversy was posing too much of a distraction for the Obama administration to stay on board. 

"On the eve of historic fights for health care and clean energy, opponents of reform have mounted a vicious smear campaign against me. They are using lies and distortions to distract and divide," Jones said in a sharply worded statement in September. He said the 2004 petition did not represent his current views. 

Jones is considered a rising star in environmental circles. He wrote the bestseller "The Green Collar Economy" and has co-founded and worked with several groups dedicated to helping low-income and minority communities -- often through green jobs and better environmental policy. He got his start as a San Francisco-area activist. 

Some Democrats, particularly former Democratic National Committee Chairman Howard Dean, continued to defend him after his resignation. 

A Gillibrand aide said the New York senator has no relationship with Jones and that the senator does not espouse any "truther" views. 

The aide pointed out that Gillibrand "has been a leader" in sponsoring legislation to provide health care for first responders and lower Manhattan residents suffering from long-term health problems connected to the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. 

Erica Payne, president and founder of The Agenda Project, which is sponsoring next month's forum, could not be reached for comment. 

Because Gillibrand was appointed, the senator must stand for election in November, a contest that has drawn a number of potential rivals besides Blakeman. On the Republican side, Rep. Peter King had been considering a challenge on and off for months, but ruled that out for the second time in January. Marc Mukasey, son of former Attorney General Michael Mukasey, is among the remaining Republicans who may run for the seat. 

Former Tennessee Rep. Harold Ford Jr. is the most prominent Democrat considering a challenge against Gillibrand. His campaign shop for weeks has been in a scathing media war with Gillibrand's office. A representative for Ford could not be reached for comment on the Jones forum.