While Schumer Slept

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

"We believed there were obvious exaggerations about hazards of the 9-11 dust cloud," she says, referring to the Daily News article. "It seemed scare-mongering at a time when we were trying to lure businesses back."

That attitude presented yet another conflict for the senator. "Schumer was the guy saying to people, 'Please invest your millions in lower Manhattan,' " says the Capitol Hill source, who is friendly to Schumer, "and when you're that guy, you can't also put out press releases saying, 'Oh, my God. Thousands have asbestosis from all the toxins.' "

Chuck Schumer
photo: Frances Roberts
Chuck Schumer

If Schumer faced competing loyalties, his junior colleague found herself in a different position. A new senator, Clinton had yet to gain the trust of New Yorkers, who considered her an outsider. Her relationship with the city's cops and firefighters—the 9-11 first responders—was especially strained. "She had to prove herself as a bona fide New Yorker," says Hank Sheinkopf, a veteran political consultant. It helped that she harbored a passion for environmental health issues dating back to her days as first lady.

When Clinton visited ground zero within 24 hours of the attacks, she noticed the toxic stew. "I could not see anything," she has often said of that visit, "but I could smell it. I could taste it. I could literally feel it." Clinton and her staff soon made routine trips there, keeping tabs on how many recovery workers were suffering from what ailments. She had her aides follow up with labor and resident groups grappling with the ripple effects. By October, she had written to then EPA administrator Christine Todd Whitman—who had assured New Yorkers in a now infamous statement on September 18, 2001, that conditions were "safe"—and urged her agency to do more to "adequately protect human health and the environment in lower Manhattan." By November, she had drafted a bill to provide health tracking for recovery workers, which paved the way for the current WTC monitoring programs.

Clinton's staff requested that Schumer become a co-sponsor of that bill. "Schumer was happy to support the effort," says Ann O'Leary, Clinton's legislative director in D.C. from 2001 to 2003. "He put his name on it." He lent his name again one month later, when Clinton inserted her measure into an appropriations bill, thus securing the first $12 million for the WTC programs. He would do so a third time, in July 2002, co-sponsoring her provision for another $90 million.

Distinguishing among all the 9-11 living victims, Schumer has always appeared more attuned to the rescue and recovery workers than to the downtown community. It didn't take a lot to see that these workers, enveloped in a plume without proper equipment, were at risk. While those who lived and worked near the pile went undiagnosed and unnoticed, no one could deny what was happening to the "heroes of 9-11."

Schumer's aides say the specter of lung illnesses among the rescue and recovery workers had become so apparent that their boss led the charge to create the Captive Insurance Fund. That's the $1 billion set aside to cover liability for New York City and the construction firms responsible for the cleanup—the same money they're now using to fight 8,500-plus lawsuits filed by ailing workers. In 2002, Schumer aides were meeting with company and city representatives to discuss workers' future injury claims. Eventually, the senator inserted the liability cap into an airline bailout bill.

The fund was meant to benefit the city as a whole—including those who would fail to protect workers from the toxic aftereffects—yet Schumer's people now paint it as a sign of his concern for the rescue and recovery workers. Says one former aide who attended those 2002 meetings, "Chuck's point has always been, 'Take care of the workers.' "

But just how willing Schumer was to fight for their health needs goes to the heart of his dilemma. No one argues that Schumer did not back Clinton's attempt to appropriate another $90 million for the WTC programs—indeed, he voted for it. And some advocates say they never questioned Schumer's commitment to their cause. Explains Peter Gorman, the president of the Uniformed Fire Officers Association, "I never doubted for a second that he wasn't lockstep in line with Clinton." Tom Scotto, the past president of the Detectives' Endowment Association, who asked Clinton to file her health-tracking bill, adds, "Chuck is a big supporter of law enforcement, so why would he not be helpful to 9-11 responders? I would find that impossible to believe."

But sources familiar with the effort to win those millions say the senior senator barely surfaced in what would become a grueling, 20-month battle to help those afflicted with illnesses connected to the cloud of dust. By September 2002, the Bush administration had failed to release the $90 million, setting off a behind-the-scenes appropriations game. In the ensuing months, Clinton wrote letters to the EPA's Whitman and called Bush's then chief of staff, Andrew Card, urging them to back the programs. She worked with Senate appropriators to insert the money into bills—first in late 2002; again in early 2003. Her office, along with the Congressional offices of Maloney and Nadler, brought labor leaders to D.C. Maloney even convinced House colleagues to give up their passes to the 2003 State of the Union address so ground zero workers could sit in the gallery, a reminder of the forgotten heroes. Finally, in June 2003, the money arrived— without Schumer.

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