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.