The Ubiquitous Candidate
"Get ready for a treat!" Charles Schumer calls out as he heads for another front door in south Buffalo. It is a clammy August Saturday and the Democratic Senate candidate is the only guy within a 20-block radius wearing a tie. His suit jacket, though, is back in the car, ditched not long after he began sweating through his undershirt.
Armed with a printout of likely primary voters, the Brooklyn congressman is doing some retail campaigning. Schumer, 47, may be spending record millions on a statewide television blitz, but he recognizes the importance of a little human touch. Lined with soaring elm trees, Whitehall Avenue is part of a heavily Irish, Democratic district that propelled Jimmy Griffin, Buffalo's kooky former mayor,to 16 years in City Hall. Boasting turnouts that can approach 70 percent, the neighborhood is home to the primest of prime voters.
At the door of 114 Whitehall, the slope-shouldered Schumer knocks a few times and calls into the house through a screen door, but gets no response. Obviously someone is home because a vacuum cleaner roar is ricocheting from inside. Turning to Steve Pigeon, the Erie County Democratic boss, Schumer asks, "How many registered?"
"Five," Pigeon says.
"We'll wait," the candidate declares.
After a couple of minutes, the vacuum cleaner goes silent and Schumer successfully beckons a housewife to the door. He hands her a piece of campaign literature and introduces himself as someone who wants to retire Al D'Amato. But like many people on Whitehall, the woman already knows who he is, having seen Schumer's TV spots ad nauseum. This pleases the candidate to no end, since he's paid for such recognition.
As he continues door to door, many of the prospective voters Schumer encounters are in some stage of undress. "So far, not a single guy with a shirt," Schumer says at one point. "Four p.m. on a Saturday? Lots of naps. Lots of naps," theorizing that he may be interrupting a few afternoon assignations. "You know," he tells Pigeon, "they even wrote a song about that: 'Saturday Afternoon Delight.'" The sweaty gentleman from Brooklyn was actually referring to the Starland Vocal Band's classic, "Afternoon Delight."
The only thing that keeps Schumer from bounding up to a front door is the home's Republican registration or a menacing pet. Though there are two prime voters inside one house, the candidate is deterred by a Siberian husky perched on the driveway. Eyeing the dog, Schumer announces, "The O'Tooles will do without our presence for the moment." As he strides to the next door, the candidate is careful not to cross any of the tiny lawns dotting the pristine neighborhood. Back in his Brooklyn district, Schumer knows how people feel about their grass. The circuitous route, it seems, is always the safest one.
"They all knew who I was," Schumer says contentedly as he slides into Pigeon's car after the door-to-door canvass. As he is driven around Buffalo, the candidate peppers Pigeon with questions about everything from the local basilica to western New York's leading rock bands (Schumer knew the Goo Goo Dolls, but had to be reminded about 10,000 Maniacs). He will probably use these new information nuggets during subsequent appearances in the area. Schumer's queries end as a Green Day song (that slow, sappy one) comes on the radio. He closes his eyes and nods his head slowly. Soon, he's out cold, power-napping his way to an Irish festival in nearby Lancaster.
The way Chuck Schumer sees it, Mark Green has gone flatline and Geraldine Ferraro is still flailing about for a reason to be. He, on the other hand, is ascendant and faces no such problems. In fact, he tells supporters that his polls have him beating Ferraro by several points. In this bizarre, speak-no-evil primary, Schumer has been publicly silent about his opponents, forced to hold his prickly tongue lest he be accused of helping to somehow reelect D'Amato.
But privately, Schumer has ridiculed Ferraro's performances on television and before Democratic party officials. He has described a recent NY-1 meltdown--during which Ferraro muffed a softball question about the first three things she wanted to accomplish as a Senator--as "appalling." As for Green, whom Schumer tried to kneecap at this year's state Democratic convention, the congressman has dismissed him for aspiring to be another Paul Wellstone--that is, an ineffective, if principled, lefty.
While now commonplace in appraisals of Schumer, it appears that the first Sammy Glick comparison came in these pages almost 20 years ago. After six years in the state assembly, Schumer ran in 1980 to succeed Elizabeth Holtzman, who had given up her congressional seat to run for the Senate. A graduate of both Harvard College and Harvard Law School, Schumer was a young man in a hurry and not much interested in an extended stay in Albany.
That race was notable for two reasons. Unlike most outer-borough officials, Schumer showed an ability to raise cash from power circles usually open only to major Manhattan politicians. Back then, the Voice described the 29-year-old pol as "liberal, but malleable." Secondly, the House race triggered a federal criminal probe of Schumer that examined whether he illegally deployed assembly staffers to work on his congressional campaign. The tawdry scandal, the Voice noted at the time, left the impression that Schumer exhibited the "frantic, unprincipled ambition of a liberal Al D'Amato."
In a year where D'Amato's pay-to-play ethics will again be questioned, it is ironic that Schumer--and not the Fonz--is the Senate candidate who has come the closest to being busted. Schumer's indictment on fraud charges was sought in 1982 by the Brooklyn U.S. Attorney and signed off on by the Department of Justice's Criminal Division (then headed by one Rudolph Giuliani) and the Office of Public Integrity. But the new congressman was spared when a deputy attorney general nixed the prosecution, apparently on jurisdictional grounds.
