Chuck Schumer was late.
It was September 8, 2006, three days before the fifth anniversary of the 9-11 terrorist attacks, and the usual faces of New York’s congressional delegation had gathered yet again for a hearing to attract attention to the “living victims” of September 11—the rescue and recovery workers, residents, students, and office employees who have gotten sick from the toxic aftermath of the World Trade Center collapse.
There was Hillary Clinton, the state’s junior senator and future 2008 Democratic presidential candidate, who now owns 9-11 environmental health issues in the way the former mayor Rudy Giuliani owned crime. Next to her sat Carolyn Maloney, the congresswoman representing midtown Manhattan, whose office had organized Capitol Hill trips and ground zero rallies to call attention to the cause. Farther down sat Vito Fossella, of Staten Island, a Republican House member who had pointedly attacked the leader of his own party, President Bush, for ignoring the public-health crisis. Next to him sat Jerrold Nadler, lower Manhattan’s longtime congressman, who had led the original battle with the Environmental Protection Agency over its failure to clean up the trade center dust.
It wasn’t until 90 minutes into the hearing that New York’s senior senator hurried up the aisle, his entourage in tow. Moments later, on the dais, Schumer joined the conversation with brief yet potent comments on the issue.
“I wanted to come by,” Schumer said, “to tell this panel in particular, but everybody here, that I will join in the effort to do everything we can to see that what happened to those who helped early on, but show symptoms of illnesses that came from that help years later, are treated every bit as fairly as those who were hurt on that terrible day.”
The dozens of labor representatives, residents, ground zero workers, and 9-11 activists in the room delighted in hearing Schumer speak out. Such words had been spoken many times before, but on this day carried the weight that only comes when delivered by a senior U.S. senator.
No one could ignore the fact of Schumer’s presence—not the activists, nor the ground zero workers, nor his colleagues in Congress. Many of them were counting his lateness to the cause in years, not in minutes. But those who had yearned since day one to hear his voice couldn’t help but wonder why Schumer had failed for nearly five years to heed their appeals for help—and why, at long last, he’d heard them now.
Charles Schumer, in his eighth year as the state’s senior senator and now Vice Chairman of the Senate Democratic Caucus—making him the third most powerful Democrat in Washington—prides himself on serving the needs of every citizen of New York State, all 19 million of them. Over the past 34 years, from the three terms in the state assembly to the 18 years in the House of Representatives to the two terms in the Senate, he has worked hard and delivered fast for New Yorkers. And they have rewarded him for it—as evidenced most recently by his record 71-percent re-election win in 2004.
By all measures, Schumer has proven to be a good Democrat, always on the right side of Democratic party issues like gun control, crime, and judicial selections. Recently, as chairman of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee in the 2006 elections, he became the savior of his party after steering it to power in that chamber. Through it all, he has particularly devoted his career to doing right by his middle-class constituents, as epitomized in his new book, Positively American, by the fictional Joe and Eileen Bailey, of Long Island. He writes: “They cared that I was out there fighting for and delivering on issues that mattered to them. That was my job.”
So what happens when a good Democrat is suddenly faced with a not-so-good issue—an issue created by the most calamitous event ever to have occurred in his home state? An issue that hinges on constituents made ill by their exposure to the toxic dust cloud that hung over lower Manhattan and blanketed area skyscrapers in the wake of the terrorist attacks? An issue that represents one of the most complicated and risky to arise out of the catastrophic events of September 11?
From VITO VALENTI, ground zero volunteer, disabled labor representativ (January 5, 2006):
From CHARLES SCHUMER U.S. Senator, New York (February 1, 2006):
It has taken five years for a broad consensus to emerge on the fact that the dust that coated lower Manhattan after 9-11 has made people seriously ill. Now, no one denies the truth any longer—as borne out by a September 2006 Mount Sinai Medical Center study showing that 70 percent of 9,500 responders have respiratory illnesses. No one disputes the World Trade Center Health Registry’s record of more than 71,000 residents, office employees, students, and ground zero workers with 9-11–related symptoms. No one argues with the February 2006 legal decision finding that the EPA misled New Yorkers about the air quality downtown.
