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Charles Schumer: From bold assemblyman to U.S. Senate power player

Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., is shown in this

Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., is shown in this file photo taken on Capitol Hill in Washington, Wednesday, Jan. 28, 2015. Credit: AP / J. Scott Applewhite

At age 25, freshman Assemb. Chuck Schumer managed a revealing feat: He organized a news conference to protest funding cuts to city education and persuaded 39 other Assembly members from New York City to let him take the lead.

He staged other events around that time that were far more audacious: four foreign medical school graduates wearing hoods to complain about state hurdles to becoming doctors; meter maids behind a screen confessing they ticketed legally parked cars to meet quotas, and even Schumer personally buying bags of asphalt and filling potholes.

But that act of lining up colleagues behind him -- all older, most more experienced and influential -- now stands as a marker of his future success at combining behind-the-scenes work to win allies with a flair for grabbing attention.

Now, 40 years later, after rising from one of New York's youngest Assembly members to its senior U.S. senator, Schumer again has persuaded colleagues to get behind him, this time for a long-sought pinnacle of power and prominence: as the top Democrat in the U.S. Senate and one of the most powerful players in Washington.

In March, Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) endorsed Schumer as his successor for 2017 when he announced he would not run again next year after five terms.

Support for Schumer among Democrats is "a mile wide and a mile deep," said Sen. Tom Carper (D-Del.). "He's very bright. He has incredible energy. He is very inclusive. And Republicans like him -- though not all of them."

Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah), co-sponsor of many bills with Schumer, said, "He's gotten better and better with time. He's tough. He's smart. If you're willing to work with him, you can get something done."

Schumer, 64, has a reputation as a classic New Yorker, with his Brooklyn accent, brash personality and liberal bent. Many in Congress speak of his sharp elbows, big-footing and sprints to TV cameras. Republicans decry Schumer's partisan attacks on them.

But those who know and work with him said in interviews there's another side to him, away from the cameras, that builds strong and useful relationships with colleagues.

Strategist and a listener

Schumer is a savvy strategist, they say, a tireless worker, an energetic networker. He's someone who listens, whether it's to another senator who needs a guide in New York City or a member of the Bethpage Water District worried about an abandoned factory.

His tactics don't always succeed, and at times he disagrees or clashes with the White House and other Democrats, most recently on trade.

But most lawmakers, and activists on the left and right who don't particularly like Schumer, acknowledge his effectiveness.

Reid skipped over his top lieutenant, Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) to back Schumer as his successor. At the time, Durbin told Schumer, "You've earned this."

Schumer has a "pretty strong following" among the 46 members of the Democratic caucus, Durbin said recently.

In interviews on Capitol Hill, senators -- liberal Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.), conservative Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) and Sen. Angus King (I-Maine) -- said they back Schumer for their top Democratic post.

Asked why, they all pointed to the same thing: his leadership in passing a massive immigration overhaul in the Senate two years ago with 68 votes, including 14 by Republicans.

Sen. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.), a co-sponsor of that bill, said Schumer's reach across the aisle on immigration showed Republicans a different side of him than the Democratic attack dog he had been in his first two terms.

"The old Chuck Schumer was seen as an ideologue," Flake said. "The new Chuck Schumer is seen as someone you can work with."

Schumer declined to be interviewed for this story out of respect for Reid, still the Senate Democratic leader, Schumer spokesman Matt House said.

'He knows what works'

Schumer grew up in Sheepshead Bay, a neighborhood of middle-class Jewish strivers. His father ran an exterminating company. He graduated at the top of his class at James Madison High School and went straight into politics after Harvard Law School.

Schumer is now in his 41st year in public office, a longevity that has allowed him to accumulate power and signals his success as a politician.

He has never lost an election and has faced only four close contests -- none since 1998, when after serving 18 years in the House he defeated three-term Republican Sen. Al D'Amato.

"He knows what works. He adds to his tool kit, but he keeps doing the same things," said Carol Kellermann, who met Schumer at Harvard and was his campaign manager and top House aide in the 1980s.

"The underlying organizing principle is always the everyday citizens, and ways to explain things so the average person will understand," she said.

Epitomizing his media savvy are his regular Sunday news conferences, held to get headlines on a slow news day. They usually highlight a consumer issue such as warnings about unregulated powdered alcohol.

Schumer has at times exaggerated his accomplishments, such as his long-stated claim that when he was elected to the Assembly in 1974 he became "at 23, the youngest member of the State Legislature since Theodore Roosevelt."

Recently, Schumer dropped that line from his Senate website biography after reporters asked about it. Assemb. Richard Gottfried (D-Manhattan) said he was six months younger than Schumer when first elected in 1970. Gottfried said he raised that with Schumer when he was elected in 1974 and has joked with him about it over the years. Schumer also let stand for years stories that he scored a perfect 1600 on the SAT. His office said he actually scored 800 on math and 764 on verbal.

