Sen. Charles Schumer (D)
Elected: 1998, term expires 2010, 2nd term.
Born: Nov. 23, 1950, Brooklyn .
Education: Harvard U., B.A. 1971, J.D. 1974.
Family: Married (Iris Weinshall); 2 children.
Military career: SC Natl. Guard, 1953-62.
Elected office: NY Assembly, 1974–80; U.S. House of Reps., 1980-1998.
Democrat Charles Schumer is New York’s senior senator, first elected in 1998. He grew up in Flatbush, Brooklyn, where his father had a small exterminating business. Schumer graduated first in his class at James Madison High School, the alma mater of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. It’s safe to say that Schumer was interested in politics from the start. He graduated from Harvard College and Law School and, with his law degree fresh in hand in June 1974, he immediately began running for an open New York Assembly seat. He won, at age 23, becoming the state’s youngest Assembly member since Theodore Roosevelt. In 1980, just before turning 30, he was elected to the U.S. House from an open Brooklyn seat. Through energy, imagination, hard work, and a certain amount of chutzpah, he became a skilled legislator and a politician noted—and sometimes resented—for attracting publicity. (Former presidential candidate and Sen. Bob Dole of Kansas was one of the first to say that the most dangerous place to be in Washington was between Schumer and a television camera.)
|Charles Schumer (D-Ind-WF)||4,769,824||(71%)||($15,467,530)|
|Howard Mills (R)||1,625,069||(24%)||($628,578)|
|Charles Schumer (D)||Unopposed|
Prior Winning Percentages: 1998 (55%), 1996 House (75%), 1994 House (73%), 1992 House (89%), 1990 House (80%), 1988 House (78%), 1986 House (93%), 1984 House (72%), 1982 House (79%), 1980 House (77%)
Schumer got a seat on the Banking Committee, a panel that most talented members lobby to leave. But like another talented member of the class of 1980, Democrat Barney Frank of Massachusetts, he stayed on, aware of its importance to New York’s financial industry. Schumer did some of his most noteworthy work on the Judiciary Committee, where he eventually chaired the Crime Subcommittee. Schumer sponsored the 1994 crime bill that banned assault weapons and shepherded President Bill Clinton’s proposal to add 100,000 police officers across the country. The legislation also created “three strikes” mandatory life terms for repeat violent criminals. Schumer was the House sponsor of the Brady bill, which created waiting periods for handgun purchases and was passed over the strong opposition of the National Rifle Association. Schumer also contributed key provisions to the immigration acts in 1986 and 1990.
The idea of running for statewide office was surely never far from his mind. In 1997, Schumer considered seeking the governorship, but by April of that year, Gov. George Pataki’s strong job ratings persuaded Schumer to use his $5 million campaign treasury to run instead against Republican Sen. Alfonse D’Amato. It was by no means obvious that Schumer would win. D’Amato was known for his assiduous constituent service and for his ability to dominate the tabloid wars that are a mainstay of metropolitan New York political campaigns. D’Amato was chairman of the Senate Banking Committee and excelled at raising money. Schumer started off largely unknown outside his district, and he faced serious primary opposition from Geraldine Ferraro, the1984 vice presidential nominee, and Mark Green, the New York City public advocate and D’Amato’s 1986 opponent. By summer, Schumer was leading in polls and was much better financed than his rivals; in September, he won the primary with 51% of the vote.