What amounted to an orphan issue for years, pressed by a tiny handful of federal lawmakers, has become a popular crusade in the last 12 months. By 2006, as reports surfaced about the deaths of sick first responders, the political tide had finally turned. Indeed, just last week, Mayor Michael Bloomberg unveiled his administration’s 83-page report on the 9-11 health crisis, calling for increased
federal funding and other measures.
But before then, the 9-11 environmental health issues served as a test for good Democrats like Schumer. And for his constituents, especially those who appealed to his offices, it was a test he failed.
To be sure, in the first five years that followed the attacks, Schumer whipped into action on behalf of the state and its victims. Immediately afterward, he became the point person for $20 billion in emergency aid from the federal government. He fought for those billions on Capitol Hill, negotiating with Bush budget directors and haranguing Senate appropriators. While he partnered with Senator Clinton to get this money, no one disputes that Schumer drove the package.
That package funded a host of valuable benefits for constituents: loans for downtown businesses, bonds for construction projects, and unemployment benefits for people who lost jobs. It also laid the groundwork for the main 9-11 health initiatives today. The first $177 million for the World Trade Center medical-monitoring programs came from those funds. So did money for such environmental work as the $477 million to remove toxic debris from the trade center site and the $20 million to rid downtown public schools of toxic dust.
“From day one,” says Risa Heller, the senator’s spokesperson, “Senator Schumer has been an aggressive and effective advocate for delivering billions of dollars of aid to rebuild ground zero and fund the framework for all existing health programs related to the tragedy of 9-11.”
Through Heller, Schumer parried about a dozen requests for an interview for this article, beginning the first week of January, before finally making himself available for comment just hours before deadline last week. In an eight-minute phone conversation, the senior senator disputed the argument that he has been late to the cause. Though he first publicly voiced his desire to “join the effort” last fall, he explains, “Those words are not to be interpreted as me saying I wasn’t involved before. I’ve been part of these efforts from the get-go, and that’s how I see my record.” Declining to speak for attribution, his aides have also defended their boss’s record on 9-11 environmental health issues and expressed their belief that the thrust of the article is baseless. They provided a Voice reporter with documentation detailing that record—which included press releases, congressional letters, and Senate speeches—but a close reading of it shows Schumer said and did little on the health problems of the 9-11 fallout until the latter half of 2005. Much of the materials illustrated his work on the overall $20 billion government aid package, such as his advocacy in the spring of 2002 for money to reimburse New York hospitals and to give rental relief to downtown residents.
To many of his constituents—both leaders of advocacy groups and individuals seeking help with health problems—Schumer’s fight for those billions wasn’t enough. Advocates pushing for public attention to the 9-11 environmental health cause—school parents, residents, office employees, and ground zero workers—looked to Schumer in those early days for assistance. They con
tacted his offices, seeking the sort of leadership that comes from a senior senator. But they got little or no response.
“When it comes to people we represent, he has been nowhere,” says Kimberly Flynn, the co-coordinator of 9-11 Environmental Action, since 2002 the main advocacy group for downtown residents, employees, students, and parents, with a 400-person mailing list.
“I don’t remember him showing up much,” adds Suzanne Mattei, head of the New York City Sierra Club and secretary of Unsung Heroes Helping Heroes, a 9-11 response-and-recovery workers’ organization with 18,000 members nationwide. “I guess that speaks for itself.”
In Schumer’s absence, advocates turned to his junior colleague, who demonstrated a far greater willingness to champion their cause. Almost from the start, Hillary Clinton—then just nine months into her first term—began carving out a leadership role on 9-11 environmental health issues. In the immediate aftermath of the attacks, she recognized publicly that recovery workers were falling ill. In the months and years that followed, she did the same with everyone who lived and worked near the site. As unpopular as it was then, she asserted repeatedly that the government had made mistakes that could lead to lasting illnesses.
