While Schumer Slept

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

But before then, the 9-11 environmental health issues served as a test for good Democrats like Schumer. And for his constituents, especially those who appealed to his offices, it was a test he failed.

To be sure, in the first five years that followed the attacks, Schumer whipped into action on behalf of the state and its victims. Immediately afterward, he became the point person for $20 billion in emergency aid from the federal government. He fought for those billions on Capitol Hill, negotiating with Bush budget directors and haranguing Senate appropriators. While he partnered with Senator Clinton to get this money, no one disputes that Schumer drove the package.

That package funded a host of valuable benefits for constituents: loans for downtown businesses, bonds for construction projects, and unemployment benefits for people who lost jobs. It also laid the groundwork for the main 9-11 health initiatives today. The first $177 million for the World Trade Center medical-monitoring programs came from those funds. So did money for such environmental work as the $477 million to remove toxic debris from the trade center site and the $20 million to rid downtown public schools of toxic dust.

Chuck Schumer
photo: Frances Roberts
Chuck Schumer

"From day one," says Risa Heller, the senator's spokesperson, "Senator Schumer has been an aggressive and effective advocate for delivering billions of dollars of aid to rebuild ground zero and fund the framework for all existing health programs related to the tragedy of 9-11."

Through Heller, Schumer parried about a dozen requests for an interview for this article, beginning the first week of January, before finally making himself available for comment just hours before deadline last week. In an eight-minute phone conversation, the senior senator disputed the argument that he has been late to the cause. Though he first publicly voiced his desire to "join the effort" last fall, he explains, "Those words are not to be interpreted as me saying I wasn't involved before. I've been part of these efforts from the get-go, and that's how I see my record." Declining to speak for attribution, his aides have also defended their boss's record on 9-11 environmental health issues and expressed their belief that the thrust of the article is baseless. They provided a Voice reporter with documentation detailing that record—which included press releases, congressional letters, and Senate speeches—but a close reading of it shows Schumer said and did little on the health problems of the 9-11 fallout until the latter half of 2005. Much of the materials illustrated his work on the overall $20 billion government aid package, such as his advocacy in the spring of 2002 for money to reimburse New York hospitals and to give rental relief to downtown residents.

Chuck Schumer
photo: AP/Wideworld

To many of his constituents—both leaders of advocacy groups and individuals seeking help with health problems—Schumer's fight for those billions wasn't enough. Advocates pushing for public attention to the 9-11 environmental health cause—school parents, residents, office employees, and ground zero workers—looked to Schumer in those early days for assistance. They con tacted his offices, seeking the sort of leadership that comes from a senior senator. But they got little or no response.

"When it comes to people we represent, he has been nowhere," says Kimberly Flynn, the co-coordinator of 9-11 Environmental Action, since 2002 the main advocacy group for downtown residents, employees, students, and parents, with a 400-person mailing list.

"I don't remember him showing up much," adds Suzanne Mattei, head of the New York City Sierra Club and secretary of Unsung Heroes Helping Heroes, a 9-11 response-and-recovery workers' organization with 18,000 members nationwide. "I guess that speaks for itself."

In Schumer's absence, advocates turned to his junior colleague, who demonstrated a far greater willingness to champion their cause. Almost from the start, Hillary Clinton—then just nine months into her first term—began carving out a leadership role on 9-11 environmental health issues. In the immediate aftermath of the attacks, she recognized publicly that recovery workers were falling ill. In the months and years that followed, she did the same with everyone who lived and worked near the site. As unpopular as it was then, she asserted repeatedly that the government had made mistakes that could lead to lasting illnesses.

By contrast, during that time Schumer said and did nearly nothing. He rarely spoke about the environmental hazards in and around the rubble of debris now known as "The Pile." For years, he said nothing about the putrid air, or the noxious dust, or the people getting sick. It wasn't until 2006—mostly since that congressional hearing—that Schumer became a consistent and visible player on the front lines of this battle.

Schumer and his defenders—who include current and former aides, as well as New York and Capitol Hill political insiders familiar with his 9-11 work—strenuously deny any lapse on his part or any evolution in his thinking over the last five years on these issues: "I've been involved in every single issue dealing with the health problems from the beginning," he says. The senior senator says he chose to let Clinton lead on all aspects of 9-11 environmental health, a logical and appropriate division of labor because she sits on two key Senate committees—Environment and Public Works, which oversees the EPA; and Health, Labor, Education, and Pensions, which oversees health care. The committees gave her an entrée into the health impacts of 9-11 fallout, enabling her to use hearings and procedures to move initiatives. Once Clinton made the cause a top priority, they say, Schumer deferred to her. He did his duty as a good Democrat, signing her bills and supporting her measures.

Given her committee assignments, says one Schumer aide, "It made sense for Senator Clinton to take the lead." Basil Smikle, Clinton's former deputy state director turned political consultant, seconds that: "A lot of her leadership had to do with the fact that she's on the right committees."
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