In the general election campaign, Schumer immediately launched an attack on D’Amato, saying that the incumbent had told “too many lies for too long,” which echoed D’Amato’s earlier criticisms of his opponents as “too liberal for too long.” Schumer maintained that he was tougher on crime than D’Amato, and he emphasized his support of abortion rights and gun regulation. D’Amato concentrated heavily on Schumer’s missed votes while running for Senate, but the implication that the high-voltage Schumer was lazy was implausible. Still, by mid-October, most of Schumer’s poll leads were less than the statistical margin of error. Then, in a closed meeting before a Jewish group, D’Amato called Schumer a “putzhead,” Yiddish slang for “jerk.” When the remark became public, he denied it, before backtracking unconvincingly after his own supporter, former Democratic Mayor Edward Koch, confirmed it. D’Amato lost momentum, and by early November, was sagging in the polls. Schumer had announced in October that he would vote against impeaching Clinton, although he said he believed that the president lied under oath about a sexual relationship with White House intern Monica Lewinsky. Schumer was the beneficiary of two visits from Clinton and no less than four from Hillary Rodham Clinton (the rousing receptions she got may have encouraged her to run for the Senate in New York two years later). Although outspent, Schumer won 55%-44%.
In the Senate, Schumer established a solidly liberal voting record. And he honed his skills for hogging the limelight. Schumer makes a practice of visiting all 62 counties each year, and he regularly spends Mondays on upstate swings that get him on Buffalo, Rochester, Syracuse, and Albany television. He holds regular Sunday press conferences, to take advantage of the slow news digest that day, a tactic that often gets him coverage on television news programs and in the Monday editions of newspapers.
Schumer gladly returned to work on financial services issues with a seat on the Banking Committee. He supported the 1999 Gramm-Bliley-Leach bill eliminating the barriers between banks and investment banks, and in 2001 he joined Republican Sen. Phil Gramm of Texas in successfully halving the fees paid by Wall Street firms to the Securities and Exchange Commission. In 2002, Schumer played a key role in scuttling a Republican bankruptcy bill by persuading the Senate to pass an amendment that made fines and penalties for attacking abortion clinics not dischargeable in bankruptcy cases; abortion-rights opponents were increasingly declaring bankruptcy to avoid paying such fines. Abortion opponents in the House refused to vote for the bill as long as it contained Schumer’s amendment. The bill died but was revived in 2005. This time, Schumer’s abortion amendment was voted down, 53-46, in the Senate, and the bill was ultimately enacted. He long opposed moves to toughen regulation of the government-sponsored mortgage institutions, Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, citing the rising rate of homeownership and the possibility of increased interest rates. In 2007, Schumer called for increasing the limit on their investment in mortgage-backed securities by 10%, or $145 billion, but that move was defeated. Schumer also opposed taxing the carried interest income of hedge-fund operators. He has proposed establishing an Office of Identity Theft in the Federal Trade Commission to set minimum security standards. Despite his opposition to many Bush administration policies, he strongly supported some Bush nominees—former Republican Rep. Christopher Cox for appointment to the SEC in July 2005 and Goldman Sachs chief executive officer Henry Paulson Jr. as Treasury secretary in June 2006.
On the Judiciary Committee, Schumer argued that senators should reject Bush appointees on “purely ideological grounds.” Starting with the nomination of Miguel Estrada to the U.S. Court of Appeals, he led the opposition to Bush judicial nominees whom he and liberal lobbying groups judged to be out of the mainstream. Schumer, along with other Democrats, used the filibuster to block the appointment of federal judges who enjoyed majority support, forcing the nominee to earn 60 votes to be confirmed. He took strong exception to Senate Republicans who advocated changing the rules to allow nominations to be considered by majority vote. In 2005, Schumer tried to pin down Supreme Court nominee John Roberts in committee hearings and was one of 22 senators who later voted against him and noted later, “Roberts was quite stealthy, but he was so brilliant he could pull it off.” When Bush nominated Samuel Alito in 2005, Schumer said he was “sad that the president felt he had to pick a nominee likely to divide America” and wondered “whether [Alito] would use that seat to reverse much of what Rosa Parks and so many others fought so hard and for so long to put in place.” In 2007, Schumer pounced on the Bush administration’s firings of seven U.S. attorneys around the country, demanding the resignation of Attorney General Alberto Gonzales. However, also that year, he voted for Michael Mukasey as attorney general, although the nominee declined to say whether he considered waterboarding terrorism suspects a form of torture.
