The cameramen gathered outside the P.C. Richard & Son appliance store on 14th Street were already griping. It was Memorial Day, and they were waiting for Senator Charles Schumer, who was disturbing their beach-and-barbecue day to talk about air conditioners.
Once Mr. Schumer arrived, he set about decrying President George W. Bush’s efforts to roll back air-conditioning efficiency standards. This picture of the earnest, fist-pumping Chuck Schumer–clad in a stars-and-stripes tie and spending his holiday weekend in front of a bunch of cameras, surrounded by visual props (in this case, boxes of air conditioners on the sidewalk) and denouncing the latest Republican outrage in the hopes that someone was paying attention–seemed drearily familiar.
But this time, things were different. “Today, I’m calling for the President to back off from his proposal,” said Mr. Schumer, pausing as a bus roared by. “If he won’t”–at this point the Senator broke into a broad smile–“as a member of the Energy Committee, now in the majority, I’m going to call for hearings.”
Enemies of efficient air-conditioners, beware. Mr. Schumer can call hearings now.
For the last seven years, with the Republicans in charge of Congress, Mr. Schumer seemed to be battling history itself to keep his career moving forward, attracting attention for his agenda in the House through sheer force of will and shameless self-promotion, and in the Senate by transforming himself into a cross-party deal-maker bearing little resemblance to the partisan firebrand of his earlier days.
Now, with the defection of Vermont Senator James Jeffords from the G.O.P., the Democrats are the majority in the Senate, and Mr. Schumer’s life has been completely changed. He will have more real power than he has ever had. He has displaced Governor George Pataki as the kingmaker on the Bush administration’s appointments to New York judgeships and U.S. Attorney posts. His seats on the Judiciary, Energy and Banking committees make him the man to see for local politicians and Congressmen, many of whom have felt shut out of President Bush’s Washington. (Mr. Schumer said that a number of Congressmen, including three upstate Republicans, have called him since the Jeffords switch to ask for his help on various matters.) And if his media exposure in the past few days has been any indication–he’s been everywhere, crowing about the power the Democrats now have over the appointment of federal judges–the American public will be seeing a lot more of Mr. Schumer.
The prospect of all Chuck Schumer, all the time is less than thrilling for some New York politicos. “For the last 300 Sundays in a row, Chuck Schumer found some reason to stand on a pedestal at some press event,” said Jerry Kassar, the chairman of Brooklyn’s Conservative Party. “Maybe this will give him the opportunity to do two or three at a time.”
For many of the state’s representatives in Washington, however, a newly empowered Mr. Schumer is nothing but good news. After all, the state has not had a particularly powerful advocate in the Senate majority since Alfonse D’Amato was tossed out of his seat in 1998 (by Mr. Schumer), with the prospect of a further freeze-out during the Presidency of Mr. Bush. “This is great for Chuck, which means it’s great for all our constituencies in New York,” said Queens Democratic Representative Gary Ackerman. “He’s going to head a [subcommittee], and it’s a lot easier to wheel and deal when things have to go through your committee. We need his help on a lot of things, so I would say this puts us in a much better position.”
Much of Mr. Schumer’s newfound influence will come from his position on the Judiciary Committee, where he will head the subcommittee on courts, effectively giving him veto power over Mr. Bush’s judicial appointments. Since Mr. Bush took office in January, Republican Governor George Pataki and Mr. Schumer, the state’s senior U.S. Senator, have sparred over who would have the final say in advising the President on appointments in New York. That battle is over now that Mr. Schumer is part of the Senate majority. “There was a perception that because New York was such a Democratic state, Governor Pataki would be the one guy who could talk to the White House,” said Mr. Kassar. “That’s changed now–the Governor’s ability to deal with the Bush administration and to push candidates for nominations has definitely been hurt.”
On a national level, Mr. Schumer’s ability to act as guardian of the nation’s judicial benches will afford him an invaluable pulpit, especially because the committee’s chair, Vermont Democrat Patrick Leahy, seems content to let Mr. Schumer assume the role of attack dog while he takes on the traditionally conciliatory role of committee leader. This means that Mr. Schumer will be perfectly positioned to play a starring role in the first great, divisive battle of the Bush era–when the President chooses his first Supreme Court nominee.
“The single biggest thing that scares Democratic base voters to death is Bush’s ability to pack the courts, and Chuck just happens to be at ground zero in that fight,” said Representative Anthony Weiner, a Brooklyn Democrat and close ally of Mr. Schumer. “I think that when the Supreme Court nomination comes, Chuck is going to be such a prominent opponent that he’s going to be talked about in Presidential terms. That’s how much influence he’s going to have over the whole thing.”
Politically speaking, Mr. Schumer is also benefiting from something of a power vacuum. His junior colleague from New York, Hillary Clinton, is supposed to be hogging all the attention of the local and national media. The reality is that Mrs. Clinton’s needs and priorities are a world apart from Mr. Schumer’s, at least at the moment. With a constant media contingent devoted almost exclusively to chronicling every last detail of her life in Washington, Mrs. Clinton has come to resemble one of the small plastic animals in a game of Whack-a-Mole. Under such circumstances, it is unlikely that she would adopt a higher public profile amidst the partisan, process-driven, inside-the-Beltway commotion surrounding the Jeffords defection. Mr. Schumer has had no such reservations.
For her part, Mrs. Clinton will probably benefit from the shift in the Senate by pressing legislation–like her teacher-recruitment bill, or one of her packages of economic incentives for upstate New York –without getting laughed at by the Senate leadership. “For Hillary, having the machinery of the Senate under Democratic control just means that she can translate some her broad, programmatic issues to real legislation,” said Jeff Plaut, a Democratic political consultant. “I’m also sure that she likes coming to work a whole lot better when the boss is Tom Daschle and not Trent Lott.”
For Mr. Schumer, his fate is inexorably tied to the Jeffords defection. Pro-life columnist Nat Hentoff has already condemned the pro-choice Mr. Schumer as a practitioner of “bully-boy politics” because of his threats to wield influence over the judicial selection process. And a spokeswoman for the National Abortion Rights Action League has crowned him their champion for the very same reason. Mr. Schumer’s increased prominence can be expected to trigger similar responses from a host of pundits and advocacy groups in the months to come.
Even ordinary, non-politically-obsessed New Yorkers seem to have taken an interest in Mr. Schumer’s new standing. After he finished his spiel on efficient air-conditioning, a number of passers-by on 14th Street congratulated the Senator on the turn of events. “It’s great. Keep going,” said one, grabbing Mr. Schumer by the shoulder.
“Schumer for President!” said another.
Mr. Schumer stayed around to soak it all in, shaking more hands and posing for pictures.
“I was looking the other way,” he said to one picture-taker. “Take another one.”
When the television cameramen packed up and left, Mr. Schumer strolled across the street toward his car. He stopped to talk to one more reporter. “One of the reasons I ran for Senate was that I was tired of going to the floor every day in the House and beating up on Republicans,” he said. “I wanted to get things done.” He paused as another bus rolled by. “If people think now that this is going to make the whole country the way it was under Bill Clinton, it won’t. But it’s a dramatic change.”