Senator Chuck Schumer at his home in Park Slope, Brooklyn. (Photo credit: Gillian Laub)
When Chuck Schumer travels around New York State, he generally favors a single-propeller Beechcraft Bonanza whose oblong cabin is spare and unpressurized, two conditions that could not, under any imaginable circumstance, be said of the senator’s own head. As most New Yorkers know, to be Chuck Schumer is to live in a juiced-up state of ambition and aggression, activity and perpetual forward motion. His intensity is supernatural. His propensity for self-congratulation is awesome. It’s a wonder he doesn’t electrocute himself with his own energy. For him, intellectual and physical stamina become one and the same.
“Wait—you gotta see this,” he says, one leg unfurled on the seat in front of him, interrupting his own disquisition on the origins and virtues of JetBlue. “Onion fields.” He points out the window. “See all that black stuff? That’s the muck of Orange County. That’s where New York City’s onions come from.”
Today, Schumer is headed not to Orange County but to a variety of destinations farther north and west, where the Democratic senator, a Jewish kid from Brooklyn, is surprisingly popular. There is absolutely no reason he should feel compelled to go there: His reelection this year against Republican assemblyman Howard Mills is virtually assured, so much so that Schumer never even declared his candidacy, and had not once, until the debates two weeks ago, done a single campaign event. (For the most depressing sign of the Mills campaign’s futility, type Howard Mills Senate into Google—“Did you mean: Howard Miller Senate?” it asks back.) But Schumer prides himself on visiting each of New York State’s 62 counties every year, and this year, he still hasn’t visited Orleans, a luminous wedge of farmland along Lake Ontario. And though he doesn’t say so, this year, securing his Senate seat may not be the only thing on Schumer’s mind.
The senator starts discussing grape-growing in Chautauqua. I ask, idly almost, whether he can draw all 62 counties freehand. “What? Oh, yeah. Sure.” I hand him a piece of paper from my notebook. The next thing I know, he’s drawn a crude outline of New York State, and he’s agonizing over what goes where. “St. Lawrence is the biggest county, but it’s not that big,” he says at one point, lamenting his sense of scale. “And Hamilton is really here … Erie, Niagara, Orleans, Monroe, Genesee, Wyoming. Wyoming and St. Lawrence compete for the biggest dairy county, and one of the things I’m proudest of that I’ve done, we’ve put Northeast agriculture on the map. Now our dairy farmers get the same kind of help from Washington that the Middle West grain farmers get—”
We? Did he work on this with Hillary?
The question seems to make him wince. “Yeah, yeah,” he says. “But what I did is, when I got to the Senate, before she got there, we formed a Northeast agriculture coalition and forced the others. But yes, we did work on it together.”
“If you look at it logically,Chuck can afford to slow down,” says PeteKing. “But if he did that, he wouldn’t be ChuckSchumer.”
It is amazing how much of Schumer’s personality pours out during this tiny exercise: the competitive quiz-show brainiac who set off to Harvard at 16; the hungry law-school graduate who got to the State Assembly by 23; the pol of today who both endears and grates, dazzles and exploits, works manically hard, and plugs his own accomplishments with the shamelessness of a kid. One can see it all, his strengths and his weaknesses, so obviously intertwined, Achilles’ heels attached to strong calves. Love him or despise him, admire him or dread him, but by all means, whatever you do, get used to him: He won’t be disappearing from New York politics anytime soon.
The senator finishes, counts up the counties, and discovers two are missing. He stares at the map. “Ah,” he says, after a moment. “Okay. Here it is. Yates and Schuyler. Finger Lakes and wine country. That’s it.” He writes them in, beams, and signs it.
It’s a pretty impressive rendering.
Still, I tell him, it looks more like the informed handiwork of a governor than a senator—and seeing he’s spent most of the plane ride discussing ways to reinvigorate the economy upstate, wouldn’t it be easier to achieve these goals from Albany?
“A governor can do more,” he says, shrugging. “But a senator can do plenty.”
Two years from now, it might be perfectly fair to say that this week’s Senate race was a fake race, a contest between a man who had no chance of winning and a man who had trained his sights elsewhere. Though he won’t express any interest publicly in the 2006 governor’s race, he has been sending very different messages in private. He has told his usual contributors to keep their powder dry before lavishing funds upon State Attorney General Eliot Spitzer, who has all but declared his candidacy; and in the past few weeks, Schumer, who spent most of the fall unwilling to share his $24.7 million war chest with his needier peers (even though he had no real race to speak of, even though his opponent was weaker than a cheap martini), has suddenly given roughly $500,000 to his Democratic colleagues around the state.
