Battle of the Mean Machines: Can Schumer Beat D'Amato at His Own Game?
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, October 5, 1998; Page D01
NEW YORK—Senator Pothole has a problem.
For the first time, the junior senator from New York, Alfonse M. D'Amato, has a challenger who plays politics as he does: tireless to the point of mania, armed with great wads of money and unashamedly eager to poke a stick in his enemy's eye.
The problem's name is Charles E. Schumer. He is the son of a Brooklyn exterminator, the smartest kid in his Flatbush high school, a graduate of Harvard and Harvard Law, a state assemblyman at age 23 and a congressman from Brooklyn since he was 29.
Now 47 and having never lost an election, Schumer is a center-left Democrat who disagrees with Republican D'Amato on virtually everything. Yet when it comes to the tactics that win elections, Schumer and D'Amato drink from the same assassin's cup.
Like D'Amato, Schumer is an infamous publicity hound. Bob Dole once said the shortest distance in Washington is the gap between Chuck Schumer and a TV camera. Democratic members of the New York House delegation, having watched the Brooklyn congressman hog press attention for 18 years, cheered among themselves when Schumer declared he was running for the Senate.
Like D'Amato, Schumer specializes in going where the money is Wall Street and relentlessly importuning financiers until they open their wallets. With D'Amato's $22 million and Schumer's $12.5 million, much of it raised from the same big brokerage firms, they are on course to make the New York Senate race the most expensive in the nation.
Both politicians sing for their supper. D'Amato and Schumer serve, respectively, on banking committees in the Senate and House, and in 1995 they ignored protests from consumer groups and objections from the White House to vote for securities litigation reform that limits the rights of small investors to sue brokerage firms.
Finally, Schumer is like D'Amato in that he seems hellbent on spending his millions on TV ads that portray his opponent as a mendacious worm.
After his surprisingly easy primary victory over the much better known Geraldine Ferraro, the first TV spots that Schumer put on the air said: "Al D'Amato too many lies for too long."
Schumer makes no apologies for going negative and for going there in a New York minute. That's what it takes, he says, when you are dealing with the likes of Senator Pothole.
He has a point. The day after Schumer won the primary, D'Amato began to carpet-bomb Upstate New York with TV ads. The ads took a joke that Schumer tossed off last year about the West beginning across the Hudson River and spun it into a claim that Schumer is a big-spending "Brooklyn liberal" who looks down his nose at all Upstate voters.
At the same time, D'Amato had the chutzpah to claim that he's hurt and offended by Schumer's "personal" attacks.
The campaign, says Schumer, is going exactly as he knew it would.
Although the Schumer-D'Amato contest began just two weeks ago, it is already, in the words of New York State Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, "oozing . . . a smut-like quality." The Manhattan Democrat was referring, of course, not to Schumer's campaign, but to what he called D'Amato's and the state GOP's "slimy attack ads," which portray Democrats from New York City morphing into sharks as they swim upstate to devour the money of taxpayers. Silver said the ads were disgusting, misleading and perhaps antisemitic.
This last charge is both explosive and divisive in a state with 1.6 million Jewish residents, 90 percent of whom live in the New York City area. Schumer is Jewish, but D'Amato has worked doggedly in the past year to shore up support among Jewish voters. He has taken the lead in pressuring Swiss banks to pay $1.25 billion to Holocaust victims and their heirs.
The slime is likely to get deeper and more slippery. Three post-primary polls have shown the race between Schumer and D'Amato to be a dead heat. Political analysts agree that D'Amato, a chronically embattled Republican in this state where registered Democrats outnumber Republicans by 1.8 million, is in for the fight of his life.
"Schumer is the best challenger D'Amato has ever had," says Jennifer E. Duffy, who monitors Senate races across the country for the Cook Political Report. "D'Amato is accustomed to playing on an uneven financial field that always favors him. He has never faced an opponent with the ability to raise money. He will outspend Schumer, but Schumer will probably have enough to compete. What D'Amato wanted to do was take two weeks and put Schumer away. But D'Amato has gotten quite a surprise."
