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Sen. Chuck Schumer is positioned to be the Senate majority leader

By Jason Horowitz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, May 21, 2010; C01

On Mother's Day, Chuck Schumer delivered two commencement speeches upstate, flew back to Brooklyn to eat dinner with his wife, mother and daughters, and at 7:38 p.m. toted a briefcase into his midtown office for the political ritual known as the Sunday press conference. Picking his way through a line of television cameramen, he joked: "It's like football. No holes. Can't get through," then settled into his habitual spot between a lectern and a ratty blue curtain.

"The Times Square car bomb should be a wake-up call for the administration," Schumer said into a bouquet of microphones, demanding that President Obama increase New York's share of anti-terrorism funding. "I'm going to pursue that legislatively."

During his three-decade legislative career, Schumer, 59, has developed a reputation as a razor-elbowed, shamelessly self-serving, media-addicted political monster. He is also arguably the single most effective lawmaker of his generation.

Now, with confidant Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (Nev.) hanging on to his seat by a thread, the Brooklynite is nearing the goal line of his long game. Succeeding Reid would make Schumer the highest-ranking Jewish elected official in American history and, more important for the uber-competitive politician, the first among peers. The senator has thrust himself into the center of issues including jobs, immigration and Supreme Court hearings, but as that momentum has carried him into a more intimate arena where popularity matters, the grating architect of the current Democratic majority has become noticeably more collegial. Perhaps not coincidentally, his colleagues see him as the front-runner to be their leader.

"It's very much within the realm of possibility," said Chris Dodd of Connecticut, who lost a race for minority leader to South Dakota's Tom Daschle by a vote in 1994. "He's always moving and always talking to people and he has a very good feel for what other people have to put up with. And that's a critical point of that job, understanding the environment your colleague has to operate in."

Schumer declined to be interviewed for this article and betrays an uncharacteristic loss for words whenever the term "majority leader" is uttered. Reid is, after all, still in control, and his closest competitor is Dick Durbin of Illinois, the liberal majority whip with whom Schumer has shared a Washington townhouse for years. Each can boast a strength: Durbin has the pleasant demeanor of a consensus-builder; Schumer is the die-hard fighter who has never lost an election. The prospect of a Chicago vs. New York majority leader race with echoes of Obama vs. Clinton is tantalizing, but also distracting.

Sen. Mark Begich (D-Alaska) said that the prospective race loomed over Schumer's and Durbin's floor chats with colleagues and that when Schumer recently approached him about working together on technology or travel legislation, he took the New Yorker's motives at face value. But he's not naive: "Now maybe he wants me onboard for other reasons."

The White House is trying to appear neutral, with mixed results.

"The president has a record of working well with both," White House press secretary Robert Gibbs said. "Obviously he has a longer, more personal relationship with Senator Durbin as a result of being home-state colleagues and for his help getting him elected in 2004 and 2008."

There is a sense within the White House that Durbin would be easier to work with, that Schumer would pose a problem on issues that could get him press back home, and that his Brooklyn bearing doesn't exactly play between the coasts. Still, one senior administration official offered a separate assessment that the members of the Senate would opt for the independence ensured by having Schumer at the helm.

"Chuck Schumer is the next majority leader," the senior administration official predicted. "He just works it."

Crossing the aisle

The passage of March's jobs bill revealed how Schumer operates. Reid, who was preoccupied with the health-care debate, delegated the jobs legislation to North Dakota's Byron Dorgan and Durbin. Durbin proposed his $80 billion package. A month later, after Scott Brown (R-Mass.) had replaced Ted Kennedy, Schumer persuaded Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) to sign on to a more modest measure.

"He's willing to cross over the aisle," Hatch said. "Many of the others won't."

With Reid's blessing, according to one source with knowledge of the negotiations, Max Baucus (D-Mont.), the powerful Finance Committee chairman, took that measure and worked to attract more moderates from both parties with a package that cost far less than Durbin's and included more unemployment insurance, plus an extension of corporate tax cuts. According to several other sources involved in the negotiations, Schumer smoked out opposition to the Baucus idea. On Wednesday, Feb. 10, as a furious blizzard paralyzed Washington and prevented staffers and senators from going to work, Schumer reached Reid on his cellphone and made his case.

The next morning, Baucus announced his version of the bill. The White House heralded it with a public endorsement. But Schumer had gotten to Reid, who shocked all of official Washington by ditching the Baucus bill for "a smaller package that has been talked about in the press."

That smaller package was Schumer's.

A sense of purpose

The eldest son of Selma, a homemaker, and Abe, an exterminator, Charles Ellis Schumer was always an overwhelming force. According to Carol Kellermann, one of Schumer's few personal friends and a former aide, everything needed to be for a purpose: "I don't think he thinks there is much of a point to being self-reflective."

Many of Schumer's childhood accomplishments are now lore in his orbit. He correctly identified titanium dioxide as the pigment in white paint on a TV quiz show. He worked for Stanley Kaplan, the testing guru, and aced his SATs.