Two weeks ago, for example, Martin Connor, the minority leader in the New York State Senate, got a phone call from Schumer. Toward the end, Schumer mentioned he didn’t have much of a race this year—perhaps he could send him something? “I thanked him, hung up, and said to myself, He’s running for governor,” says Connor. “Chuck doesn’t spend his money.” (In 1998, Connor notes, Schumer’s sole contribution to the state-party convention was ice-cream cones—though party officials prefer to describe this contribution as a “dessert reception.”)
One might wonder why Schumer, an ambitious man and committed legislator, would be interested in abandoning a job that most politicians badly covet. One answer is that the Senate’s a lot less fun if you’re in the minority—though perhaps that problem will vanish with the elections this week. If Democrats win back the Senate, Schumer will be able to spend his time pushing bills rather than blocking them; he’ll sit at the helm of several subcommittees; and it’s even possible he’ll land a high-profile, national job: chairman of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, to which he has recently given $2.5 million. Schumer, a big Wall Street booster, is staggeringly good at raising money.
Whether the Democrats win back the Senate or not, however, Schumer will have to contend with one ineluctable reality: He’s the New York senator who’s not Hillary. For a man like Schumer, who has no shortage of ego, status of any secondary sort can be agonizing. “It’s gotta be very, very difficult to work as hard as he has over the years,” says Charles Rangel, “and to see that her shadow looms bigger than his seniority.”
Even before Hillary’s arrival in Congress, Schumer’s appetite for press attention was legendary. Bob Dole once remarked that the most dangerous place in the Capitol was between Chuck and a camera; last year, at a roast, New Jersey’s senator Jon Corzine came up with a more pungent way of making the same observation: “Frankly, sharing a media market with Chuck Schumer is like sharing a banana with a monkey … take a little bite of it and he will throw his own feces at you.” (Years ago, Schumer’s colleagues, tired of watching him take credit for issues on which they’d collaborated or worked on alone, coined a verb for this behavior: getting “Schumed.”)
Today, for Schumer, Hillary lurks like a hobgoblin in the shadows, and distinguishing his accomplishments from hers is never very far from his mind. On the plane, for instance, I ask him how the two have divided their responsibilities for New York. “I think they’re ad hoc,” he says. “Like, I tend to like the economic-development and businessy-type issues. But people are surprised,” he can’t resist adding, “because health care, the generic-drug bill—that’s one of my major accomplishments.”
The irony, of course, is that Schumer already gets plenty of favorable media attention, and deservedly so. In a Congress filled with windbags and ding-dongs, Schumer has distinguished himself as a windbag who’s got intelligent, creative things to do and say. He’s an artful and pragmatic legislator; an energetic advocate of the things he believes in; and the same Panzer-tank quality that makes pancakes of his Democratic colleagues also makes targets of his Republican adversaries—he gladly led the charge against John Ashcroft and an assortment of right-leaning judges in the past four years. Schumer’s legislative record, by any measure, is one to envy and admire: In the House, where he served for eighteen years, he was one of the main sponsors of the Brady Bill, passed in 1993; in 1994, he co-sponsored the assault-weapons ban and the Violence Against Women Act. In the Senate, even in the minority party, he worked with John McCain to push through the generic-drug bill, and he worked closely with Bush—more closely than Hillary, given her previous association with the executive branch—to help secure $20 billion after September 11. Bush even has a nickname for him. He calls him Ellis. (It’s Schumer’s middle name, for Ellis Island.)
In fact, Schumer has been so effective, and at moments has shown such a willingness to stray from liberal doctrine, that even the New York Post endorsed Schumer this year—and the Post has rarely met a Democrat it didn’t wish to slap. Like Alfonse D’Amato, the man Schumer defeated in 1998, the senator has shown a flair for bringing home the goods for New York, and he’s resolutely nonideological when it comes to the war on terror, hawkish even, excoriating the Saudis for fomenting terrorism, supporting the Patriot Act in spite of reservations about potential trespasses on civil liberties, lining up fairly early in support of the war against Iraq, giving full-throated support to Ariel Sharon.
“Chuckalwaysstruck meas more of a natural fit forgovernorthan forsenator,”says an Albanyhand. “He’dactually like flying to Buffalo in February.”
Yet in spite of his myriad successes, something compels Schumer to keep talking: he cannot simply let his record speak for itself. “I’ve been a leader in Washington in taking on the Chinese,” he’ll unblushingly say. Or: “As you know, last year I got $2.2 billion of Medicaid relief into the tax bill—Olympia Snowe and I almost single-handedly pushed that through.” Or: “As you know, I came up with the idea for the center of excellence for infotronics.” It’s exhausting after a while, this bragging, and not a little puzzling—why, after spending a day with a man as smart as Schumer, should you walk away with the sound of his own horn tooting in your ears? Though it is worth noting: Governors speak this way.
