A Million-Dollar Senator: Schumer Gets Into Big Ring

New York’s senior Senator, Charles Schumer, recently had a nightmare-well, not exactly a nightmare, since the 54-year-old Senator insists he doesn’t have nightmares, but call it an anxiety dream. It was about a young boxer who had suffered a bruising beating and was hooked up to a respirator, fighting for her life.

“[My wife] Iris and I saw that great movie with Hilary Swank, with the boxer,” said Mr. Schumer, referring to the Oscar-nominated sob-saga, Million Dollar Baby, about a spunky young waitress who becomes a champion boxer, only to suffer a brutal spinal-cord injury that paralyzes her from neck to toe. “I loved it. I had a dream about it …. I was thinking of her on that respirator.”

Mr. Schumer, who speaks with animated gestures and a deep brass horn of a voice, probably wasn’t the only fan who went home after Million Dollar Baby to haunting dreams of the lovely Ms. Swank hooked up to a respirator. (Our apologies for blowing the ending to anyone who hasn’t seen the movie yet, but by now there’s no excuse.) At the same time, it doesn’t take a Freudian to connect the psychological dots between the movie and Mr. Schumer’s own situation as one of the leaders of the beleaguered Democratic Party. After all, aren’t the Senate Democrats struggling for life-much like Ms. Swank’s character-after losing six seats in the bruising 2004 elections? And isn’t it part of Mr. Schumer’s job, as the new head of the Democratic Senate Campaign Committee, to make sure that the plug isn’t pulled once and for all during the next round of elections in 2006? No wonder he’s dreaming of respirators.

“Just think of the consequences: If we lose three [Senate] seats come ’06, much of the America we know will be blown away!” Mr. Schumer told The Observer during a recent hour-long conversation about his new position as head of the Senate Democrats’ campaign operation.

Mr. Schumer became head of the Democratic Senate Campaign Committee in mid-November, shortly after his own landslide re-election to the Senate. He was appointed by the new Senate Minority Leader, Harry Reid, who also happens to be a good friend (“He comes off as this nice Mr. Rogers guy in a sweater-but guess what he did in high school and college?” asked Mr. Schumer. “Boxer.”) The new job effectively makes him guardian of the Senate Democrats’ 2006 election strategy, a hefty responsibility that includes recruiting candidates as well as nonstop fund-raising. It’s demanding and it’s often thankless, but it also has the advantage of being exceedingly powerful. Indeed, combined with Mr. Schumer’s two recent appointments to the Senate Finance Committee and the Senate leadership, it has made him one of the most influential Democratic Senators-and it helped convince him not to run for Governor of New York in 2006.

“Governor’s a great job: You get an airplane, you get a helicopter, you get four bodyguards,” Mr. Schumer told The Observer about his new Senate assignment. “But at the end of the day, who has left legacies? Javits and Moynihan.”

“Javits and Moynihan,” of course, are Jacob K. Javits and Daniel Patrick Moynihan, two New York Senators who collectively spent nearly 50 years legislating their way to legacies in both foreign and domestic policy. Mr. Schumer is just beginning his seventh year in the Senate, but he seems to be looking ahead to building his legacy by helping the Democrats to hold-or even expand-their ground in the Senate.

“I think the No. 1 focus for where America is going will be on the Senate in 2006,” said Mr. Schumer, launching into an explanation of the doom-and-gloom scenario by which the Democrats would lose their ability to bring their own amendments and filibuster the Republicans’ bills out of existence. “The magic number [of seats] in the Senate is not 51, but 41. So if we lose three seats, we can lose a heck of a lot on the courts, and not just the courts- everything!”

Mr. Schumer punctuated this last statement with a little punch of his fist. It was a few minutes past noon, and the Brooklyn-born Senator was sitting in a Brooklyn Heights diner, munching dry rye toast (“butter on the side, please”) and sipping a room-temperature concoction of water and grapefruit juice (“otherwise it’s too acidic”). He was dressed in a rumpled gray suit and red tie dotted with playful hieroglyphs, and from time to time his hand would shoot up to wave to a customer. It didn’t matter that one couple didn’t seem to recognize him and looked quizzically back at his raised hand: The Senator just kept smiling. After 30 years in government, Mr. Schumer’s political drive has been so finely honed that he has learned to overlook any kind of social awkwardness.

