While Schumer Slept

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

Through it all, Schumer kept silent. When asked if he ever explained that silence to parents with growing concerns about their children's health, he replies, "That's not the point." He adds: "I may not have wanted to tell them because I may have wanted to keep my daughter's situation private."

Those comments to The Village Voice represented the first specific acknowledgement by Schumer and his office that he declined to involve himself directly in constituent matters related to 9-11 environmental health issues. When told that other 9-11 health advocates—residents, office employees, and ground zero workers—have also said they reached out to his offices over the years and got no response, Schumer replies, "I can be criticized for many things, but a lack of response isn't one of them." He adds: "If you have their names, we'll try to find out what happened. We always try to be very responsive."

Schumer's daughter clearly complicated these issues for him—but so did his wife, Iris Weinshall, who headed the city's Department of Transportation at the time of the attacks, and continues in that role today. As the agency's commissioner, she served as a high-level official in the administration of then mayor Giuliani—who denied any problems with air quality in lower Manhattan. Just as parents appealed to Schumer, they lobbied Giuliani officials like Weinshall. One Parents' Association representative, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, remembers the commissioner returning the association's phone calls in early October. "She said, 'Everything is fine,' " the representative recalls, "'Just trust the government.' "

Chuck Schumer
photo: Frances Roberts
Chuck Schumer

Parents have long suspected privately that Schumer's silence on these issues stemmed in part from an unwillingness to contradict his wife's implicit stance in her position with the Giuliani administration—something Schumer's aides vigorously deny. Says Heller, flatly: "That claim is categorically ridiculous."

Weinshall (through a spokesperson) declined several requests for comment, except to say that she did not have jurisdiction over the barge and cleanup operations. Weinshall referred a Voice reporter back to Schumer's office for further clarification of his family's request; Schumer, for his part, told the Voice, "My position had zero to do with my wife's position."

Still, he essentially echoed the sentiment that all was fine on October 9, 2001, the day Stuyvesant called back its 3,000 students. On that morning, Schumer escorted his daughter to the high school on West Street, passing the police patrols and the National Guard troops, passing the reporters at the front doors. When asked if he was worried about air quality, he shook his head.

"They've done all the testing," Schumer told reporters. "I know they've made it safe."

In retrospect, Schumer set his course on the environmental health front that day. Having returned his daughter downtown, he couldn't easily turn around and speak out about the toxins making other people sick. Still, residents and office employees hoped he would. That same month, they were contacting his Manhattan and D.C. offices, to no avail. Residents in Battery Park City had formed an ad hoc coalition, calling up politicians. Employees in buildings on Barclay, Broadway, and Liberty streets called labor groups, which did the same. They wanted officials to challenge the EPA's false assurances about the conditions near ground zero. Why were they suffering from the same ailments as those toiling on the pile? Was that dust safe? What about that plume?

Craig Hall, of the World Trade Center Residents Coalition, recalls his group contacting Schumer's offices, sending e-mails via his office website, making several phone calls. So do two labor activists who collaborated with the residents. "The sense was his office wasn't interested in getting involved," Hall says. "It wasn't his priority."

Schumer's true priority, it seemed, was rebuilding lower Manhattan. At the time, Schumer, like most political and business elites, feared the city's economy would plummet. Get Wall Street up and running! Open businesses! Redevelop the site! That was the official line, and Schumer said and did all he could to live up to it. He convinced Bush officials to allow some of those billions of dollars in aid to upgrade transportation lines. He created the tax-friendly Liberty Zone. He traveled to business gatherings, presenting what he called a "grand plan" for replacing the twin towers. Often, he told people his number one job was to keep downtown afloat."Chuck took it as his mission to make sure the economy didn't collapse," confirms one Capitol Hill source close to Schumer familiar with his 9-11 work.

The city's business and Wall Street leaders represent important Schumer constituents, and he rose to power with help from many of them. In 1998, when he challenged Republican Alfonse D'Amato for his current seat, Wall Street firms donated $1.4 million to his campaign—more than any other U.S. senator. In 2002, they gave about $1.3 million; in 2004, the same. A prolific fundraiser, Schumer boasts major annual support from downtown corporations like Cantor Fitzgerald ($46,250 in 2004), Goldman Sachs ($43,790), Morgan Stanley ($40,500), and Newmark Knight Frank Real Estate ($32,200).

Wall Street, like Schumer, downplayed all talk of the dust's dangers at first. When the Daily News ran its first front-page story detailing the toxic mess in October 2001, the Partnership for New York City fired off a letter decrying the "sick Halloween prank." Leaders wanted to prevent what Kathryn Wylde, the president of the partnership, now calls "a giant exodus from lower Manhattan."

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