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The Chutzpah Mandate

How Chuck Schumer and Eliot Spitzer, both grating, obsessive perfectionists who don’t much like each other, finally gave Dems a victory.


Illustration by Darrow.  

The morning after election day, I went for a jog and ran into Chuck Schumer. This was November 2002, however. The White House was fanning fears of Saddam Hussein, nuclear madman. The antiwar movement was growing. There had been considerable media hype about the Democrats’ making big gains in the House and the Senate in the midterm elections. In the city, especially, there was a hunger for Democratic revenge against George W. Bush.

But that morning-after brought shock: The Dems had lost their Senate majority. On the House side, Bush became the first Republican president ever to gain seats in an off-year election. Karl Rove was still a genius back then.

My random running route took me down Prospect Park West, in front of the stately apartment building that is Schumer’s New York home. Just as I passed under his building’s entrance canopy, the senator came out of the lobby and headed for his waiting car. At the same moment, a woman walking by spotted Schumer and yelled, in an aggrieved tone, a tone of Democratic horror, “Chuck, what happened?”

Schumer’s mouth curled in sympathetic disgust. He turned both his palms up, in the classic New York waddayagonnado? gesture. And he shrugged, slowly and deliberately, drawing out his silent but clear response: “Ya got me!” Schumer appeared as helpless as any other Democrat.

Not this time. Schumer spent Election Night 2006 in D.C., mostly inside his command center, a suite at the Hyatt, ordering up last-minute robo-calls and trying to restrain his jubilation. It was the final act in the complete Schumerization of the Democratic Senate campaign. His bare-knuckle savvy and noodgy relentlessness, so familiar locally as to verge on self-parody, paid historic national dividends for the party. “The Democrats obviously won big in the House, but there was no Gingrich or Rove behind it—no guru,” a Democratic political consultant says. “Sure, Rahm Emanuel was in charge, and he did a good job, but Bush won the House for the Democrats more than Rahm did. The Senate, though? That was all Chuck.”

When Schumer accepted the job as head of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee in late November 2004, Bush’s approval rating was a solid 53 percent. “Our goal then was preserving North Dakota, Nebraska, and Florida and keeping the Democrats at 45 seats,” Schumer says as the astounding returns start rolling in. “Our worries were not about winning Missouri or Tennessee.” Yet Schumer went on offense from the beginning, in ways large and small: He enlisted his vaunted Wall Street fund-raising contacts, ultimately hauling in $113 million—$23 million better than Elizabeth Dole did for the GOP Senate candidates—with $23 million of the cash coming from New York donors. He pleaded with red-state incumbent Dems not to retire. Schumer picked candidates. Then he hectored them into staging Schumer-style press conferences on slow-news Sundays.

Some of the tactics were not pretty. Schumer screamed at Howard Dean to cough up some DNC cash. He recruited and then ruthlessly dumped an Iraq-war vet in the Ohio Senate race when he decided, correctly, that Sherrod Brown had a better chance to win. Schumer certainly got plenty of help along the way—from Mark Foley, from Michael J. Fox, and most of all, from Bush’s ineptitude in managing the war. But nearly every one of Schumer’s moves worked. Even he was surprised. “We pulled an inside straight,” he says.

So now that Schumer is a kingmaker, what’s in it for us? A Hillary Clinton presidential run will only solidify Schumer’s role as New York’s dominant congressional presence, with House Ways and Means chairman Charlie Rangel a close second (besides realigning the tax system and steering money to the city, Rangel is talking about two other initiatives that would benefit New York: a push against illegal guns and a focus on anti-poverty programs). Schumer says his top legislative priority is restoring a $4,000-per-family college- tuition tax deduction that he co-authored in 2001, only to see it killed last spring, when the Republicans instead handed $5 billion in tax breaks to the major oil companies. “We’re gonna roll those back,” Schumer says. “I’m also going to focus on delivering more homeland-security and transportation money for New York.” (Speaking of anti-terrorism money, Mayor Bloomberg was the only major New York pol to back Joe Lieberman, who may chair the Senate’s Homeland Security committee.) Whether the people Schumer brought to the Senate are good for New York remains to be seen: Several ran as anti-globalization, anti- immigration Democrats.

And what does Chuck want for Chuck? He’ll wield more power on the Banking and Judiciary committees; he’ll move up to chairman of the subcommittee on courts, meaning he’ll get to vet every Bush nominee. He's agreed to run the DSCC again, through 2008. “Whenever you have some success in politics, always the question is, ‘What’s next?’ ” he says, laughing. Majority Leader? President? “I love being senator,” he says.


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