This kind of political drive has made Mr. Schumer ripe for razzing from time to time. His weekly Sunday press conferences, his eager glad-handing, his relentless political appetite have become the stuff of New York folklore, endearing him to his supporters and providing ready fodder to his critics. But as the Democrats prepare for the 2006 elections, the Senator’s mix of old-school politicking and shrewd strategy-to say nothing of his fund-raising savvy-might be just what they need right now.

“Chuck [Schumer] is very aggressive, and that’s what’s going to make him a great chairman, particularly when it comes to raising money,” said one professional Democratic fund-raiser. “[He's] the type of guy who, if you commit to raising $50,000 and he has $49,000 in hand, he’ll call you and ask for the last $1,000. He’s not going to leave one dollar on the table.”

Even those on the other side of the aisle recognize his political skills. “There’s certainly some fight in that dog, and the Democrats as a party need that right now,” said Republican strategist Rick Wilson. But, he cautioned, “Schumer’s going to have a tough time going up against the Death Star that is the White House money machine.”

For his own part, Mr. Schumer seems to be relishing his new post-even (or perhaps especially) the prospect of a Star Wars –style match-up against the Republicans. “It’s exciting to me,” he said. “I mean, I wake up Monday morning and I’m raring to go.”

Indeed, Mr. Schumer has been ubiquitous lately, grabbing headlines for helping lead the Democrats’ Social Security charge. (“Mend it, don’t end it!” he told a crowd of seniors at a recent press conference.) But he’s also been hop-scotching the country for the DSCC, setting in motion a five-point plan of action that he described, for The Observer’s benefit, with the precision of a military strategist: First, retire DSCC debt (“but don’t get rid of it eating your seed corn”); second, avoid retirements among the 18 Democrats who are up for re-election (even if that means begging Senators’ wives to plead with their husbands not to retire-something Mr. Schumer has already done); third, bolster incumbents, especially the weaker ones (this might be called the pre-emptive option, since it involves pumping up incumbents with enough early cash to scare opponents from the race); fourth, find the strongest candidate (and by all means, avoid bloody primaries); and finally, come up with a unified Democratic message (“very hard”).

“It is both sword and shield,” said Mr. Schumer, by way of describing the animating principle behind his political strategy. “‘Sword’ on the issues where we’re strong, ‘shield’ to fend them off and answer them on the issues where they’re strong. We need both.”

Thus far, this strategy has helped Mr. Schumer achieve some of these goals. He has retired the DSCC’s $3.6 million debt; he has convinced all but one potential retiree not to leave the Hill and head for Boca; and he has also begun aggressively fund-raising for the five or so vulnerable Democratic incumbents, turning the secrets of his fund-raising operation (from strategy to contacts) over to Senators like Washington’s Maria Cantwell and North Dakota’s Kent Conrad.

Despite all these small victories, however, one point has proven potentially nettlesome: candidate recruitment. In the past few weeks, Mr. Schumer has set off Democratic alarm bells by courting two anti-abortion candidates to run against Republican incumbents: Rhode Island Representative Jim Langevin to run against Senator Lincoln Chafee and Pennsylvania’s Bob Casey Jr., son of the staunchly anti-abortion former Pennsylvania governor, to challenge the conservative movement’s favorite poster boy, Senator Rick Santorum. The deals are far from done, but they have sparked grumbling from some pro-choice constituents who have been jumpy ever since New York’s junior Senator, Hillary Clinton, set the stage for this debate with her recent (and widely publicized) remarks about finding “common ground” between abortion foes and supporters.

“As a lifetime advocate for women’s choice, I have to say that it concerns me and the women’s-rights community that one of our leaders would be recruiting from the anti-choice community,” said Kate Michelman, a Democratic strategist who served for 20 years as the president of NARAL Pro-Choice America. She added that while she understands the importance of “returning the Senate to Democratic leadership,” she finds it difficult to see the party do that at the “expense of women’s rights.”

Mr. Schumer-who has long been viewed as one of the Senate’s most consistent pro-choice warriors-backed up his overtures to Mr. Casey and others with the Vince Lombardi defense. “The most important thing is to win,” he said. “Who’s the strongest candidate, and how do we get everyone behind him? We’re not reaching out to candidates because they’re pro-life; we’re exploring in the key states who would be the strongest candidate.”

Whether this strategy is successful, of course, will become clear on the first Tuesday in November 2006, when Mr. Schumer’s candidates go head to head against their Republican counterparts at the polls. For Mr.Schumer, that day will be the true test-the real boxing match. Does this make Mr. Schumer nervous? “Nah,” he said with a dismissive shrug.

Still, he had better hope this story ends like Rocky.