By contrast, during that time Schumer said and did nearly nothing. He rarely spoke about
the environmental hazards in and around the rubble of debris now known as “The Pile.” For
years, he said nothing about the putrid air, or the noxious dust, or the people getting sick. It wasn’t until 2006—mostly since that congressional hearing—that Schumer became a consistent and visible player on the front lines of this battle.
Schumer and his defenders—who include current and former aides, as well as New York and Capitol Hill political insiders familiar with his 9-11 work—strenuously deny any lapse on his part or any evolution in his thinking over the last five years on these issues: “I’ve been involved in every single issue dealing with the health problems from the beginning,” he says. The senior senator says he chose to let Clinton lead on all aspects of 9-11 environmental health, a logical and appropriate division of labor because she sits on two key Senate committees—Environment and Public Works, which oversees the EPA; and Health, Labor, Education, and Pensions, which oversees health care. The committees gave her an entrée into the health impacts of 9-11 fallout, enabling her to use hearings and procedures to move initiatives. Once Clinton made the cause a top priority, they say, Schumer deferred to her. He did his duty as a good Democrat, signing her bills and supporting her measures.
Schumer, who serves on the Senate Judiciary Committee, likens Clinton’s leadership on 9-11 environmental health issues to his own historical leadership on judicial appointments. “It would be silly to write an article saying, ‘Hillary is absent on judicial selections,’ just because I take the lead on that issue,” he says, “and the same is true here.” Asked if he thought his constituents would have understood this division of labor, he replies, “I don’t know. This is the first I’ve heard of any complaints. It’s the first I’ve heard that I haven’t been active and involved in helping to move these issues forward.” Division of labor arguments don’t account for unexpected consequences of emergencies, though, and when asked if the toxic aftermath of the terrorist attacks wouldn’t have required both senators’ leadership, he says, “I think the selection of Supreme Court justices are also important events.”
Advocates welcome Schumer’s current support, but still wonder why, early on, he wouldn’t do what he’s doing now: help Clinton and the other congressional forces champion this cause. These activists believe that having two powerful senators, united on the Senate floor and behind closed doors, would have made the difference in getting faster and more thorough aid to ailing responders and others exposed to the toxins.
On that issue they find agreement—at least privately—among Capitol Hill insiders privy to the backroom efforts to help the 9-11 living victims. One congressional source who spoke on the condition of anonymity puts it this way: “The issue has needed the help of both senators throughout this entire unfortunate exercise. One powerful senator is good, but two powerful senators are even better.”
On September 13, 2001 ,
Schumer and Clinton sat with President Bush in the Oval Office to argue for separate aid for a city ravaged by the terrorist attacks of two days before. Bush asked how much the city needed to recover and rebuild.
“Twenty billion dollars,” Schumer said flatly.
“You’ve got it,” the president replied.
It stands as a classic Schumer moment, nailing down a federal commitment for his home state. Fans and foes alike consider it his finest hour. For months afterward, he collaborated with his junior colleague to bring that $20 billion home—working with her as a team to make it happen. Every day, Schumer staffers gave updates on efforts their boss undertook—creating the September 11th Victim Compensation Fund, or assisting victims’ families in finding remains.
But by late September, Schumer’s office was getting calls from other families as well. Parents whose children attended Stuyvesant High School were frantically seeking out elected officials. The city’s Department of Education planned to reopen the prestigious high school, blocks from ground zero, assuring parents it had spent $1 million cleaning up the toxic dust. Yet many believed the conditions in lower Manhattan weren’t safe. Not only were the acrid fires still smoldering on the pile, but also the city had placed a 24-hour barge on a pier beside the school, where trucks dumped debris within feet of kids’ classrooms.
The 6,000-strong Stuyvesant High School Parents’ Association formed an outreach com
mittee. About two dozen members thought to call their dogged representative, Nadler, and
their celebrity senator, Clinton. But most opted to call Schumer first. He seemed the perfect
ally—not just because of his senior status, but also because of his personal stake in the 9-11 fallout: His daughter Jessica was a senior at Stuyvesant.
