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.”