Charles Ellis Schumer grew up the oldest of three children in a middle-class Brooklyn house where, as his sister Fran recalls, "we always associated the smell of triple-X roach spray with love."
Abe and Selma Schumer sent their children to college with earnings from Century Exterminating, a family company that Abe ran for 32 years and for which he worked 13-hour days, six days a week, often waking up Sunday nights in a cold sweat, worrying about customers who didn't pay bills.
Abe Schumer wanted better for the kids, all of whom hated the bug spray business. "I always vowed that wouldn't happen to me. I wanted a job that would provide fulfillment," recalls Abe's oldest, who was known as Chuckie.
After getting an unexpectedly big doctor's bill when Chuckie was 12, Abe and Selma began urging him to become a doctor. He certainly had the brains and the discipline for it. In many ways, Chuckie was an older person's idea of a younger person.
He was valedictorian at Madison High School in Brooklyn, with 1600 SAT scores. His parents and sister recall that he was never nervous about exams at school. In fact, they say he enjoyed tests. He was devoted to public-affairs programming on television, loved thick biographies of worthy statesman and edited the high school paper. Whatever rebellion he felt, he expressed by playing pick-up basketball.
Chuck went to Harvard and excelled. He loved science, but did not want to become a doctor. He briefly considered a career in organic chemistry. He gave that up, though, after staying up once all night to complete a 60-step chemistry experiment.
"I sort of had this epiphany," Schumer recalls. "I thought no organic chemistry for you. There was no one there in the lab that night to be a part of it, to share it with, to be working with."
He shifted to politics, worked two summers as an intern on Capitol Hill in the late 1960s and wrote his senior thesis on how to build a more effective Congress. Schumer remembers that what alarmed him about members of Congress "was that not many of them worked all that hard."
Work has always been Schumer's ace in the hole. Wall Street money people have joked that they give campaign contributions to Schumer simply to stop him from hounding them. Members of Congress have said they have supported Schumer's pet bills, in part, because he would not stop pestering them.
"I'm an energetic guy. Any job I did I would be a hard worker. I was a ring salesman at Harvard to help pay for college and I sold a huge number of rings. You know what I mean? My parents always taught me the virtues of hard work. My dad is an extremely hard worker," Schumer said.
Despite 18 years in Congress, Schumer still lives in Brooklyn. (During the week he shares an apartment in Washington with three other congressmen.) Every Friday he commutes home to be with his wife, Iris Weinshall, an administrator who works for New York City, and their two daughters, Jessica and Alison. Both of the girls, as Schumer points out in nearly every campaign speech, attend public schools in the city.
Schumer also remains close to his parents. After decades of telling him he could always go to medical school, they say they've accepted him as a politician. When he took his seat in Congress in 1980, both Abe and Selma went with him to his office on Capitol Hill. Abe remembers he saw a cockroach.
His parents have eagerly played a role in the campaign, trying to help Schumer blunt D'Amato's claims that he is a feckless Brooklyn liberal. They showed up last week in the central New York city of Utica to stand with their son in front of a house where Abe, who is 75, lived for three years when he was a boy. The candidate himself never lived in the house, although it was draped with a large freshly painted banner that said: "Welcome Home! Chuck & Abe"
After the press event was over, Selma approached a reporter and asked, "You aren't going to be one of those who write that Chuck is aggressive, are you? He is not aggressive. He is committed."
During the nine terms Schumer served in Congress, a new verb was coined among Hill staffers who work for House Democrats from downstate New York.
The verb comes from what Hill staffers say is Schumer's periodic habit of stealing the limelight from other House members. Three senior Hill staffers who have worked for downstate New York Democrats and who do not want their names published agreed on this definition:
"When you wake up in the morning and find out a colleague has issued a press release on an issue that you have been working on for days, weeks, months or years, then you have been Schumed."
A particularly memorable Schume one that rankled New York Democrats Carolyn McCarthy, Eliot L. Engel and Nita M. Lowey occurred last year in the aftermath of a shooting spree at the top of the Empire State building. A Palestinian teacher on a tourist visa had purchased a semiautomatic pistol in Florida and shot seven people, one fatally, before killing himself.
