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If Chuck Schumer were a brand, he'd be Wal-Mart. Not so much the company's atrocious labor policies (see the powerful new book The Big Squeeze, by The New York Times's Steve Greenhouse, for details), but the relentless, grating hawking of its products.
Schumer has been around almost as long as the giant merchandiser. He was just 23 when he was elected to the state assembly in 1974. He was in Congress by the time he was 29, the Senate by age 48. During that time, he has done his best to shatter the peace and quiet of every Sunday afternoon with a press conference alerting New Yorkers to a new crisis the same way Wal-Mart blasts away at its customers: "Attention, Schumer shoppers: The Port of New York remains wide open to terrorist invasion." "Attention, shoppers: Sex offenders are prowling the Internet."
Like Wal-Mart, Schumer practices this nonstop promotion for good reason: It works. The Schumer brand is now so accepted and trusted in New York households that he wins overwhelming re-election against whatever unknown loser the Republicans can persuade to take their nomination.
Also like Wal-Mart, which is always rolling out new stores, Schumer's marketing strategy includes producing mini-versions of himself—well-schooled former aides who also poll high with voters. Next year, New Yorkers can look forward to voting for not one, but two Schumer acolytes for citywide office. Anthony Weiner, who won Schumer's old congressional seat, has made himself into a one-stop Schumer Supercenter, a Chuck's Club where Schumerian politics are sold by the pallet. Weiner is headed into the Democratic mayoral primary with the biggest bankroll of any candidate and the sharpest elbows outside of Madison Square Garden. Another Schumer disciple, City Councilman David Yassky, wants to be city comptroller. He too has the magic sales touch inherited from his mentor. Like their old boss, the Schumer grads are uniformly brilliant and dedicated to public service—with themselves at the center of the action and attention.
Now comes the latest young-Schumer-in-a-hurry, state senate candidate Daniel Squadron. Actually, at 28, Squadron is old by Schumer standards. (Imagine a Schumer scolding: "Where's that letter? What's the matter with you? At your age I was running for Congress already!") But Squadron is making up for lost time. Already he says he has knocked on 5,000 doors in his effort to win the Democratic nomination for the 25th senatorial district, which straddles the East River in Brooklyn and lower Manhattan.
He decided to run after he and his girlfriend took an apartment a couple of years ago in Brooklyn's Carroll Gardens. "I took a look around at the political representation and thought the community deserved better," he says. He learned from the master, he says. "Chuck Schumer really did teach me this: Working like crazy in the district, getting involved, makes a difference."
Squadron was a Schumer special assistant for a couple years after graduating from Yale in 2003. The rest of his résumé includes helping to run a bar on the Upper West Side, a few political campaigns, and six months as a consultant to the city's Department of Education. He was introduced to Schumer by Josh Isay, the fast-rising political guru who helped elect Schumer to the Senate in 1998. Squadron hit it off so well with the senator that Schumer used him to help write his book Positively American.
Squadron also brings something new and potent to the Schumer cocktail: family money and his own powerful connections. Squadron's late father, Howard, was a lawyer for Rupert Murdoch, head of one of the city's most influential law firms, and a major player in Jewish-community affairs. For 25 years, Howard Squadron's was a well-thumbed card in the Rolodex of every city power broker. Daniel Squadron declines to discuss his personal wealth, but he acknowledges that he doesn't have to work at the moment and that a Squadron family trust takes care of things. Whatever his worth, his access to the moneyed crowd, along with the Schumer seal of approval, has made him a hit on the fundraising circuit. He has already raised $430,000 in his campaign, most of it from outside the district.
Schumer is pulling out the stops for his protégé. Donors report personal calls from the senator urging endorsements and donations. This is an effective strategy. "Chuck Schumer's not a bad guy to have owe you a favor," said one call recipient.
When Wal-Mart comes to town, of course, part of the rap is that it quickly squeezes old-line competitors out of business. In Squadron's case, this is exactly what he has in mind for the veteran politician who has held the senate seat he covets for 30 years.
Marty Connor is 63, and if he were a brand, he'd be one of those family-owned hardware stores that rarely survive once the Wal-Marts show up. Squadron has sought to paint Connor as part of what ails the legislature, a politician who has stuck around too long without much to show for it. "He's a pillar of the culture, the system that at its core isn't working," says Squadron.
He's certainly been there awhile. Connor won the seat in 1978, a year before Squadron was born. But on a checklist of progressive issues—housing, health, education, environment, labor, gay rights—he gets as high a grade as any of his peers. He's also the Democrats' go-to man for election-law issues, no small talent in an ever-fractious legislature. He's also been involved in every major political battle, and has the battle scars to prove it. One was in 1998, when he thought Geraldine Ferraro would make a better U.S. senator than Schumer. Apparently the winner never forgot.
More directly, a few years ago Connor's Democratic senate colleagues dropped him as minority leader, frustrated that he didn't have the fire in the belly to push the Dems over the top into a senate majority. Some people think the defeat liberated him. A few years ago, when an upstart judge named Margarita Lopez Torres bucked the Brooklyn Democratic organization, Connor served as her lawyer. She won.
This fall, for the first time in more than 60 years, the Democrats expect to finally win that majority. This has the potential to usher in a host of reforms—from campaign finance to civil-rights laws—that have long been buried in Joe Bruno's Republican boneyard. Part of the rationale for Squadron's election is that shedding old-guard Democrats like Connor should be part of the needed cleanup. But last week, a clutch of downstate Democratic senators gathered in the hot sun outside City Hall to insist that, should they seize power in the senate, they want Connor there to help.
Liz Krueger, who snatched her East Side seat away from the Republicans six years ago, said that Connor had taught her the basics of legislating. "Marty Connor has an unbelievable institutional knowledge about how you get things done in Albany, where nothing is a straight line—it's all zigs and zags," she said.
Bill Perkins, Harlem's senator, put it more bluntly: "This is not the amateur hour," he said. "We need all hands on deck."