“Temperamentally, Chuck always struck me as more of a natural fit for governor than for senator,” says E. J. McMahon, a senior fellow at the conservative Manhattan Institute and a shrewd observer of Albany’s ethnographic folkways. “He revels in coming to small towns and cities and having press conferences on airport tarmacs in places like Elmira. That’s something that a lot of senators see as the drudgery of their job, but it’s a more regular part of your job if you’re governor, and one gets the sense he’d really like it: He’d actually like flying to Buffalo in February.”
When asked whether he wants to run for governor, Schumer demurs, saying he’s focused on his Senate race. But when asked whether he wants Spitzer to run, he demurs again. “You know, I’m not thinking of it,” he says after a second, as we’re flying upstate. “But I think he has done a very good job as attorney general.”
Wouldn’t you want him to run, then?
“That’s up to him,” he says.
But you’ve got to be invested in a Democratic outcome in the governor’s race, I say. A Republican has been elected to that post for three terms. And Spitzer is such a strong candidate . . .
“I guess I’d start thinking about it later,” he says, and redirects his gaze out the window.
At a farm in upstate New York, before a bank of microphones, an apple grower named George Lamont stands with Schumer and tells a story about when they first met. “You asked, ‘What do I have to do to get these conservative Republicans to vote for me?’ ”
Schumer’s smile falters. Lamont presses on. “Well, you’ve been here every year,” he says. “And whenever we’ve needed you, you’ve been right here for us, and we really appreciate that.”
Eliot Spitzer may be bright, aggressive, and charismatic, and he may have done a lot to ingratiate himself with people upstate—like giving money to Democratic legislators and committees, for example, and prosecuting cases of local importance. But Schumer, too, has done a lot to endear himself to upstate voters. In an April Quinnipiac poll, in fact, Schumer fares slightly better upstate than Spitzer in a gubernatorial race against George Pataki, though that might be because his name recognition is slightly better. Still, his popularity is real: What exactly has he done? How did a Brooklyn boy manage to impress people in places like Rochester, Utica, and Rome?
At the farm, Schumer gives a clue. He starts his speech with the usual bromides: “American values have been bred on the farm …” But then it gets interesting. He mentions Scripture. He thanks God that upstate farmers are currently enjoying years of fat, rather than years of lean. He adds that farms have taught him larger philosophical lessons—about “the relationship of man to man and man to God, that sometimes things happen that we can do nothing about.”
Back in the car, I ask him whether he refers to God as much in his speeches downstate. He turns around, eyes wide, and doesn’t hesitate. “Yup,” he says. “I believe in God.” He describes provoking his Upper West Side friends into discussion about the possibility of an intervening God, to whom he says he regularly prays. “I’m a rarity among my … type. You know.”
Talk to Schumer people, and they’ll say the senator is Mr. Everyman: Catholics think he’s Catholic, Buffalonians think he grew up in Buffalo, marchers in Columbus Day parades want to know what part of Italy he’s from. Me, I’m not sure I buy it. If I squint my eyes, I still see Chuck Schumer. But it’s clear that he knows how to talk to a great range of people, and if he’s in alien territory, he plays up his downstate, Jewish-kid roots, rather than attempting to obscure them. Though he’s got an urgent, commanding presence, he’s also a zhlub, and in a good way: He talks with his mouth full, he’s retained his Flatbush patois, his tie is always slightly askew. But most important, he asks questions—lots of questions. It makes people feel like they’re being heard.
You’re a farmer, Chuck wants to know what you grow and what sells most and when your last decent harvest was. You’re running a medical campus upstate, he wants to know why there’s a nursing shortage, and which is hitting you harder, managed care or malpractice insurance. You’re a senior citizen, he tells you he’s taking Lipitor, asks what meds you’re taking, wants to know how much you’re paying for them. (Watching him in a senior citizen’s home is an astounding sight—seniors are left rapt, describing him as an impressive young man, wistfully discerning in him the outlines of their fantasy, or perhaps real, son.)
“Democrats don’t relate to middle-class people,” he says to me at one point. “I think some people think, Oh, once you’re middle class, you don’t need help. But if you come from the middle class, you know the struggles families have even if they’re making $50,000 a year. And all the Democrats have to do, which I’m trying to do, is say, We can make your load a little lighter. Reach out in a real way. Be at eye level. But I don’t think the Democratic Party is at eye level with the middle class.”
Schumer is also upstate a lot. After he won his election in 1998, he set up three additional offices at far corners of the state, and he visits them regularly. As he often likes to point out, he was instrumental in helping JetBlue bring affordable and frequent air service to cities like Syracuse and Buffalo and Rochester; he’s also trying to use his Wall Street connections to bring money into depressed cities. “Chuck understands that upstate needs jobs,” says Tom Reynolds, a Republican congressman from western New York, when I ask him about the senator after a press conference in Buffalo. “And no one will outwork him. I mean, I work hard. But he has 62 counties. And his curiosity! I’ve watched him looking into drought issues—” A former Democratic member of Congress, John J. LaFalce, wanders over and takes a seat next to Reynolds. I tell him I’m writing a piece about Schumer. “Is he up for reelection this year?” he jokes. “Does he have a race?”