McCarthy, Engel and Lowey immediately drafted a bill to ban tourists from buying guns. Schumer, a longtime leader in handgun legislation, also announced that he was introducing a similar bill. President Clinton supported the concept and invited McCarthy to the White House for an announcement of his support.
But when he did so, the president credited only Schumer. The incident was perceived as a classic Schume, according to several senior Hill staff members.
"He is disliked by many of his colleagues because he is perceived as egocentric and selfish to an extreme," said one longtime staffer who knows Schumer well and whose view is echoed by several other senior Hill staffers. "He never gave anything away to anybody. He is not a sharer. It is all about him."
Even his most resentful critics, however, agree that Schumer deserves his reputation as one of the most creative, intelligent and energetic members of the House. He steered passage of the Brady bill in 1994, with its waiting period for buying a handgun, and was a principal strategist for inserting an assault weapons ban into the 1993 crime bill.
Asked about his reputation in Washington for stealing media attention, Schumer said it was unfair and untrue: "I never push myself in front for pictures. I find that distasteful."
Getting media attention, he said, is merely a tool for an effective legislator.
"It is one of the best arrows in your quiver," he said. "It is part of being a teacher. I love to teach."
On the media-hog matter, Schumer's mother, Selma, has a slightly different view: "He would take every molecule of credit for what he's done. He wouldn't take credit for what he hasn't done. But he has done everything."
Polls in the past two weeks have shown that Schumer is way ahead of D'Amato in New York City and losing badly to him in the suburbs of Nassau and Suffolk counties. The surprise in the polls, according to several political analysts, is upstate, where more than a third of the vote will be cast and where Schumer is within striking distance of the incumbent.
Upstate New York has traditionally been D'Amato country a reliably Republican stronghold where voters are historically suspicious of New York City's wicked, big-spending ways. Yet while the city (under a Republican mayor) has boomed throughout most of the 1990s, Upstate has weathered a crippling decade of factory closings, job losses and shrinking population. Cities like Utica, Syracuse, Buffalo, Albany and Binghamton are in trouble.
Schumer says he can win if he can channel Upstate misery into D'Amato resentment. It's a formidable challenge. Polls show Schumer remains unfamiliar to as many as four out of 10 Upstate voters. D'Amato is blanketing Upstate television markets with TV ads, trying to make sure that the first impression voters have of Schumer is of a wild-eyed, tax-and-spend Brooklynite. To fight back, Schumer continues to air TV ads that say D'Amato is a time-tested liar who creates more potholes than he fills.
Voters, in response, seem slightly sickened, with nearly 75 percent of those questioned in a statewide poll last week saying that D'Amato and Schumer are spending more time attacking each other than discussing issues.
Besides buying TV ads, Schumer is hopscotching among Upstate cities on weekends, making speeches about his ideas to perk up the economy and attempting to inoculate himself against the foreign sound of his own Brooklyn accent.
During last weekend's jaunt to four Upstate cities, Schumer was characteristically relentless in mentioning that "my own father" grew up in Utica. He mentioned this astonishing fact more than 20 times, spicing it up with references to an uncle who lives in Rochester.
During the "homecoming" ceremony in front of the Utica house where his father had once lived, Schumer explained his challenge in the remaining five weeks of the Senate race: "It is basically a contest between somebody voters know and don't really like very much and somebody they don't know. And I have to get them to know me.
"The morning after I was nominated, D'Amato had a million dollars of ads Upstate that attacked me with all sorts of names and everything. Well, you know, I am going to fight back. I am going to answer every ad. I am not going to let Al D'Amato roll over me."
Presenting a can-do, white-shirt, good-guy image is not so easy, though, during a mud-wrestling contest. A telling measure of the difficulty was Lisa Smith, a woman who came out to listen to the congressman last week in Utica.
She said she "hadn't even heard of Chuck Schumer" until she saw TV ads that portray him as a shark from Brooklyn. Smith lives in the very house where Schumer's dad grew up.
Al D'Amato had gotten to her first.
© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company