Schumer also has been tagged as a publicity hog, for big-footing others, a phenomena called being "Schumed."

"I did get Schumed, and we all have. You learn from that. He was just faster," said Carolyn McCarthy, the gun-control activist and retired Democratic congresswoman from Mineola.

But lawmakers have learned to accept it.

After Schumer moved to the Senate, top aides to members of New York's congressional delegation met to vent, said a member who asked for anonymity to talk about a closed meeting. Schumer's aides don't recall it, said his spokesman.

"Every chief of staff went around the table to give examples of where Chuck stepped on their toes or may have intruded on their limelight. The chief of staff for Schumer was very patient and listened to everybody," the member recalled.

"Then he said, 'Here's the thing: He's Chuck. You're not going to change it. Whatever we accomplish for New York is because of Chuck's tenacity.' "

The delegation gave up.

"Why agonize over it?" the member said. "He does end up producing."

Schumer's personality is one key to his support. He is confident to the point of arrogance, but often uses humor to ease friction, colleagues said.

"Chuck is a kibitzer in the best sense of the Yiddish word. He has a kind of 'I-am-who-I-am' charm about him," said Mark Green, the former New York public advocate. "He's a killer politician, but his kibitzing humanizes him."

Rep. Steve Israel (D-Huntington) recalled having a potentially tense meeting with Schumer but said, "We spent most of it exchanging dialogue from one of our favorite movies, 'The Producers,' and left laughing."

Helping his party win

Schumer wins respect for his diligence in mastering the details and the politics of issues. And he is known for being solicitous to colleagues.

New York Republicans, including his 2010 opponent Jay Townsend, said Schumer has a harsh, uncivil side, recalling he used a curse word about a flight attendant who asked him to shut off his cellphone in 2009. Schumer apologized.

Still, friends said Schumer schmoozes with the best of them and has built a wide network of friends, lobbyists, donors and former aides.

For decades, he bunked at a Capitol Hill house that served as a dorm for four members of Congress and with many who later became powerful, such as then-Rep. Leon Panetta, later President Bill Clinton's chief of staff and President Barack Obama's CIA director and defense secretary.

Schumer's influence surged when he took on the challenge of regaining a Democratic Senate majority in late 2004, after he won a second term.

Reid, the new Senate minority leader, tapped Schumer for chairman of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee. As a lure, Reid offered him a seat on the Finance Committee, which, when combined with his membership on the Banking Committee, put him in a position to help Wall Street. Reid asked him to shape the Democrats' message.

Schumer was relentless during his two terms as DSCC chair, where his job was to find the best candidates, get them to run and help them win.

When five-term Rep. Mark Udall (D-Colo.) met with Schumer, he was looking forward to finally getting some bills passed after Democrats won control of the House just a few months earlier in the 2006 election, said a former Udall aide, who asked for anonymity to talk about those discussions.

But Schumer had settled on Udall as a key recruit to run for the Senate in the 2008 election, a presidential year with the Democratic National Convention in Denver.

"Too bad, you're not going to be able to enjoy being in the majority because now it's time for you to run for Senate," Schumer told Udall, the aide said.

Udall bridled at Schumer's push -- but he ran and won.

Schumer often remarked how he and Reid became close as "foxhole buddies" as they plotted to win, said former Reid spokesman Jim Manley.

Democrats picked up six seats in 2006 and eight more in 2008, said J.B. Poersch, the DSCC executive director then. Ten of those victors remain in the Senate today and owe their seats to Schumer.

Aggressiveness alone doesn't win elections -- money and a message are necessary. Schumer provided both.

On Jan. 22, 2007, Schumer and then Mayor Michael Bloomberg issued a white paper warning that New York City could lose its position as the world's financial capital to London. They urged easing "stringent regulations and high litigation risks" for Wall Street.

The next day, Schumer published his manifesto for reviving the Democratic Party, a book called "Positively American: How the Democrats Can Win in 2008." It argued his party should put a sharp focus on middle-class voters.

Both issues are central to Schumer's politics and career.

An ally of Wall Street

Since coming to Congress in 1981, Schumer has been an ally of Wall Street, and its executives and workers have donated campaign funds to him, making him one of the top political fundraisers in Washington.

In his 2004 re-election race, for example, Schumer raised 46 percent of his funds from financial, insurance and real estate firms. That helped him spend $13 million on his campaign and give $2.25 million to the DSCC -- and still have $10 million left in the bank.

After becoming DSCC chair, Schumer stopped raising funds for himself for four years. He focused instead on the DSCC, which raised a record $284 million for the 2006 and 2008 elections, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, which tracks political money.

And, the center found, he helped boost DSCC's Wall Street donations from $11.5 million in 2004 to $18.9 million in 2006 and $29.1 million in 2008.

