While Schumer Slept

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

Over the next six months, he joined the rest of New York's delegation in restoring that money to pay for worker compensation benefits and treatment. By all accounts, he waged the fight with his trademark vigor—as the UFOA's Gorman describes it, "Schumer went ballistic." He teamed up with Clinton, helping her lobby Senate colleagues and insert the funds into an appropriations bill. By November, the two were standing together, vowing to protect the money to the end.

It seemed like an epiphany for Schumer, the first hint of him embracing the cause. But the senior senator hadn't climbed fully onboard just yet. John Feal, a disabled demolition supervisor who ended up with a scarred lung and half a foot after toiling at ground zero, remembers lobbying Schumer during the $125 million fight. By then, he and five other ground zero workers were traveling to D.C. to push for health care for the forgotten 9-11 victims. When Feal first met Schumer, the senator shook his hand and said, reassuringly, "I'll stand with you." The experience left Feal with the hopeful sense that, as he puts it, "here was a real stand-up guy."

But when Feal contacted Schumer's offices seeking help with his own injuries, both before and after that meeting, he got no response. "I got denied," he says, after about a half-dozen calls. And as he got involved in the 9-11 health movement—helping to establish the Unsung Heroes Helping Heroes, reaching out to ground zero workers—Feal noticed that he rarely heard about the senior senator pushing initiatives behind the scenes or meeting with individual 9-11 responders.

Chuck Schumer
photo: Frances Roberts
Chuck Schumer

"You have to do the legwork to move the issue," says Feal, who now runs the Feal Good Foundation for ailing 9-11 workers, "and I can honestly say that he wasn't doing it."

What Schumer was doing struck advocates as mixed. In January 2006, he signed a congressional letter drafted by House members Maloney and Fossella to President Bush demanding a 9-11 health czar.

But that month, he also failed to heed the calls of Vito Valenti, a disabled District Council 37 grievance representative who had volunteered at ground zero searching for survivors and distributing medical equipment. Valenti, who suffers from pulmonary fibrosis and needs a lung transplant, had discovered that his application for a World Trade Center pension was foundering. So he phoned Schumer's office, to no avail. He also wrote a January 2006 letter to the senator "begging for [his] help in this matter."

Valenti thought Schumer might pen a letter to the pension board highlighting his case. Instead, he received a file letter, dated February 1, which called his application "an issue not of a federal nature," and referred him elsewhere. When Valenti contacted Schumer's office again—writing another letter months later—he got the same response.

"I'm sick and I'm asking for help and the senior senator says he cannot do something because it's not a federal issue?" exclaims Valenti, a fixture at 9-11 health rallies and activist events, exclaims an incredulous Valenti.

Granted, a U.S. senator cannot respond to every constituent (even Clinton's office has only returned a phone call to Valenti promising a future response). But the dichotomy seems to reflect Schumer's slow embrace, at least until that September 2006 hearing, of the cause.

Since the fall of 2006, Schumer has become a consistent player on the 9-11 environmental health front. He has helped sponsor Clinton-drafted legislation allocating $1.9 billion for medical treatment for "all of those who served, lived, and worked in the area in the aftermath of 9-11," among other related bills. He has helped write to Bush demanding "cooperation and support to find a solution to this problem." And he and his staff have attended meetings with Bush officials to push for a long-term plan for the crisis.

Lately, Schumer has stood with his colleagues in visible and symbolic ways. He appeared at a January 22 press conference at the trade center site, a highly scripted event meant to highlight the need for more federal funding. By then, he had already invited an ailing 9-11 responder to use his pass at the president's State of the Union speech—as Clinton, Nadler, Maloney, and Fossella did as well. Tall and formidable, his blue suit punctuated by an orange tie, Schumer assumed his place next to these usual faces, flanked by dozens more belonging to sick ground zero workers, residents, students, and office employees. Some carried the standard signs: " Support 9/11 Workers and Families" and " Heroes Deserve Better." At the podium, he stressed that those who have developed 9-11–related illnesses aren't asking for much, really.

"We are praying that President Bush steps up to the plate," Schumer told the scrum. "It is only the right thing to do."

Call it another Schumer moment, standing before TV cameras, fighting for his constituents. But the senior senator has, in recent months, also stood with his colleagues in quiet yet significant ways. He lent his signature to a defiant August 2006 letter to EPA administrator Stephen Johnson, ordering the agency to "make a full and complete discourse to the public about health risks associated with World Trade Center contamination, and institute a proper testing and cleanup program." Largely unnoticed, that letter marks the first time Schumer has ever publicly backed the call for an indoor cleanup plan.

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