The Ubiquitous Candidate

In the final days of the primary, Chuck Schumer is everywhere

"Get ready for a treat!" Charles Schumer calls out as he heads for another front door in south Buffalo. It is a clammy August Saturday and the Democratic Senate candidate is the only guy within a 20-block radius wearing a tie. His suit jacket, though, is back in the car, ditched not long after he began sweating through his undershirt.

Armed with a printout of likely primary voters, the Brooklyn congressman is doing some retail campaigning. Schumer, 47, may be spending record millions on a statewide television blitz, but he recognizes the importance of a little human touch. Lined with soaring elm trees, Whitehall Avenue is part of a heavily Irish, Democratic district that propelled Jimmy Griffin, Buffalo's kooky former mayor,to 16 years in City Hall. Boasting turnouts that can approach 70 percent, the neighborhood is home to the primest of prime voters.

At the door of 114 Whitehall, the slope-shouldered Schumer knocks a few times and calls into the house through a screen door, but gets no response. Obviously someone is home because a vacuum cleaner roar is ricocheting from inside. Turning to Steve Pigeon, the Erie County Democratic boss, Schumer asks, "How many registered?"

"Five," Pigeon says.

"We'll wait," the candidate declares.

After a couple of minutes, the vacuum cleaner goes silent and Schumer successfully beckons a housewife to the door. He hands her a piece of campaign literature and introduces himself as someone who wants to retire Al D'Amato. But like many people on Whitehall, the woman already knows who he is, having seen Schumer's TV spots ad nauseum. This pleases the candidate to no end, since he's paid for such recognition.

As he continues door to door, many of the prospective voters Schumer encounters are in some stage of undress. "So far, not a single guy with a shirt," Schumer says at one point. "Four p.m. on a Saturday? Lots of naps. Lots of naps," theorizing that he may be interrupting a few afternoon assignations. "You know," he tells Pigeon, "they even wrote a song about that: 'Saturday Afternoon Delight.'" The sweaty gentleman from Brooklyn was actually referring to the Starland Vocal Band's classic, "Afternoon Delight."

The only thing that keeps Schumer from bounding up to a front door is the home's Republican registration or a menacing pet. Though there are two prime voters inside one house, the candidate is deterred by a Siberian husky perched on the driveway. Eyeing the dog, Schumer announces, "The O'Tooles will do without our presence for the moment." As he strides to the next door, the candidate is careful not to cross any of the tiny lawns dotting the pristine neighborhood. Back in his Brooklyn district, Schumer knows how people feel about their grass. The circuitous route, it seems, is always the safest one.

"They all knew who I was," Schumer says contentedly as he slides into Pigeon's car after the door-to-door canvass. As he is driven around Buffalo, the candidate peppers Pigeon with questions about everything from the local basilica to western New York's leading rock bands (Schumer knew the Goo Goo Dolls, but had to be reminded about 10,000 Maniacs). He will probably use these new information nuggets during subsequent appearances in the area. Schumer's queries end as a Green Day song (that slow, sappy one) comes on the radio. He closes his eyes and nods his head slowly. Soon, he's out cold, power-napping his way to an Irish festival in nearby Lancaster.

The way Chuck Schumer sees it, Mark Green has gone flatline and Geraldine Ferraro is still flailing about for a reason to be. He, on the other hand, is ascendant and faces no such problems. In fact, he tells supporters that his polls have him beating Ferraro by several points. In this bizarre, speak-no-evil primary, Schumer has been publicly silent about his opponents, forced to hold his prickly tongue lest he be accused of helping to somehow reelect D'Amato.

But privately, Schumer has ridiculed Ferraro's performances on television and before Democratic party officials. He has described a recent NY-1 meltdown--during which Ferraro muffed a softball question about the first three things she wanted to accomplish as a Senator--as "appalling." As for Green, whom Schumer tried to kneecap at this year's state Democratic convention, the congressman has dismissed him for aspiring to be another Paul Wellstone--that is, an ineffective, if principled, lefty.

While now commonplace in appraisals of Schumer, it appears that the first Sammy Glick comparison came in these pages almost 20 years ago. After six years in the state assembly, Schumer ran in 1980 to succeed Elizabeth Holtzman, who had given up her congressional seat to run for the Senate. A graduate of both Harvard College and Harvard Law School, Schumer was a young man in a hurry and not much interested in an extended stay in Albany.

That race was notable for two reasons. Unlike most outer-borough officials, Schumer showed an ability to raise cash from power circles usually open only to major Manhattan politicians. Back then, the Voice described the 29-year-old pol as "liberal, but malleable." Secondly, the House race triggered a federal criminal probe of Schumer that examined whether he illegally deployed assembly staffers to work on his congressional campaign. The tawdry scandal, the Voice noted at the time, left the impression that Schumer exhibited the "frantic, unprincipled ambition of a liberal Al D'Amato."

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