One July evening in 1980, Chuck Schumer went to see the Brooklyn Philharmonic play — and started a fight backstage.
According to reports at the time, Schumer, who was then a 29-year-old assemblyman running for Congress, grew angry at the concert’s organizer, state Sen. Marty Markowitz, for his plan to introduce Schumer and his opponents before the show.
The would-be congressman felt strongly that Markowitz not acknowledge his rivals. “The two almost came to blows,” the Daily News reported, “and had to be separated.”
The news accounts were confusing and conflicting. Some in the New York press reported punches or “arms flailing about.” Schumer’s spokesman insisted that the altercation in the park never made it past raised voices.
Today, Schumer is thinking about bigger fights than under-the-bleacher scuffles. He’s the minority leader in the Senate, tasked with protecting his most vulnerable Democratic Party colleagues from losing their elections Tuesday in states President Trump won, while at the same time leading the battle against Trump’s agenda.
These two goals are often in conflict with each other, putting Schumer in a familiar position: It’s unclear whether he’s landing punches or just flailing about.
Schumer, like his opponent in the White House, is an outer-borough boy who knows how to make use of the wild New York media market and often seems to care more about his team winning than about ideological purity.
But where Trump breaks all the rules of politics, Schumer seems to be guided by them. His mind is filled with poll numbers and focus group responses, more consultant than combatant.
Schumer’s supporters say this is what makes him the right man for the job: It will take a strategist to keep the Senate from slipping further from Democratic control.
His critics say this is exactly what makes him a man out of time: If the president is willing to break all the rules, Democrats should not be using the same, tired playbook.
At stake is the existential question of who Democrats want to be, who they need to be to return from the wilderness. With the midterm elections upon us, Schumer and his caucus will have a gut check on exactly how effective he has been.
On that Brooklyn night at the philharmonic, Markowitz emerged from his backstage rumpus with Schumer without a scratch. Defiantly, he acknowledged Schumer’s rivals in his remarks. He was not bowed by the future senator’s anger. And maybe the confrontation was less dramatic than the papers made it sound.
“I didn’t slug him!” Schumer said in a recent interview.
“There was no scuffle,” Markowitz concurred when reached by phone. “Maybe he got worked up. Chuck is very competitive. But he’s not that kind of fighter.”
Which raises the question: What kind of fighter is Chuck Schumer?
Shortly after Trump's election, Schumer received some meaningful advice.
“For two days, I stayed in the house and moped,” he said. “I am not a moper; that is so unlike me. So I stayed in the house for two days, and then I had a message from God, and it went like this: ‘Chuck, stop moping around. If Hillary had been president and you had been majority leader like we all thought, it would be easier, it would be more fun, and you’d get some good things done. But with Trump as president and you as minority leader, your job is much more important.’ ”
Schumer recounted this story in his home away from home, a conference room at the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee headquarters, where he’d been spending much of the week surrounded by polling data, powwowing with political staffers and kibitzing with pollsters in preparation for the next most important election of his lifetime.
At stake on Tuesday, he said, is nothing less than “the wellspring of democracy and everything that comes with it.”
Schumer has aged since his days as an ambitious assemblyman. His hair is gray, and when it’s slicked back, it looks like combed-out steel wool. He’s got the paunch of a man who has enjoyed Chinese food for most of his 67 years but a thin, angular face that tends to rest in a smirk, despite being under pressure that at times can feel biblical.
A few days after his message from God in 2016, Schumer got a call from a different kind of higher power.
“Mr. President-elect, I’m just driving past one of your golf courses now,” Schumer recalled telling Trump when he answered the phone. “I didn’t tell him, and maybe I would have now . . . that the course is a failure.”
Such a comment would have been counterproductive to Schumer. His goal then, as he relayed to Trump, was to try to find some areas where they could work together. He saw himself in a position to be a dealmaker.
For those worried that he wouldn’t have what it takes to combat a president they perceived as dangerous, that posture was a red flag.
Ezra Levin, a co-founder of the grass-roots resistance organization Indivisible, remembers reading two stories around that time. The first had Schumer discussing the possibility of working with the president on an infrastructure bill. The second had members of the Trump camp discussing the possibility of a registry for Muslim citizens.