Since leaving the DSCC in 2009, Schumer has given $8.3 million to his party and candidates, more than any other Democratic senator, Federal Election Commission and center data show.

As proposed in the white paper, Schumer helped loosen federal regulation, capital requirements and fees on accountants, financial firms and banks, saving them billions of dollars in taxes and costs, a 2008 New York Times analysis found. Analysts blame that kind of deregulation for the financial crash.

But in his book, Schumer urged Democratic candidates to talk about middle-class issues: making schools better, establishing college tuition tax credits and tackling disease.

"It's a mistake to try to paint him in black and white," said Barbara Roper, director of investor protection at the nonprofit Consumer Federation of America, an association working for consumer interests.

"Wall Street definitely considers him an important ally in the Senate," Roper said. "But in a crisis he tends to be a strong advocate for reform."

Schumer is trying to "square the circle," said Richard Kirsch, a fellow at the liberal Roosevelt Institute, a think tank focused on income inequality.

"He really believes in politics that lift average people and the middle class," Kirsch said. But his career is based on raising money from the "financial industry that turns out to be the biggest enemy of middle-class lifestyle in our economy."

Yet Schumer has an ally in Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), the progressives' favorite. She told WBUR-FM, Boston's NPR station, "Look, I worry about everyone being too close to Wall Street."

But she hailed his fight for middle-class families, student loan relief and protecting Social Security, saying, "These are powerful issues, and we fought side by side."

Schumer is foremost a pragmatist, friends and colleagues say. In interviews published in recent years, he has been dismissive of the tea party right and the hard left, placing himself on the center left.

Open to shifting views

Schumer believes in a strong government, and he supports abortion rights, gun control, anti-crime laws, anti-terrorism measures and pro-Israel policy.

He is also open to shifting views as popular sentiment changes, or as Townsend, now a Republican consultant, put it: "keeping his finger in the wind."

Take same-sex marriage. In early 2009, after New York's governor, attorney general and Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand embraced it, Schumer reconsidered his opposition.

That March, Schumer met privately at the Gramercy Tavern in Manhattan with two dozen gay and lesbian activists and had what "felt like a family conversation," said Alan van Capelle, who then directed the Empire State Pride Agenda.

Schumer announced his support for same-sex marriage the next day in a news release.

Up for re-election to a fourth term next year, Schumer worries about the "third-term jinx" that has toppled New York statewide office holders. Since he became senator, he boasts he visits all 62 counties each year.

New York GOP spokesman David Laska said the state GOP is in touch with four potential challengers to Schumer but declined to name them.

In a preview of the GOP campaign, Laska said Schumer hasn't delivered for New York, but has "a lot of flash, a lot of style and just enough substance for a press release."

"He's the Senate Democratic leader in waiting, but does he really have the best interest of New York in mind, or is it the power for Chuck Schumer?"

But Schumer, his aides have said over the years, prides himself on bringing home small grants and big-ticket items: $20 billion in federal aid after 9/11 and $50 billion in relief funds after superstorm Sandy.

He did this, his aides said, by knowing how to cut deals with lawmakers: He orchestrated calls by New York's campaign donors to Republicans, and also has won lawmakers over by adding "sweeteners" to bills, such as funds for their states.

Cooperation on immigration

For Democrats, 2013 was not a particularly good year. Many in the White House felt they couldn't get much done in partisan, dysfunctional Washington, former Reid spokesman Jim Manley said. But Schumer showed he could make something happen in the Senate.

Schumer created a "Gang of Eight," four senators from each party, to draft legislation and work on compromises. The most important was keeping wary immigration activists on board with a pathway to citizenship for the 11 million noncitizens in the country illegally while beefing up of border security to placate Republicans.

To do that, Schumer accepted an amendment crafted by two Republicans that called for a $38 billion "border surge," doubling agents to 40,000 and completion of the 700 miles of fence on the Mexican border.

Advocates on both sides criticized it as a cynical ploy, unlikely to be actually put into action.

"For Schumer, the deal is the product, not the policy that may or may not be implemented," said Mark Krikorian of the Center for Immigration Studies, which is for more restrictions on immigration.

Frank Sharry of America's Voice, which is for a law to legalize noncitizens, said activists like him were furious. He asked Schumer to talk to them on a nationwide telephone call.

"He took questions and answered them. He did a good job," Sharry said. "He was not someone who we liked, but he came through for us."

Recently, Schumer was in a familiar spot, outside the Senate Radio-TV Gallery where news conferences are held.

Schumer and Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) had worked to find a compromise for a patent law overhaul to stop "patent trolls" from suing to force businesses to pay for alleged infringements.

The pairing of Schumer and Cornyn offered a glimpse of the future: Each is in line to become his party's Senate leader.

Schumer was reviewing his remarks when Cornyn looked at them and said, "Are you going to read all of that?"

Schumer replied, "I'm just getting warmed up."


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