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.
“Chuck always struck me as more of a natural fit for governor than for senator,” says an Albany hand. “He’d actually 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.