“He runs every year,” says Reynolds. The two men burst into laughter.
Just days ago, less than one week before this story was going to press, I got a voice-mail message from Senator Jon Corzine. This was strange, because I hadn’t phoned Jon Corzine. But Schumer had. Apparently, he’d heard that I’d read Corzine’s joke comparing the senator to a monkey who’d been robbed of a banana. He was afraid I was going to use it.
“It was an unfortunate remark on my part,” Corzine said. “It was intended to be a joke.”I know, I told him. He said it at a roast. Wasn’t it possible Schumer was being a bit oversensitive?
“Maybe,” Corzine admitted. “But for those of us who live in a fishbowl, one guy ought to be more sensitive to another.”
I hung up, amazed. Holding hundreds of press conferences to control your media coverage is one thing; leaning on other senators to control your coverage is quite another. Is there no point at which the senator can simply laugh at himself, let go?
“If you look at it logically, Chuck can afford to slow down, maybe to enjoy the job more, even to be more contemplative,” says Congressman Pete King, a Republican from Long Island and reliable congressional ethnographer. “But if he did that, he wouldn’t be Chuck Schumer. And if he weren’t Chuck Schumer, he wouldn’t be where he is today.”
Where Schumer is, today, is the U.S. Senate. He says he has lots of plans for his next term: ensuring that the judiciary doesn’t drift too far to the right. Making college tuition fully tax-deductible. Tort reform. A new trade policy, especially toward China. A rational policy on the war on terror.
But will he stick around to do these things? We’ll know a lot more in the coming months, of course, as Spitzer declares his candidacy and Schumer appraises the congressional landscape. There are also legal questions to resolve: Thanks to an obscure provision in the new McCain-Feingold campaign-finance laws, Schumer probably can’t use the money he raised for his Senate campaign in a gubernatorial bid. (Then again, notes Blair Horner, the legislative director of NYPIRG Albany, Schumer is “the Hoover vacuum cleaner of campaign dollars”—if he wants to run for governor, he’ll probably manage just fine.) Though if Schumer were to run for governor, he might wish to reconsider his campaign-funding stream, 75 percent of which comes from business, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. One can only imagine how politically awkward such a mother lode would be in a race against Eliot Spitzer, the man who’s made national headlines by taking on Wall Street.
What an amazing possibility to contemplate: Schumer, a middle-class lawyer who’s gone after trial lawyers, runs for governor relying on Wall Street money; Spitzer, a rich man who’s gone after Wall Street, runs for governor relying on money from trial lawyers and his own bank account. One can hardly imagine which candidate will tar the other one worse.
And since the summer, there’s no doubt the two men have been circling each other like cats. During the Democratic convention, for example, the Post reported—and Spitzer didn’t deny—that he’d been abruptly bumped from the roster of potential convention speakers, implying Schumer had somehow prevailed upon Kerry and Edwards to deny Spitzer a moment in the spotlight, a claim Schumer vigorously denied. Spitzer, however, still decided to skip Schumer’s address to the New York delegation.
Whether his Democratic colleagues in Albany would relish a Schumer-Spitzer primary, of course, is another matter entirely. The New York State Democratic Party is famous for its bloody primaries in which its finest candidates rip each other to ribbons. I ask Sheldon Silver, the Assembly speaker, whether he’d like Schumer to run. “Honestly?” he says. “I think Eliot Spitzer’s a talent. And if Chuck stays there in Washington, Eliot can be governor.”
If he should decide to run, it’s this kind of reasoning—Shouldn’t New York be able to have them both?—that will be hardest for Schumer to rebut. It’s the reasoning Mario Cuomo used against Ed Koch in 1982, when the mayor challenged him in the Democratic gubernatorial primary; it’s the reasoning John Kerry used against Bill Weld in Massachusetts in 1996, when the governor wanted to take the senator’s job. Neither man had an adequate response.
Yet no one is saying that Schumer would be a bad governor. Even potential opponents give him his due. “Chuck has some skills that’d be very effective in Albany,” says Michael Balboni, a sunny, ambitious Republican state senator from Long Island, who’s made no secret of his interest in a statewide office.
“He’s a noodge!” he says. “He’s a supernoodge. He’ll come at you again and again on an issue. He’s relentless!”
Relentlessness. It’s Schumer—and most executives, for that matter—in a nutshell. And in a place as prone to stasis and dysfunction as Albany, it’s not a bad quality to have. “I don’t know what kind of negotiating style he’d have as an executive,” Balboni concludes. “But based on his experience in Washington, I’m guessing he’d be a force to reckon with.”