Remaking Schumer: Will He Give Hillary His Beloved Close-Ups?

Charles Schumer ducked into his usual seat, 11A, next to the emergency exit on a small, partly empty Jet Blue plane idling on a runway at J.F.K. airport.

The aircraft was bound for Rochester, N.Y., where Mr. Schumer was scheduled to squeeze in a series of small events and meetings on the eve of Christmas weekend. Of the scores of upstate journeys he has made since his election to the U.S. Senate in 1998, it was to be his last such excursion as New York’s junior Senator–his colleague, Daniel Patrick Moynihan, would be yielding his seat to Hillary Rodham Clinton in a matter of days, making Mr. Schumer the state’s senior Senator after just two years.

If the historic significance of the early-morning flight was lost upon the handful of bleary-eyed holiday travelers and business flyers waiting for departure, it did little to dampen Mr. Schumer’s eternal enthusiasm.

“Look at how many Jet Blue planes are running,” said the man whose legislation, it just so happens, cleared the way for Jet Blue flights out of Kennedy. “That’s a good feeling.”

Mr. Schumer talked some more about his legislative accomplishments, went over the day’s schedule with a still-sleepy aide, and squeezed in a couple of calls on his cell phone before takeoff.

Only when he settled down to read through a stack of the day’s newspapers did his stream of conversation come to an abrupt halt.

“HIL’S DREAM–Aims To Be Dems’ Power Hostess in D.C.,” blared the cover of the Daily News , referring to Mrs. Clinton’s supposed ambitions.

“Oh, Jesus,” muttered Mrs. Clinton’s future colleague. He braced himself and, after a short pause, began reading.

Since Mrs. Clinton’s election, it has become conventional wisdom that the gregarious Senator from Brooklyn would wither in the shadow of his new “junior” partner. Mrs. Clinton, the pundits say, will suck up attention in the Senate and in the media as she becomes the arch-villain for resentful conservatives and a champion for worshipful liberals on national and international issues, leaving Mr. Schumer to tend to constituent complaints and potholes. Mr. Schumer was even declared one of the year’s “biggest losers” in Fred Dicker’s widely read New York Post column–the Daily Racing Form of politics–because he is “destined to be overshadowed by Mrs. Clinton.”

But Mr. Schumer isn’t showing any signs of panic–yet. And while the media’s fascination with Mrs. Clinton remains unabated, Mr. Schumer looks like nothing so much as a man biding his time. With four years to go until his next election, he has been quietly pressing ahead with his Senatorial business in the same methodical, almost pathologically unrelenting fashion that has become his trademark.

On the plane ride, Mr. Schumer, a onetime member of the state Assembly, was asked if he feared becoming known as the state’s small-issue Senator. “That misses the point,” he said, fairly wincing. “We’ll both be able to get things done in the Senate. Maybe I’ll be focused a little more on economic development and she’ll be more focused on child care, but I’m sure we’ll be able to work together.”

Of course, working together is one thing. The last thing either Mrs. Clinton or Mr. Schumer would want is an ugly, internecine feud; witness the unseemly spectacle in New Jersey, where Democrat Bob Torricelli once told fellow Democrat Frank Lautenberg that he would, amongst other things, “cut [his] balls off.” But for a politician like Mr. Schumer, who has long cultivated media attention, the prospect of Mrs. Clinton monopolizing New York’s front pages and political talk shows for the next six years must be particularly galling. Right?

“All these people say, ‘What about the attention?’” Mr. Schumer responded. “Well, I’ve never been someone who’s gotten attention based on what party I’m going to, or what clothes I wear, or what I’m doing in my personal life. So all this stuff with Hillary doesn’t really affect me.”

Historically, very little has been able to affect–at least negatively–the inexorable, well-calculated rise of Charles Schumer’s political fortunes. And, in a way, it does seem unlikely indeed that even the outsize presence of Mrs. Clinton will interfere with his success. Elected to Congress at age 29, Mr. Schumer was overshadowed by many of his more polished colleagues in the New York delegation. But he surpassed almost all of them, whether the measure is bills introduced or media appearances made. (His zeal for lawmaking was equaled by his eagerness for publicity, prompting resentful colleagues to come up with a new term for the act of racing into camera shot: “to schume.”) And those who have threatened to stand in Mr. Schumer’s way over the years–Democrat or Republican–were unceremoniously vanquished. Ask Stephen Solarz, a rival Brooklyn Congressman and erstwhile rising star who lost his seat in 1992, or Geraldine Ferraro, Mr. Schumer’s celebrated primary opponent in 1998–or, of course, Alfonse D’Amato, the shrewd and well-funded Republican Senator who almost single-handedly engineered the G.O.P.’s ascendancy in New York in the 1990′s.

Mr. Schumer outlasted or defeated them all.

King Charles

Now, more than a quarter-century after his first Assembly campaign in Park Slope, Mr. Schumer has risen to an almost kingly position in state politics. His resounding victory over Mr. D’Amato, even in traditionally Republican parts of the state, brought an end to a succession of G.O.P. victories in New York and earned him the gratitude of the Democratic rank and file. In Washington, too, Mr. Schumer is poised to become the man to see–he is an influential member of the Senate Banking and Judiciary committees, and he believes that it’s only a matter of time before he gets a coveted spot on the Finance Committee, which wields power over half the federal budget. “If I don’t get it now, I believe I’ll get it in the next few years,” he said, with no attempt at false modesty.