So, says Jenna Orkin, a veteran 9-11 activist whose son was a 2002 classmate of Jessica, “There was hope of winning Schumer over to fight the good fight for the kids.”
Orkin reached out to Schumer’s offices on her own, while 20 or so Parents’ Association representatives tried to contact him, repeatedly, in New York and D.C. They called; they e-mailed. Several of them remember getting his aides on the phone. We need to move that barge, they implored. We need Schumer to help convince the city to do it.
“He did nothing,” says Orkin, a co-founder of the Concerned Stuyvesant Community. “It was some form of buck-passing.”
Adds another parent who called and visited his offices at the time, and who asked for anonymity for fear of recriminations from the senator: “Schumer did not respond. We were given the runaround continuously.”
The Stuyvesant situation presented a dilemma for Schumer. On the one hand, his constituents were asking for help. On the other hand, he was willing to return his daughter to a building yards from the trade center site. Stuyvesant parents believed that would prompt him to listen to their concerns that their kids were at risk of getting sick from the contamination, but his aides suggest otherwise.
Indeed, when pressed for a broad explanation of Schumer’s lack of leadership on the 9-11 environmental health issues—a failing they repeatedly deny in general terms—the senator’s spokesperson turned the focus of the discussion to the Stuyvesant situation.
“When it came to the issue of students,” said Heller, his spokesperson, via e-mail, “the senator deferred to the effective leadership of his colleagues at the request of his family.” During the interview, Schumer elaborated on that statement, explaining his daughter had asked him to not get involved in the debate over the school. The reason for Jessica’s request isn’t known, but the senator suggests that like many of her classmates, she struggled with the trauma of witnessing the 9-11 attacks. “My daughter did not want me to get involved, and that’s personal,” he says. “She was there that day and she vacated that school and she did not want me involved in this issue.” He points out that Stuyvesant parents did get help from other federal lawmakers, such as Nadler and Clinton. “If no one else was involved, fine, I could understand the criticism,” he says, “but there were forceful advocates there, and on certain issues that hit close to home, if one of your family members says to you, ‘Please don’t get involved,’ I’d think that people would be able to respect that.”
Through it all, Schumer kept silent. When asked if he ever explained that silence to parents with growing concerns about their children’s health, he replies, “That’s not the point.” He adds: “I may not have wanted to tell them because I may have wanted to keep my daughter’s situation private.”
Those comments to The Village Voice represented the first specific acknowledgement by Schumer and his office that he declined to involve himself directly in constituent matters related to 9-11 environmental health issues. When told that other 9-11 health advocates—residents, office employees, and ground zero workers—have also said they reached out to his offices over the years and got no response, Schumer replies, “I can be criticized for many things, but a lack of response isn’t one of them.” He adds: “If you have their names, we’ll try to find out what happened. We always try to be very responsive.”
Schumer’s daughter clearly complicated these issues for him—but so did his wife, Iris Weinshall, who headed the city’s Department of Transportation at the time of the attacks, and continues in that role today. As the agency’s commissioner, she served as a high-level official in the administration of then mayor Giuliani—who denied any problems with air quality in lower Manhattan. Just as parents appealed to Schumer, they lobbied Giuliani officials like Weinshall. One Parents’ Association representative, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, remembers the commissioner returning the association’s phone calls in early October. “She said, ‘Everything is fine,’ ” the representative recalls, “‘Just trust the government.’ ”
Parents have long suspected privately that Schumer’s silence on these issues stemmed in part from an unwillingness to contradict his wife’s implicit stance in her position with the Giuliani administration—something Schumer’s aides vigorously deny. Says Heller, flatly: “That claim is categorically ridiculous.”
Weinshall (through a spokesperson) declined several requests for comment, except to say that she did not have jurisdiction over the barge and cleanup operations. Weinshall referred a Voice reporter back to Schumer’s office for further clarification of his family’s request; Schumer, for his part, told the Voice, “My position had zero to do with my wife’s position.”