"A strong education was enormously important," said Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) who, like Schumer, former Minnesota senator Norm Coleman and Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg, graduated from James Madison High School in Brooklyn.

Schumer has said the sound through the floorboards of his father pacing on Sunday nights, when he dreaded the coming workweek, convinced the son to do something he would love. At Harvard, he developed a passion for politics and abandoned his intention to major in chemistry. He stayed in Cambridge to earn his law degree, then jumped right into a race for a seat in the New York State Assembly. At 23, he became the youngest member of the legislature since Teddy Roosevelt.

Lanky with bushy sideburns, Schumer joined the assembly's basketball team, where he played guard alongside Sheldon Silver, now the powerful speaker of the assembly.

"We both come from a non-jumping background," Silver said.

Schumer made more of an impact on the chamber floor, and on Fridays accompanied another rising star, Jerrold Nadler, now a veteran congressman, for the long drive back to the city from Albany. Once an older colleague joined them and complained about his tough primary.

"We dropped him off and Chuck said to me, 'I don't understand why he's having such a hard time,' " Nadler recalled. "I said, 'Chuck, holding a district is easy for you.' He didn't understand that things don't come as easy to other people as they did for him. He understands that now."

Schumer's political power in Washington has always rested on the local pillars of voracious fundraising and manic courtship of the media, a cornerstone of which is the Sunday news conference. The idea is that exposure demonstrates hard work to voters and shows colleagues that collaboration will be rewarded with coverage in the New York-based national media.

"It may seem he has a pathological need for attention," said one of more than a dozen former aides interviewed for this article. "But there is a method to the madness. He thinks it's key to his survival."

In 1980, at age 29, Schumer ran for Congress out of a vacant fruit store and decimated the competition. He quickly learned the ways of the House.

"He's a half-a-loaf guy," said Anthony Weiner, a former aide who now represents Schumer's old congressional district. "He understands that's the art of legislating."

David Yassky, a former aide who is now New York's taxi and limousine commissioner, recalled how in 1992 Schumer navigated the House's committees and applied media pressure to outfox powerful Rep. John Dingell (D-Mich.) and pass a measure requiring identification numbers on automobile parts. Those serial numbers also provided the clue to detectives investigating the attempted Times Square bombing.

In the majority, Schumer accrued clout. But when the House went Republican, the Hill climber in Schumer didn't want to get mired in the minority. So in 1998, he zeroed in on the Senate seat of Republican Alfonse D'Amato, who was himself dubbed "Senator Pothole" for his emphasis on constituent services. At Schumer's maiden D.C. fundraiser for his run, only six people attended.

"It was a giant empty room and I was like, 'Jeez Louise,' " said Erick Mullen, who served as Schumer's national finance director in 1998. "At the end of it, Chuck grabbed a half-sandwich and said, 'Don't be upset. This is going to be a long road.' "

The campaign introduced a new Schumer breed of operative -- press-savvy political wunderkinds like Josh Isay and Howard Wolfson -- who have since guided local, state and national candidates into office. From Schumer they all learned a common goal: to annihilate the competition.

"I underestimated the fact that he is not just another Democrat or Republican in office," D'Amato said. "The Republicans are very fortunate that the administration does not listen to Schumer more, because he is smarter than that whole group in his little pinkie."

Schumer's campaign field organizer, Jay Carson, who went on to work as an aide to the Clintons and is now chief deputy mayor of Los Angeles, recalled filling in as Schumer's driver one weekend and being coached by the campaign's brass to drive aggressively. Schumer kept saying, "Late! Late! Late!" and Carson blew a red light to make up lost time.

"Yeah, I like that," Carson fondly remembered Schumer growling.

His own man

Schumer often tells staffers that he is a senatorial mix of the brainy Daniel Patrick Moynihan and the hands-on D'Amato. But he is as much his own creation. As he toned down his signature advocacy for gun control, which had become politically poisonous, he chimed in on less-partisan issues. He also glommed onto colleagues' legislation or news conferences, a tacky scheme so common it became a verb, as when a colleague "got Schumered."

What he lacked in decorum, he made up for in persistence.

Schumer always carried a narrow white card in his jacket's breast pocket: On one side was a call list covered with dozens of names and on the other, colleagues he needed to nab.

"He'd buttonhole the senators," recalled one former staffer, who added that Schumer, upon making an agreement, would rush to the cloakroom, relay the news to his staff and instruct them to coordinate a news release with his counterpart's aides, "before they could unwind it," inking any deal at the moment of agreement.

In 2001, Schumer's shine dimmed under Hillary Rodham Clinton, his new Senate colleague from New York, whose every utterance became a headline. His aggression caused eye-rolling in Hillaryland. And Schumer, according to one former staffer, considered Clinton opaque.