But it has been the meticulous consolidation of his voter base at home that is most striking, if only for its sheer intensity. Driven by a mysterious inner force that can’t be explained away as mere ambition, he has been on a whirlwind tour of the state for three years and counting. Not unlike Mr. D’Amato after his surprising 1980 victory, Mr. Schumer has never really stopped campaigning, even though he soundly defeated Mr. D’Amato’s bid for a fourth term two years ago. He has done the spade work of party-building, showing up at innumerable press conferences, campaign events and photo opportunities on behalf of state Democratic pols great and small. And if his constant presence upstate–which has more than fulfilled his campaign promise to appear there so often that the locals would get sick of seeing him–has further solidified his support in that bastion of New York Republicanism, then Charles Schumer may just as well be named Senator for life. (It is worth noting that no Democratic incumbent Senator from New York has ever been defeated at the polls.)

“We’re all amazed by how hard he works,” said West Side State Senator Eric Schneiderman, who has frequently enlisted Mr. Schumer’s aid on behalf of Democratic candidates in local races across the state. “I guess it’s a matter of his personality. He’s just that aggressive and energetic.”

So there he was, he of the never-ending campaign, on a blustery winter’s day in Rochester on yet another of his upstate jaunts. In what has become his routine, Mr. Schumer spent the day being shuttled around the city in a dirty Buick, driven and owned by the Senator’s regional representative, while his deputy chief of staff sat in the back seat dialing a cell phone, trying to reach the people on Mr. Schumer’s call list. There he was, at Rochester’s Strong Memorial Hospital for the fifth time since his Senate run, announcing federal grants he had just won for the facility. There he was at the textile workers’ union Christmas luncheon, thanking the workers for their support and raving about their cannolli. There he was, sharing a meatball sub in a near-empty union hall with two local heads of the United Auto Workers. There he was, bragging about his daughter’s basketball prowess to a local police official. (“She was drafted to play in the Catholic league because she’s so good.”) There he was, called away from a meeting with a local not-for-profit business group to accept a call from Senator John Ashcroft, who had just been nominated as the next U.S. Attorney General. (Mr. Ashcroft implored Mr. Schumer not to oppose his candidacy.)

Mr. Schumer seems, almost bizarrely, to take great pleasure in this kind of lifestyle. Whether Mrs. Clinton turns out to be similarly suited to the drudgery, the schlepping and the questionable diet remains to be seen. Her successful race against Rick Lazio proved that she shares Mr. Schumer’s capacity for marathon campaigning, and few would argue that she lacks his ambition. But if they are similar in some ways, the contrasts between these two Senators in different stages of their careers have already been glaring.

Mr. Bipartisan!

Mr. Schumer, on one hand, has been putting the finishing touches on his makeover from upward-aspiring Brooklyn Congressman to statesmanlike New York Senator. He talks incessantly these days about his harmonious relations with Washington Republicans like Phil Gramm and Olympia Snowe, and he regularly heaps praise on Mayor Rudolph Giuliani (for whom Mr. Schumer’s wife, Iris Weinshall, now works as Transportation Commissioner) and Governor George Pataki. The closest thing to a scandal involving Mr. Schumer is the charge that he’s too cordial: his attempts at bipartisanship, especially his praise for Mr. Pataki, have been damned as excessive by some Democrats. They have griped privately–there is very little public griping about Mr. Schumer, who is highly sensitive to personal criticism–that he will undermine his party’s bid to unseat Mr. Pataki next year.

Mrs. Clinton, on the other hand, has just spent two controversy-filled months as Senator-elect. In the past eight weeks, the First Lady has been attacked for her hastily declared condemnation of the Electoral College, her ethically questionable $8 million book deal and her pending purchase of a gaudy Washington mansion (to say nothing of the possible sale of her home in Chappaqua, N.Y.). Is this the sort of media attention Mr. Schumer is supposed to miss?

At last month’s Democratic State Committee holiday party, held in a ballroom at the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel, Charles Schumer was to be the guest of honor. Mrs. Clinton, who was abroad at the time, addressed the semi-attentive crowd of revelers via a taped statement played on a video screen. She looked elegant and refreshed, her late-campaign fatigue long vanished. Mr. Schumer, on the other hand, had rolled out of bed, stricken with the flu, to make a personal appearance. By the time he took the podium in front of a crowd of party functionaries and small-time office holders, he was pale and sweating, his hair was standing up slightly, and a powerful white spotlight overhead darkened his eyes, giving him an almost demonic appearance as he sniffled his way through his speech. But he got through it–a pragmatic, if less-than-soaring address predicting further Democratic gains across the state and the country.

As he was winding to a close, one of the hacks in the back of the room turned to a colleague. “That’s our Senator,” he said, empty wine glass in hand. “Chuck’s our guy.”