While Schumer Slept

For five years, New York's senior senator said nothing about the toxic cloud that hung over his own constituents.

  Chuck Schumer was late.

It was September 8, 2006, three days before the fifth anniversary of the 9-11 terrorist attacks, and the usual faces of New York's congressional delegation had gathered yet again for a hearing to attract attention to the "living victims" of September 11—the rescue and recovery workers, residents, students, and office employees who have gotten sick from the toxic aftermath of the World Trade Center collapse.

There was Hillary Clinton, the state's junior senator and future 2008 Democratic presidential candidate, who now owns 9-11 environmental health issues in the way the former mayor Rudy Giuliani owned crime. Next to her sat Carolyn Maloney, the congresswoman representing midtown Manhattan, whose office had organized Capitol Hill trips and ground zero rallies to call attention to the cause. Farther down sat Vito Fossella, of Staten Island, a Republican House member who had pointedly attacked the leader of his own party, President Bush, for ignoring the public-health crisis. Next to him sat Jerrold Nadler, lower Manhattan's longtime congressman, who had led the original battle with the Environmental Protection Agency over its failure to clean up the trade center dust.

Chuck Schumer
photo: Frances Roberts
Chuck Schumer

It wasn't until 90 minutes into the hearing that New York's senior senator hurried up the aisle, his entourage in tow. Moments later, on the dais, Schumer joined the conversation with brief yet potent comments on the issue.

"I wanted to come by," Schumer said, "to tell this panel in particular, but everybody here, that I will join in the effort to do everything we can to see that what happened to those who helped early on, but show symptoms of illnesses that came from that help years later, are treated every bit as fairly as those who were hurt on that terrible day."

The dozens of labor representatives, residents, ground zero workers, and 9-11 activists in the room delighted in hearing Schumer speak out. Such words had been spoken many times before, but on this day carried the weight that only comes when delivered by a senior U.S. senator.

No one could ignore the fact of Schumer's presence—not the activists, nor the ground zero workers, nor his colleagues in Congress. Many of them were counting his lateness to the cause in years, not in minutes. But those who had yearned since day one to hear his voice couldn't help but wonder why Schumer had failed for nearly five years to heed their appeals for help—and why, at long last, he'd heard them now.

Charles Schumer, in his eighth year as the state's senior senator and now Vice Chairman of the Senate Democratic Caucus—making him the third most powerful Democrat in Washington—prides himself on serving the needs of every citizen of New York State, all 19 million of them. Over the past 34 years, from the three terms in the state assembly to the 18 years in the House of Representatives to the two terms in the Senate, he has worked hard and delivered fast for New Yorkers. And they have rewarded him for it—as evidenced most recently by his record 71-percent re-election win in 2004.

By all measures, Schumer has proven to be a good Democrat, always on the right side of Democratic party issues like gun control, crime, and judicial selections. Recently, as chairman of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee in the 2006 elections, he became the savior of his party after steering it to power in that chamber. Through it all, he has particularly devoted his career to doing right by his middle-class constituents, as epitomized in his new book, Positively American, by the fictional Joe and Eileen Bailey, of Long Island. He writes: "They cared that I was out there fighting for and delivering on issues that mattered to them. That was my job."

So what happens when a good Democrat is suddenly faced with a not-so-good issue—an issue created by the most calamitous event ever to have occurred in his home state? An issue that hinges on constituents made ill by their exposure to the toxic dust cloud that hung over lower Manhattan and blanketed area skyscrapers in the wake of the terrorist attacks? An issue that represents one of the most complicated and risky to arise out of the catastrophic events of September 11?

From VITO VALENTI, ground zero volunteer, disabled labor representativ (January 5, 2006):

From CHARLES SCHUMER U.S. Senator, New York (February 1, 2006):

It has taken five years for a broad consensus to emerge on the fact that the dust that coated lower Manhattan after 9-11 has made people seriously ill. Now, no one denies the truth any longer—as borne out by a September 2006 Mount Sinai Medical Center study showing that 70 percent of 9,500 responders have respiratory illnesses. No one disputes the World Trade Center Health Registry's record of more than 71,000 residents, office employees, students, and ground zero workers with 9-11–related symptoms. No one argues with the February 2006 legal decision finding that the EPA misled New Yorkers about the air quality downtown.

What amounted to an orphan issue for years, pressed by a tiny handful of federal lawmakers, has become a popular crusade in the last 12 months. By 2006, as reports surfaced about the deaths of sick first responders, the political tide had finally turned. Indeed, just last week, Mayor Michael Bloomberg unveiled his administration's 83-page report on the 9-11 health crisis, calling for increased federal funding and other measures.

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