Chuck Schumer Is Overrated in New York

Mayor Bill de Blasio meets with Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, Senator Chuck Schumer in Washington, D. C. on Tuesday, May 6, 2014.
Mayor Bill de Blasio meets with Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, Senator Chuck Schumer in Washington, D. C. on Tuesday, May 6, 2014.
Rob Bennett for the Office of Mayor Bill de Blasio

Chuck Schumer may be the best politician New York has ever seen. This doesn’t mean he’s the most noble or far-seeing; other giants, from the two Roosevelts to Nelson Rockefeller, have accomplished far more for the state than Schumer could ever dream of. But arguably no one has done more with less: a middle-class Jewish boy from Brooklyn, New York, with no particular glamour or gripping charisma climbing the ladder so effectively that he is on the cusp of becoming majority leader of the United States Senate, the first the Empire State has ever had.

From the time he was 23 — when he was elected to the New York State Assembly — to now, Schumer has never made a wrong move. Though the political mood has moved left, the triangulating Schumer has not broken stride, evolving on criminal justice reform while lowering the decibel level (if slightly) on his Wall Street shilling. As a prodigious fundraiser, he is usually forgiven of past sins.

But unlike Mitch McConnell and Harry Reid, the current and former majority leaders of the Senate, Schumer’s political footprint in New York has long been overrated. I’m not discounting the legislation passed, the press conferences held, or the entities fought for, like the Buffalo Bills and yogurt. Schumer still doggedly visits all 62 counties every year. He hustles. He is not lazy.

What I’m talking about instead is power: the ways it’s flaunted, exerted, and used to produce change. New York’s Democratic establishment has long been dysfunctional and is currently facing a vacuum of leadership few want to acknowledge openly. In New York State, Governor Andrew Cuomo is king. He advances the priorities of his party when he feels like it. Rather than promote the growth of Democrats in an increasingly liberal state, he props up Republicans and nurtures a faction of Senate Democrats, the Independent Democratic Conference, who broke away to ally themselves with Republicans.

It’s a strange thing to happen under Schumer’s watch, and it’s hard to fathom how anything resembling an imitation Democratic conference would’ve sprung up in Reid’s Nevada. Politically-speaking, nothing in the Silver State can happen — or not happen — without the sign-off of Harry Mason Reid. He single-handedly built the Nevada Democrats into the one of the most formidable state party apparatuses in America. He has spent decades recruiting candidates for high-profile and obscure offices alike. In the Nevada caucuses, Reid convinced casino executives and the culinary workers union to allow the heavily Latino workforce time off during the day to vote, perhaps saving Clinton's campaign. No one could say no to Harry Reid.

Nevada is a smaller state in New York, but Schumer has long stopped making serious power plays on the local level. He is no fan of Cuomo, yet he has ceded the field to the governor. Perhaps Schumer is less self-interested than Reid or too enthralled with Washington, D.C. Despite his reputation and track record of endorsing candidates for city and state races, Schumer does not make his presence felt. The major labor leaders in the state have a far closer working relationship with Cuomo and Mayor Bill de Blasio. If you need any favor, you go to City Hall or the governor’s mansion.

Why does this matter? Schumer is the only person of consequence who has the ability to broker a peace between Cuomo and de Blasio, who have been at war since the liberal mayor was elected. The feud, despite even-handed media reports, is almost entirely Cuomo’s fault: he has relentlessly bullied the mayor, stymied his priorities and sweet-talked potential primary challengers. Schumer is the ideal outside actor with the clout to suspend hostilities that will have real consequences for New Yorkers, like misguided transportation projects initiated partially to avoid the purview of the Cuomo-controlled MTA (not to mention the governor's own follies).

The State Democratic Party, capable of spending millions of dollars to, in theory, advance liberal initiatives, is a de facto shell organization existing for Cuomo’s sole benefit. It does not party-build; it promotes Cuomo and nothing else. The various party chairmen, including ex-Gov. David Paterson, have been puppets of the governor, as disinterested as he is in electing Democrats across the state. At the Democratic National Convention, Schumer explicitly called for Democrats to retake control of the State Senate and has doled out some endorsements since, but his time and energy, as always, is elsewhere. Schumer is a creature of Washington, not New York. Ask him behind closed doors, and he’d probably say he has bigger fish to fry.

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The problem is, everything that really matters happens back home. A vast majority of relevant policy is set at the state level. A renegade faction of Democrats threatens to spit in the face of voters this fall, the millions in New Yorkers rejecting the Donald Trump-supporting GOP for Hillary Clinton, and again deny Democrats a full majority. Maybe State Senator Jeff Klein, the IDC leader, plays ball with the Democrats and a lot of this fulminating is for naught. Even if he does, the IDC is a permanent fixture of the state political landscape: it will exist for years, if not decades, to come.

If Schumer had a little more Harry Reid in him, would he get on the phone with Klein and tell him to cut it out? I want a Democratic majority, Jeff, and you’re not going to say no to the real Senate majority leader, are you? Klein would have to pay some heed to the second-most powerful New Yorker in America.

Reid somehow managed to run the Senate, save Barack Obama’s presidency, and leave enough time in the day to make Nevada his fiefdom. Schumer might just be a little less superhuman — or more interested in whatever’s buzzing around the Potomac.


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