Still, he essentially echoed the sentiment that all was fine on October 9, 2001, the day Stuyvesant called back its 3,000 students. On that morning, Schumer escorted his daughter to the high school on West Street, passing the police patrols and the National Guard troops, passing the reporters at the front doors. When asked if he was worried about air quality, he shook his head.
“They’ve done all the testing,” Schumer told reporters. “I know they’ve made it safe.”
In retrospect, Schumer set his course on the environmental health front that day. Having returned his daughter downtown, he couldn’t easily turn around and speak out about the toxins making other people sick. Still, residents and office employees hoped he would. That same month, they were contacting his Manhattan and D.C. offices, to no avail. Residents in Battery Park City had formed an ad hoc coalition, calling up politicians. Employees in buildings on Barclay, Broadway, and Liberty streets called labor groups, which did the same. They wanted officials to challenge the EPA’s false assurances about the conditions near ground zero. Why were they suffering from the same ailments as those toiling on the pile? Was that dust safe? What about that plume?
Craig Hall, of the World Trade Center Residents Coalition, recalls his group contacting Schumer’s offices, sending e-mails via his office website, making several phone calls. So do two labor activists who collaborated with the residents. “The sense was his office wasn’t interested in getting involved,” Hall says. “It wasn’t his priority.”
Schumer’s true priority, it seemed, was rebuilding lower Manhattan. At the time, Schumer, like most political and business elites, feared the city’s economy would plummet. Get Wall Street up and running! Open businesses! Redevelop the site! That was the official line, and Schumer said and did all he could to live up to it. He convinced Bush officials to allow some of those billions of dollars in aid to upgrade transportation lines. He created the tax-friendly Liberty Zone. He traveled to business gatherings, presenting what he called a “grand plan” for replacing the twin towers. Often, he told people his number one job was to keep downtown afloat.”Chuck took it as his mission to make sure the economy didn’t collapse,” confirms one Capitol Hill source close to Schumer familiar with his 9-11 work.
The city’s business and Wall Street leaders represent important Schumer constituents, and he rose to power with help from many of them. In 1998, when he challenged Republican Alfonse D’Amato for his current seat, Wall Street firms donated $1.4 million to his campaign—more than any other U.S. senator. In 2002, they gave about $1.3 million; in 2004, the same. A prolific fundraiser, Schumer boasts major annual support from downtown corporations like Cantor Fitzgerald ($46,250 in 2004), Goldman Sachs ($43,790), Morgan Stanley ($40,500), and Newmark Knight Frank Real Estate ($32,200).
Wall Street, like Schumer, downplayed all talk of the dust’s dangers at first. When the
Daily News ran its first front-page story detailing the toxic mess in October 2001, the Partnership for New York City fired off a letter decrying the “sick Halloween prank.” Leaders wanted to prevent what Kathryn Wylde, the president of the partnership, now calls “a giant exodus from lower Manhattan.”
“We believed there were obvious exaggerations about hazards of the 9-11 dust cloud,” she says, referring to the Daily News article. “It seemed scare-mongering at a time when we were trying to lure businesses back.”
That attitude presented yet another conflict for the senator. “Schumer was the guy saying to people, ‘Please invest your millions in lower Manhattan,’ ” says the Capitol Hill source, who is friendly to Schumer, “and when you’re that guy, you can’t also put out press releases saying, ‘Oh, my God. Thousands have asbestosis from all the toxins.’ ”
If Schumer faced competing loyalties, his junior colleague found herself in a different position. A new senator, Clinton had yet to gain the trust of New Yorkers, who considered her an outsider. Her relationship with the city’s cops and firefighters—the 9-11 first responders—was especially strained. “She had to prove herself as a bona fide New Yorker,” says Hank Sheinkopf, a veteran political consultant. It helped that she harbored a passion for environmental health issues dating back to her days as first lady.