While the criminal probe left him with a black eye, it did not stop Schumer from being reelected. Represented during the federal investigation by Arthur Liman, Schumer racked up legal bills of more than $60,000, a sum he eventually wrote off on his taxes over a five-year period, according to his returns from 1982 to 1986.
After this rocky start, Schumer has compiled an admirable legislative record and he is the clear star of the New York congressional delegation. His work on the Brady Bill and the assault weapons ban made him a target of the National Rifle Association and gun nuts everywhere. Schumer's other Washington achievements are numerous, and he notes in a recent campaign mailing he has "done more than you can squeeze into one 30-second ad," or "even six or seven ads." Since Schumer has actually aired more than a dozen spots, this reads less like a boast than an apology for his commercial deluge.
Another campaign piece touts his fight to aid workers by raising the minimum wage, a stance that is surely supported by Schumer's own employee. Since 1995, he has employed a full-time nanny who earns only $13,000 a year, or $250 per week, to care for his children. Schumer's tax returns from 1995 to 1997 show that the nanny, Evelyn Deshong, did not receive a raise during that period of employment.
While Schumer's legislative résumé is impressive, there remain indications that the "liberal, but malleable" tag applies. His flip-flop on the death penalty only serves to make him more appealing to a statewide electorate. While he has made much of his fight against Newt Gingrich and the Contract With America, Schumer is only a recent convert to the D'Amato jihad. While Green has been doggedly pursuing the Republican for more than a decade, Schumer targeted the Fonz only after deciding not to challenge the more invincible George Pataki.
The Senate candidate, a member of the House Banking Committee, is also extremely cozy with the securities industry, à la Alfonse. He has been able to bank nearly $13 million for this campaign because firms like Goldman, Sachs, the Travelers Group, and the Equitable Companies are comfortable with him. Schumer provided crucial support for 1998 legislation to supposedly modernize the financial services industry. That measure passed the House by one vote and was roundly criticized by President Bill Clinton and good government groups for weakening the Community Reinvestment Act and helping to facilitate megamergers that are rarely in the consumer's interest. Schumer also had previously supported the Private Securities Litigation Reform Act, which was derided as "special interest politics at its worst" by the Consumer Federation of America. That measure limited stockholders' ability to pursue legitimate legal claims against companies.
Gay groups have also criticized Schumer for supporting the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), which labels heterosexual marriages as the only legal unions. Last month, Schumer was a no-show at a candidates' forum at Greenwich Village's Gay and Lesbian Community Center, where his name was booed by a 150-person crowd.
It is unclear, though, whether Schumer's positions on securities legislation, DOMA, or the death penalty will resonate with primary voters. He believes that since beating D'Amato is the goal of every Democrat, he can make a persuasive case as to why he is the only candidate able to deny the Republican a fourth term. If he faces D'Amato, Schumer reasons, he will be flush enough to fight fire with fire and won't get sandbagged by D'Amato commercials that will begin targeting the Democratic nominee immediately after the primary. Of course, much of his artillery will be underwritten by the same benefactors stocking the D'Amato war effort.
Schumer's attempts to supplement his commercials with free media have, so far, fallen short of Green's successes. His press conferences--on subjects like HMO reform and skyrocketing college tuition--have been sparsely covered. While Green was barnstorming Brooklyn churches with David Dinkins and drawing cameras, Schumer addressed three Harlem churches on a Sunday in late August in virtual anonymity.
Actually, that might not have been so bad, since his remarks were rather awkward and peppered with forced and repeated references to God. Addressing the plague of guns on the street, Schumer told one congregation of the days when he "grew up on the streets of Brooklyn." It was a time, he said, when "my hormones were racing" and he got into a few scuffles. Even came home once with a broken thumb. "But, praise God, I never came home in a coffin!" Had he been given a few more minutes at one West 116th Street church, the candidate might have asked the crowd if he could get a couple of amens.
Schumer's public schedule is also dwarfed by the peripatetic Green's jaunts. But then again, odds are Schumer will be invading your living room several times a night. The Senate candidate has become such a ubiquitous presence on NY-1, you half expect him to deliver the "Weather on the 1's."
The day before Schumer did his Harlem church circuit, he was in Lockport headlining a small rally for a slate of Niagara County Democrats. Held on a breezy ribbon of grass near the local marina, the picnic was organized in response to a recent swanky D'Amato fundraiser that was attended by Giuliani and cost $1000 a head. By comparison, the Democratic soirée featured hot dogs, homemade pizza, and Sweet Valley Cola.
A succession of candidates addressed the crowd, speaking from under the green and white awning of a 1978 Dodge Cruiseair. The local assembly candidate must have missed the Senate candidate's commercials because she referred to him as "Chuck Shumner."
When Schumer took the mike, he made sure to mention that he supports the state resolution that would bring gambling to the economically depressed county. In fact, he called on D'Amato to "light a fire" under Pataki to call a special session of the legislature and to get the gambling measure passed. He also pointed guests to a stack of phony $1000 bills on one picnic table. D'Amato's picture was in the center of the xeroxed currency. "I hope you all saw this," Schumer said, "it's a great thing." He then read an ad from the local paper announcing the picnic. "Save $1000," the ad said. "Didn't have $1000 to meet our current U.S. Senator? Then come meet our next U.S. Senator for free." For Schumer, the $13 Million Man (and counting), this must have seemed like quite a bargain.
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