|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 Pete King. “But if he did that, he wouldn’t be Chuck Schumer.”
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.