When Clinton visited ground zero within 24 hours of the attacks, she noticed the toxic stew. “I could not see anything,” she has often said of that visit, “but I could smell it. I could taste it. I could literally feel it.” Clinton and her staff soon made routine trips there, keeping tabs on how many recovery workers were suffering from what ailments. She had her aides follow up with labor and resident groups grappling with the ripple effects. By October, she had written to then EPA administrator Christine Todd Whitman—who had assured New Yorkers in a now infamous statement on September 18, 2001, that conditions were “safe”—and urged her agency to do more to “adequately protect human health and the environment in lower Manhattan.” By November, she had drafted a bill to provide health tracking for recovery workers, which paved the way for the current WTC monitoring programs.
Clinton’s staff requested that Schumer become a co-sponsor of that bill. “Schumer was happy to support the effort,” says Ann O’Leary, Clinton’s legislative director in D.C. from 2001 to 2003. “He put his name on it.” He lent his name again one month later, when Clinton inserted her measure into an appropriations bill, thus securing the first $12 million for the WTC programs. He would do so a third time, in July 2002, co-sponsoring her provision for another $90 million.
Distinguishing among all the 9-11 living victims, Schumer has always appeared more attuned to the rescue and recovery workers than to the downtown community. It didn’t take a lot to see that these workers, enveloped in a plume without proper equipment, were at risk. While those who lived and worked near the pile went undiagnosed and unnoticed, no one could deny what was happening to the “heroes of 9-11.”
Schumer’s aides say the specter of lung illnesses among the rescue and recovery workers had become so apparent that their boss led the charge to create the Captive Insurance Fund. That’s the $1 billion set aside to cover liability for New York City and the construction firms responsible for the cleanup—the same money they’re now using to fight 8,500-plus lawsuits filed by ailing workers. In 2002, Schumer aides were meeting with company and city representatives to discuss workers’ future injury claims. Eventually, the senator inserted the liability cap into an airline bailout bill.
The fund was meant to benefit the city as a whole—including those who would fail to protect workers from the toxic aftereffects—yet Schumer’s people now paint it as a sign of his concern for the rescue and recovery workers. Says one former aide who attended those 2002 meetings, “Chuck’s point has always been, ‘Take care of the workers.’ ”
But just how willing Schumer was to fight for their health needs goes to the heart of his dilemma. No one argues that Schumer did not back Clinton’s attempt to appropriate another $90 million for the WTC programs—indeed, he voted for it. And some advocates say they never questioned Schumer’s commitment to their cause. Explains Peter Gorman, the president of the Uniformed Fire Officers Association, “I never doubted for a second that he wasn’t lockstep in line with Clinton.” Tom Scotto, the past president of the Detectives’ Endowment Association, who asked Clinton to file her health-tracking bill, adds, “Chuck is a big supporter of law enforcement, so why would he not be helpful to 9-11 responders? I would find that impossible to believe.”
But sources familiar with the effort to win those millions say the senior senator barely surfaced in what would become a grueling, 20-month battle to help those afflicted with illnesses connected to the cloud of dust. By September 2002, the Bush administration had failed to release the $90 million, setting off a behind-the-scenes appropriations game. In the ensuing months, Clinton wrote letters to the EPA’s Whitman and called Bush’s then chief of staff, Andrew Card, urging them to back the programs. She worked with Senate appropriators to insert the money into bills—first in late 2002; again in early 2003. Her office, along with the Congressional offices of Maloney and Nadler, brought labor leaders to D.C. Maloney even convinced House colleagues to give up their passes to the 2003 State of the Union address so ground zero workers could sit in the gallery, a reminder of the forgotten heroes. Finally, in June 2003, the money arrived— without Schumer.
“In all the negotiations,” says one labor representative who participated in the lobbying fight for the WTC funds, “Schumer was just absent.”
“He didn’t do the work,” adds a former delegate tied to the United Firefighters Association who got involved in the effort. “It was all Clinton.”
Even sources close to Clinton confirm as much. Attests O’Leary, “I can say it wasn’t his battle and he didn’t go out of his way to help. It’s accurate to say he was absent, yes.”