Schumer played a major role in shepherding recovery money through Congress after the September 11 attacks. On that fateful day in 2001, Schumer’s daughter was in school a few blocks from the World Trade Center, although she was unharmed. He immediately requested $20 billion in aid for New York, which Bush readily approved. The Bush administration then turned to Schumer to rally support for its centerpiece anti-domestic terrorism law, the USA PATRIOT Act. More generally, Schumer has secured federal grants for all manner of projects for New York, ranging from an ambulance for the volunteer fire department in St. Lawrence County to funding for tritium cleanup at the Brookhaven National Laboratory. Schumer gets along well with New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, the nominal Republican. Schumer’s wife, Iris Weinshall, was Bloomberg’s transportation commissioner and in 2004, Bloomberg endorsed Schumer for re-election.
Schumer has been a prodigious fundraiser since his early days in the House. In 2004, his money skills enabled him to raise nearly $12 million and ward off a serious challenge to his re-election. Constant traveling in upstate New York also made him as well known there as in New York City. The 2004 Republican nominee, Assembly member Howard Mills, was little known and poorly financed, and Schumer won easily, 71%-24%, exceeding the 67%-31% record set by Democrat Daniel Patrick Moynihan in 1988. Schumer won 66% of the vote in the suburbs, 63% in upstate, and 86% in the city. No Democratic incumbent has been defeated in New York since the direct election of senators began (although seven incumbent Republicans have lost).
Some speculated that Schumer would run for governor in 2006, but that issue was settled when he agreed to accept Democratic Leader Harry Reid’s appointment as chairman of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee and got a seat on the powerful Finance Committee to boot. The task ahead looked difficult. The lineup of Senate seats up in 2006 left Republicans with more target seats than Democrats. But Schumer did a brilliant job of persuading Democratic incumbents from states that Bush carried in 2004—Jeff Bingaman of New Mexico, Kent Conrad of North Dakota, Ben Nelson of Nebraska, and Bill Nelson of Florida—not to retire. Then he worked on getting strong challengers to Republican incumbents. In Pennsylvania, he aggressively recruited state Treasurer Bob Casey Jr., son of the late governor who is known for his strong opposition to abortion rights. Schumer calculated that Casey would make inroads in the culturally conservative base of incumbent Republican Rick Santorum and would be acceptable to abortion-rights voters in suburban Philadelphia. Abortion-rights groups that had worked closely with Schumer on the Judiciary Committee protested to no avail. Casey ran and won by a wide margin. Schumer made a pitch over dinner in London to Claire McCaskill to compete in Missouri, where she had shown some strength in her losing 2004 gubernatorial race. She ran and won narrowly. He tried to recruit U.S. Rep. Jim Langevin to enter in Rhode Island, and although he declined, Democrat Sheldon Whitehouse beat incumbent Lincoln Chafee, a moderate Republican, anyway. In Montana, Schumer spent money on ads against incumbent Republican Conrad Burns, reminding voters that he had received more contributions from the clients of disgraced lobbyist Jack Abramoff than any other member of Congress. Campaign committee chairmen rarely make endorsements in seriously contested primaries, but Schumer did so in Virginia, where he backed Jim Webb, a decorated Vietnam veteran who served as President Reagan’s Navy secretary, over liberal lobbyist Harris Miller. Webb won a narrow victory in the primary and went on to defeat incumbent Republican George Allen, who had been heavily favored to win the general election.
Schumer also deftly exploited issues. The award of a contract to United Arab Emirates’ Dubai Ports World to manage major U.S. ports aroused little interest at first; Schumer, however, held a press conference in New York in February 2006, after which such Republicans as Sen. Tom Coburn of Oklahoma and House Homeland Security Chairman Peter King of New York expressed reservations about the deal, and the deal was eventually halted. During the campaign, Schumer wrote a book, Positively American: Winning Back the Middle-Class Majority One Family at a Time, in which he urged Democrats to offer 50% solutions—increase math and reading scores by 50%, cut property taxes by 50%, reduce illegal immigration by 50%, and so forth. But he didn’t press his candidates to adopt these issues. He did advise them to campaign against the perceived incompetence of the Bush administration.