Despite his frustration, Schumer kept doing his own thing. As a junior member on the Judiciary Committee, he took the unusual step of lobbying Justice Department staffers to get someone on their payroll to work for him. In May 2001, when a Republican defected and handed Democrats momentary control of the Senate, Schumer penned a judicial manifesto arguing that the Senate should consider ideology in assessing nominees if the president had also factored in ideology. In 2004, Schumer, back in campaign mode, flew around the state in a single-engine plane and captured 71 percent of the vote. According to a well-known crack among veteran staffers, his only loss, in sparsely populated Hamilton County, was a result of everyone there having met him.

Throughout the race, Schumer flirted with the notion of running for governor. With reelection secured, he met with Reid, who wanted Schumer to head up the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee. According to former staffers, Schumer used the threat of leaving to angle for something more.

"It was brilliant," one of them recalled. "He never even wanted to be governor."

In exchange for staying on as chairman of the DSCC for the '08 cycle, Schumer received a previously nonexistent position in the leadership, under Reid and Durbin. As an unequivocal big shot, he started imparting the "Schumer method" to top candidates, which boiled down to: create a blizzard of press, answer every attack within 24 hours, take strategic orders from Schumer and raise a whole lot of money.

Schumer has now adopted a nationally palatable opposition to Wall Street, but in the years before the economic collapse, he padded his coffers -- now an astonishing $21.8 million -- with donations from the financial industry.

According to one attendee at a fundraiser for the DSCC during the 2006 cycle, Schumer and Goldman Sachs CEO Lloyd Blankfein, another Brooklyn son who found success, entertained guests by performing nostalgic duets of furniture store jingles. "Chuck is the only political person I know who enjoys that part of the job," said Silver.

His Republican rivals have taken notice of his modus operandi.

"I talked to him about it from time to time," said John Cornyn, the GOP leader in charge of doing what Schumer did for his own party. The Texas Republican is, incidentally, trying to remove Reid. "He's a machine. I think he appreciated that I took grudging admiration in his accomplishment and have tried to emulate him."

As Schumer worked to preserve the majority, the national focus turned to the presidential race.

One staffer recalled having once tested Schumer about his interest in joining a national ticket. Schumer replied he had no shot of being picked as a vice president. "I'd have a better chance of being president," the staffer recalled Schumer saying. "I would pay attention to Iowa, and I could figure it out."

Clinton was his stated candidate for the 2008 presidential race. But her staff, populated as it was with Schumer alumni (Clinton once called his office "boot camp"), quickly registered a problem.

"He was AWOL," said one senior official on the Clinton campaign. "We had a lot of surrogates who stuck their necks out for Hillary. And he wasn't one of them."

One Obama campaign staffer found Schumer's conversations with Clinton's rival "surprisingly encouraging."

Toward the end of the race, with Clinton fading, Schumer caused a shudder in the Clinton campaign every time he went on television. The fear, one former Clinton official said, was that Schumer, described as "totally self-absorbed," would offer himself as a party healer and call for an end to the primary.

The Obama administration, though, has often frustrated Schumer. Like his political doppelganger, Rahm Emanuel, who once harbored aims to be the first Jewish House speaker, Schumer favored a more incremental approach toward legislative priorities. The New York pragmatist preferred that Obama first tackle unemployment, energy, financial reform, education and withdrawal from Iraq before any mammoth health-care overhaul.

Reporters at a news conference last week wanted to know why Schumer had become such a harsh critic of the administration, charging as he had that the Obama officials "just don't get it" when it comes to protecting New York from terrorists. "I believe my job is to make my voice known," he said.

Clinton's departure from the Senate to become Obama's secretary of state has finally made him the unchallenged leader of New York Democrats, but it has also forced Schumer into the uncomfortable position of party boss. He backed Caroline Kennedy to replace Clinton as the state's junior senator, participating in her tutorials, according to one source with knowledge of the sessions. When her prospective candidacy flamed out, Schumer then championed Kirsten Gillibrand, whose fundraising prowess he admired, and whose malleability offered him two votes in the Senate. When more senior Democrats threatened her chances, Schumer swatted them away and pushed the White House to protect her.

The underwhelming Gillibrand is not exactly a campaign talking point for Schumer's potential majority-leader candidacy, several Senate staffers said. But in the bigger picture of protecting the Democratic majority, Schumer has worked to ensure that both New York seats stay safe. Durbin, his potential opponent, faces the embarrassing prospect of watching Obama's Senate seat fall into Republican hands.

'Wine and cheese!'

On a recent afternoon, Schumer huddled on the Senate floor with Durbin and Reid. The Illinois whip brushed something off Reid's right lapel. Schumer leaned in and nodded and then broke off to distribute a stack of fliers for a bipartisan senators-only gathering he had organized with colleague Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.).

"Wine and cheese!" Schumer enthused, as he handed out the cards.

Back in his messy office on Mother's Day, Schumer was quick to share credit when asked if his newly imposing stature in the Senate helped him advocate for more funding for New York.

"I have worked closely with my colleagues," he said, "and on this area they have been very, very sympathetic to New York."

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