If Schumer was missing in action on these early efforts to aid ground zero workers, his absence was even more conspicuous to those who worked and lived downtown. In February 2002, Clinton used her seat on the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works to highlight the 9-11 health issues—holding a hearing in Manhattan, grilling government officials on the cleanup. By then, Nadler had become the loudest champion of the cause—hosting Wall Street forums attracting hundreds of people made ill by the toxins, dogging the EPA about its inadequate testing. At the hearing, the congressman requested that Clinton ask some tough questions to city and federal officials, putting pressure on the EPA. Within months, the two stood together as the agency announced it would test for toxic dust inside skyscrapers.
Schumer could not have held this hearing; he wasn’t on the key committee. But he could have participated in it, and didn’t. Nor did he sign on to Clinton’s three letters to Whitman at that time about the toxic aftereffects.
The only public statement Schumer made on the 9-11 health fallout came in February 2002, the day after Clinton’s hearing, when he told The New York Times that he had no regrets sending his daughter back to Stuyvesant. “The health of your child is the number one thing you care about,” he said, “but at the same time you try not to allow unsubstantiated fear to overcome the actual facts.” Days later, the Daily News would report that the EPA ombudsman found that the debris barge had re-contaminated Stuyvesant High with trade center dust.
Schumer’s aides insist he was keeping tabs on efforts to clean up the contamination and to provide health care to ailing people downtown. Maintains the Schumer aide, “Chuck was always supportive of these efforts.”
Many 9-11 advocates remember inviting the senator to attend town hall meetings in the spring and summer of 2002 on the 9-11 health crisis, or copying his office on July 2003 letters addressed to the EPA about its “inept and haphazard” cleanup plans, or even seeking help for ground-zero-related injuries. Some traveled to Capitol Hill loaded down with tools of persuasion: articles on the toxic dust, surveys of sick students, independent tests showing high levels of asbestos inside apartments. At times, they met with Schumer’s aides, who listened to their appeals.
“They don’t say, ‘Not my problem,’ ” says Orkin, who lobbied Schumer’s office on behalf of 9/11 Environmental Action and the World Trade Center Environmental Organization a half-dozen times from 2002 to 2005. “But nothing significant ever came out of my lobbying trips.” No requests to attend press events, nor any announcements of funding—things that did come out of trips to the offices of Clinton, Nadler, and Maloney.
By August 2003, many advocates had given up on Schumer. That month, the EPA inspector general issued a scathing report concluding the agency had watered down its ground zero warnings on orders from the White House—sparking outrage among the congressional allies.
Clinton and Nadler called on the U.S. Justice Department to investigate the EPA. The junior senator, meanwhile, used her Senate committee seat to force the agency to form a blue-ribbon panel to draft a second cleanup plan and survey community health needs. She wrote two letters to Bush demanding accountability, and on the Senate floor, she railed against the White House for misleading New Yorkers. “Dictating what the EPA can generally say is inexcusable,” she told her colleagues, “but making them misinform the public on such a critical issue is outrageous.”
Schumer did not join in her calls for an investigation. Nor did he sign on to her letters or make a floor speech. He barely voiced his support, let alone his outrage. “While it is understandable that in the midst of a crisis the White House did not want the EPA to sound alarmist,” he told reporters, “if the public loses faith that things are safe when the government says so, we’ll have done more damage than a pointed statement the week after 9-11.”
Two years later, Schumer at last expressed public outrage over the 9-11 living victims. It was June 2, 2005, and the Bush administration was trying to take back $125 million in aid for sick ground zero workers—aid that had come from the original billions he’d helped fight for and protect. Energetic in any money fight, Schumer held his first press conference on the 9-11 health issues, standing beside labor leaders, and blasting the president for reneging on a promise.
“Providing health care for the heroes who selflessly gave of themselves after 9-11 is absolutely consistent with the promise of our government to do whatever it takes to get New York back on its feet,” he declared.
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.
“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.
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.”
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.