While Schumer Slept

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

He has even gone above and beyond many of his congressional colleagues. On July 31, 2006, he wrote a blistering letter to the company handling the $1 billion Captive Insurance Fund, in which he urged it to stop acting "like a stingy, bottom-line-obsessed corporation" and start paying the claims of ailing 9-11 workers. Within weeks, his aides say, he met with company and city officials to negotiate ways of getting that money into the hands of those workers. (Last week, Mayor Bloomberg proposed creating a new victims' compensation fund financed by that $1 billion.) Meanwhile, according to Capitol Hill insiders, he volunteered to sponsor the Senate version of a controversial House bill meant to provide health care to all living victims—whether his junior colleague did or not.

Today, Schumer appears as quiet about his newfound advocacy as he was about the health effects of the 9-11 fallout for almost five years. His aides continue to deny any evolution on his part: "Just because these other lawmakers took the lead and advocated effectively doesn't mean that Senator Schumer wasn't 100-percent supportive," Heller says. "In fact, at every turn, the senator has aggressively supported efforts to protect and expand the worker health programs."

Schumer, too, insists that his thinking on these issues has not changed. "I've cared about these issues from the beginning," he says. Though he acknowledges that Senator Clinton has been "the public face" of the 9-11 living victims, he says: "Every time in Washington she did something, I was by her side. I don't think you can find a time when I didn't take an interest in all these issues she was working on." He brings up the division of labor again. "We divide up the issues," he says, "and that's how it works. It's when the issue becomes more prominent that I might get more involved publicly."

Chuck Schumer
photo: Frances Roberts
Chuck Schumer

As his comments suggest, Schumer and his aides do recognize that the landscape has changed. Now more people are suffering from more diseases directly linked to their 9-11 exposures. Today, as the aide explains, "We have moved from a situation where testing was the predominant issue to one where treatment for actual injuries is dominant," thus making Schumer's work on that $1 billion fund "the starting point for moving money to our injured heroes."

New York political sources who have followed these issues view Schumer's current advocacy as a sign of his turnaround. They say that early on, he remained dubious of the health effects of the trade center pollution. "Chuck was initially skeptical of the whole problem and it took him a while to become convinced of it," confirms one Capitol Hill insider who spoke on the condition of anonymity. Others say they assumed that he would come around—after all, he has built his career on helping his constituents.

"People who change their minds on the basis of evidence should be praised," the insider says, "and Chuck seems to have had a change in heart."

Schumer's constituents are counting on that change of heart. Already, advocates have begun reaching out to his offices again. Labor leaders talk about keeping the senior senator engaged on their medical treatment battle. Residents talk about winning his ear on their latest EPA fight. Everyone is hoping that his recent advocacy means that Schumer has moved from a good Democrat to a true believer in the cause.

And they haven't forgotten that good things can happen when you have two powerful senators speaking out on your behalf. A case in point: One week after Schumer stood with Clinton at the January 22 press conference—and after a flurry of news reports about the death of another sick ground zero worker—President Bush announced he would allocate an additional $25 million for the WTC programs. It doesn't come close to the $1.9 billion that Clinton estimates would take care of all the living victims. But now that the Democrats control the Senate, she and her senior colleague could make a real difference. Says Sheinkopf, the veteran consultant, "Having the two of them united on this one argument would be the most important thing to happen to anyone who's been impacted."

Recently, John Sferazo, the president of Unsung Heroes Helping Heroes, delivered that message to Schumer himself. Sferazo is a disabled construction worker from Long Island whose ground zero tenure has left him practically without a voice—he is, in short, the real Joe Bailey. When he spotted the senator by chance at a Washington inauguration party last month, he made his move.

"Senator," Sferazo told Schumer, "we expect you to grab the others and lead the fight to get this 9-11 health issue resolved."

This time, after a year of fruitlessly trying to contact Schumer through his office, Sferazo got an immediate response.

"You bet I will," Schumer replied.

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