At the core of election 2016 is a question: Will it be a turning point?
A history-making woman is one step from the White House, while a political outsider captures the populist mood but threatens to crash and burn the Republican Party. There was even a decent run by a Democratic socialist. Thousands have rallied, marched, tapped out their discontent on cellphones and cried, “Enough already!” Government has become static and immobile. Will it ever work again? Who can fix it?
That’s what’s animating New York’s race for U.S. Senate, an election in which incumbent Chuck Schumer is poised to become one of the nation’s defining leaders at a moment of frustration with government and infuriating congressional gridlock.
Schumer is the clear favorite to win a fourth term and take over from the retiring Harry Reid as the leader of Senate Democrats. And Schumer would become majority leader if his party takes back the chamber. That means he would have to fill two critical roles — representing New York and representing the country. We think he’s up to those challenges.
It has been a determined and successful road to the top for Schumer, who was elected as a 23-year-old state assemblyman from Brooklyn in 1974 before going to Washington as a congressman. He pulled off the stunning defeat of incumbent Sen. Alfonse D’Amato in 1998. Polls consistently show he is the most popular official elected statewide in New York.
Schumer, 65, is so omnipresent locally it can be difficult to remember there’s another U.S. senator in the state. His tireless advocacy for New York reached a high point when he wrangled Federal Emergency Management Agency funding for Long Island and New York City after superstorm Sandy. We have no doubt that Schumer, well known for his drop-in speeches at college graduations and fire department inductions, will continue coming home. And that’s important for him to keep his deep connection to local concerns.
Schumer’s legislative record, like his style, is characterized more by incremental gains than sweeping action, as when he strove to do what was doable with bipartisan jobs bills in the wake of the Great Recession.
But he also charts a way forward on the big issues, even if carefully. In 2009, he counseled President Barack Obama against pushing for the Affordable Care Act, arguing that the immigration reform bill he had crafted along with Republicans was a smarter political move.
Schumer’s plan for the next Congress is to start with sturdy bipartisan successes that can pave the way for further cooperation with colleagues. The priorities he discussed in a meeting this month with the editorial board included important initiatives with support on both sides of the aisle. They include major infrastructure investments to create jobs, affordable higher education, criminal justice reforms and more funding for scientific research. He also should bring back his proposal for immigration reform.
Most pressing, however, is filling the vacancy on the U.S. Supreme Court. The refusal, so far, of Senate Republicans to confirm the stellar Merrick Garland means Schumer’s first big test as majority leader might be getting a very qualified justice confirmed without a divisive national fight.
His opponent is Republican Wendy Long, 56, of Manhattan, who lost badly to Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand in 2012. Long is far out of step with voters here on immigration and social issues, among other topics, but her focus on the dangerous influence of money in politics echoes a real issue for New Yorkers.
Schumer says he is guided by an “internal gyroscope” that directs his political decisions, taking issues case by case. In the past, that gyroscope has led to a cozy association with Wall Street, part of his New York constituency but one he has used as an ATM to seek the election of fellow Democrats. This election cycle’s progressive push has rightly encouraged him to adjust his gyroscope to consider Americans who face economic uncertainty. They are among the voters who have upended this cycle and for whom Schumer now holds such promise.
To address America’s large-scale problems, Congress will need to be more than a static monolith. For that to happen, it will need leaders who can jump-start the engine of government.
Schumer has the experience, savvy and vision for the job, and he will need all of it.
Newsday endorses Schumer.