Schumer’s success in helping to win a Democratic majority in 2006 impelled Reid to ask him to lead the DSCC again in the 2008 election season. As an inducement, Reid created a leadership position for Schumer as vice chairman of the Democratic Caucus, although the new post did not come with a staff and detailed portfolio. Schumer effectively became the confidential adviser of the hotheaded and sometimes contradictory Reid of Nevada and of the mellifluous but sometimes malapropism-prone Majority Whip Dick Durbin of Illinois. And, once again, he played a key role in producing winning candidates at election time. When Republican Pete Domenici announced his retirement in New Mexico and second-tier Democratic candidates emerged, Schumer persuaded U.S. Rep. Tom Udall to run, and he won. Late in the election season, he and Reid persuaded Anchorage Mayor Mark Begich to take on 40-year veteran Sen. Ted Stevens after Stevens was indicted in July and convicted in October of failure to disclose receiving gifts. Stevens’s conviction was overturned in April 2009, but that was after Begich had won his seat, 48%-47%, in November. In North Carolina, Schumer and former Gov. Jim Hunt pressed state Sen. Kay Hagan to take on incumbent Elizabeth Dole and helped Hagan wage an aggressive, upstart campaign that resulted in an impressive victory. Schumer’s incapacity for embarrassment also served him well. With Wall Street as a constituency, he was among the first senators to support the $700 billion bailout for financial services firms in September 2008. The DSCC then financed ads criticizing Republicans who supported it.
All told, Democrats picked up six seats in 2006 and seven in November 2008 while losing none. A 45-seat minority became, pending the dispute in the exceedingly close 2008 Minnesota contest, a 58- or 59-seat majority. (Ultimately, Democrats won the Minnesota seat and picked up a seat in Pennsylvania when incumbent Sen. Arlen Specter switched parties in 2009, giving them a filibuster-proof 60.) In at least five of those races, Schumer arguably made the difference, urging reluctant candidates to run or tipping the balance in favor of the stronger candidate in a primary. A less proactive, less politically savvy chairman might have produced a Senate with about 53 Democrats, rather than one with close to 60—a huge difference in the political balance. Seldom has one senator made such a difference in the partisan composition of the body. And seldom if ever has the No. 3 person in a party’s leadership done as much to determine his party’s policy stands or political positioning in the Senate. As Texas Republican John Cornyn said ruefully but with admiration, “In my opinion his influence is supreme. He’s everywhere.”
Schumer’s position in New York politics is also paramount. When Hillary Rodham Clinton was elected senator in 2000, many thought that she would overshadow Schumer. The earthier Schumer seemed to get along better with Bush, while the more disciplined Clinton seemed to get along better with some Republican senators. And then there are the lifestyle differences. While Clinton held fundraisers in her $2.8 million house in Georgetown, Schumer shares a spare Capitol Hill townhouse with Durbin and Democratic U.S. Reps. Bill Delahunt of Massachusetts and George Miller of California. But Schumer supported Clinton’s 2008 presidential campaign, and her appointment as secretary of State in the Obama administration made him indisputably New York’s lead senator. Schumer provided helpful mentoring to Clinton’s replacement, Democratic U.S. Rep. Kirsten Gillibrand, who was appointed to the Senate seat by Gov. David Paterson. Schumer told reporters that Gillibrand’s conservative stands on gun control and other issues were representative of an upstate constituency and would be modified as she sought support from a more liberal statewide electorate in the 2010 election.
Schumer likely has earned several footnotes in history, but one of them is that he is one of three Americans to have cast two votes on the impeachment of the same president. The other two are Mike Crapo of Idaho and Jim Bunning of Kentucky. All three are former members of the House who were elected to the Senate in 1998. Schumer voted against impeaching Clinton in the House in December 1998 and against conviction in the Senate in February 1999.