While Schumer Slept

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

Schumer, who serves on the Senate Judiciary Committee, likens Clinton's leadership on 9-11 environmental health issues to his own historical leadership on judicial appointments. "It would be silly to write an article saying, 'Hillary is absent on judicial selections,' just because I take the lead on that issue," he says, "and the same is true here." Asked if he thought his constituents would have understood this division of labor, he replies, "I don't know. This is the first I've heard of any complaints. It's the first I've heard that I haven't been active and involved in helping to move these issues forward." Division of labor arguments don't account for unexpected consequences of emergencies, though, and when asked if the toxic aftermath of the terrorist attacks wouldn't have required both senators' leadership, he says, "I think the selection of Supreme Court justices are also important events."

Advocates welcome Schumer's current support, but still wonder why, early on, he wouldn't do what he's doing now: help Clinton and the other congressional forces champion this cause. These activists believe that having two powerful senators, united on the Senate floor and behind closed doors, would have made the difference in getting faster and more thorough aid to ailing responders and others exposed to the toxins.

On that issue they find agreement—at least privately—among Capitol Hill insiders privy to the backroom efforts to help the 9-11 living victims. One congressional source who spoke on the condition of anonymity puts it this way: "The issue has needed the help of both senators throughout this entire unfortunate exercise. One powerful senator is good, but two powerful senators are even better."

Chuck Schumer
photo: Frances Roberts
Chuck Schumer

On September 13, 2001 , Schumer and Clinton sat with President Bush in the Oval Office to argue for separate aid for a city ravaged by the terrorist attacks of two days before. Bush asked how much the city needed to recover and rebuild.

"Twenty billion dollars," Schumer said flatly.

"You've got it," the president replied.

It stands as a classic Schumer moment, nailing down a federal commitment for his home state. Fans and foes alike consider it his finest hour. For months afterward, he collaborated with his junior colleague to bring that $20 billion home—working with her as a team to make it happen. Every day, Schumer staffers gave updates on efforts their boss undertook—creating the September 11th Victim Compensation Fund, or assisting victims' families in finding remains.

But by late September, Schumer's office was getting calls from other families as well. Parents whose children attended Stuyvesant High School were frantically seeking out elected officials. The city's Department of Education planned to reopen the prestigious high school, blocks from ground zero, assuring parents it had spent $1 million cleaning up the toxic dust. Yet many believed the conditions in lower Manhattan weren't safe. Not only were the acrid fires still smoldering on the pile, but also the city had placed a 24-hour barge on a pier beside the school, where trucks dumped debris within feet of kids' classrooms.

The 6,000-strong Stuyvesant High School Parents' Association formed an outreach com mittee. About two dozen members thought to call their dogged representative, Nadler, and their celebrity senator, Clinton. But most opted to call Schumer first. He seemed the perfect ally—not just because of his senior status, but also because of his personal stake in the 9-11 fallout: His daughter Jessica was a senior at Stuyvesant.

So, says Jenna Orkin, a veteran 9-11 activist whose son was a 2002 classmate of Jessica, "There was hope of winning Schumer over to fight the good fight for the kids."

Orkin reached out to Schumer's offices on her own, while 20 or so Parents' Association representatives tried to contact him, repeatedly, in New York and D.C. They called; they e-mailed. Several of them remember getting his aides on the phone. We need to move that barge, they implored. We need Schumer to help convince the city to do it.

"He did nothing," says Orkin, a co-founder of the Concerned Stuyvesant Community. "It was some form of buck-passing."

Adds another parent who called and visited his offices at the time, and who asked for anonymity for fear of recriminations from the senator: "Schumer did not respond. We were given the runaround continuously."

The Stuyvesant situation presented a dilemma for Schumer. On the one hand, his constituents were asking for help. On the other hand, he was willing to return his daughter to a building yards from the trade center site. Stuyvesant parents believed that would prompt him to listen to their concerns that their kids were at risk of getting sick from the contamination, but his aides suggest otherwise.

Indeed, when pressed for a broad explanation of Schumer's lack of leadership on the 9-11 environmental health issues—a failing they repeatedly deny in general terms—the senator's spokesperson turned the focus of the discussion to the Stuyvesant situation.

"When it came to the issue of students," said Heller, his spokesperson, via e-mail, "the senator deferred to the effective leadership of his colleagues at the request of his family." During the interview, Schumer elaborated on that statement, explaining his daughter had asked him to not get involved in the debate over the school. The reason for Jessica's request isn't known, but the senator suggests that like many of her classmates, she struggled with the trauma of witnessing the 9-11 attacks. "My daughter did not want me to get involved, and that's personal," he says. "She was there that day and she vacated that school and she did not want me involved in this issue." He points out that Stuyvesant parents did get help from other federal lawmakers, such as Nadler and Clinton. "If no one else was involved, fine, I could understand the criticism," he says, "but there were forceful advocates there, and on certain issues that hit close to home, if one of your family members says to you, 'Please don't get involved,' I'd think that people would be able to respect that."

In the end, Nadler and Clinton weren't forceful enough to convince the city to move the barge, which remained next to Stuyvesant until May 2002. By then, students and teachers were already reporting bloody noses, rashes, and respiratory infections that many believed were the result of 9-11 toxic exposure.
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