“That was a very troubling week,” Levin said. “We were terrified that the outcome could be that Schumer would help build the roads to internment camps.”
Levin’s worst fears, of course, have not been realized.
In fact, he and many other progressive activists found themselves pleasantly surprised by the job Schumer did in 2017. There was the successful fight to protect the Affordable Care Act, where Schumer kept his entire caucus united and also spent hours working over Republican Sen. John McCain before his dramatic thumbs-down put the #Resistance into a joyous frenzy.
And even though Democrats were unable to beat back Trump’s massive tax cuts, they stuck together.
But 2017 turned into 2018, and in the midst of an election year, it started to look a bit like Schumer wasn’t willing to wage as many fights. Democrats — even those who had been closest to Schumer — began to wonder whether he was the guy who could lead the political brawl on Trump’s turf.
Schumer is famous for a number of things: having a magnetic pull to television cameras, owning a flip phone, being a keen fundraiser and keeping his staff working such long hours that they have no chance to meet other people and end up marrying one another. Schumer loves playing matchmaker.
In 2011, Schumer flew to Cleveland to celebrate the wedding of his staffers Brian Fallon and Katie Beirne. He sang “New York, New York” karaoke-style and gave a 10-minute toast.
That was then.
Now Fallon and Schumer haven’t spoken to each other in months.
Earlier this year, Fallon started an organization titled Demand Justice, a group dedicated to fighting the Trump administration’s efforts to appoint conservative judges. In this capacity, he has criticized his former boss from the sidelines, something almost unheard of among the always-loyal Schumer diaspora.
Plenty of folks on the left have criticized Schumer for plenty of his moves in 2018: He didn’t whip voters against Gina Haspel, Trump’s pick for CIA director, and when Sen. Elizabeth Warren was on a mission to defeat a Republican bill to ease Wall Street regulations, Schumer asked her to please hold her fire on the Democrats who supported it. For Fallon, things got particularly exasperating in August, when Schumer cut a deal with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, giving up the chance to fight a slate of conservative judicial nominees to get his members home to campaign for the midterms.
“I have begged them not to do more packages with Trump’s judges, but once Chuck thinks something might make life harder for his incumbents, that tends to be the end of that,” Fallon said.
He is aware that Democrats probably could not have stopped Republicans from confirming their judges. But perhaps that’s not the point; perhaps Democrats need to show they are willing to show up for the fights that matter.
In Schumer’s view, good leadership is sometimes about the punches not thrown.
On the day that Brett M. Kavanaugh and Christine Blasey Ford testified during the contentious Supreme Court nomination process, the hearing was broken up with a Senate caucus lunch. In the meeting, Schumer advised Judiciary Committee Democrats to keep their cool when questioning Kavanaugh.
“I said, ‘Be strong against him but without yelling in his face,’ ” Schumer recalled. “You’re much better when you make the argument without vitriol.”
Looking back on it now, vitriol seems to have won the day. Kavanaugh won supporters on the right with his righteous self-defense, and he was aided by a theatrical assist from a furious Sen. Lindsey O. Graham. Democrats, by contrast, seemed almost flat-footed.
But Schumer has no regrets about how Democrats played the moment. He believes Democrats did a good job defining Kavanaugh and his Republican supporters as extremists and as anti-woman. Republicans got their Supreme Court justice, but at what cost politically?
“We’ll see how much of a victory Kavanaugh was really for them,” he said.
Candidates for a job in Schumer's office should expect two things from the interview process: First, Schumer may ask your SAT scores (no need to ask him; he'll offer that he aced them). Second, he will quiz you about where various senators fall on an ideological spectrum from zero (most conservative) to 100 (most liberal). It's important to know that there is a correct answer for Schumer; it's 75.
“That’s by design,” said a former Schumer staffer who spoke on the condition of anonymity to talk candidly. “He really needs everyone to know that he’s right in the center of his party. It’s an image thing, but it has the benefit of also probably being true.”
If that feels a little manufactured, well, that’s Schumer’s way, too. He’s gone so far as to create an imaginary family out of thin air and to constantly seek their counsel. He used to refer to them as “the O’Reillys,” a middle-class family that doesn’t really follow politics that closely but spends a lot of time discussing things at the kitchen table.
“I know them,” Schumer said. “I grew up around families like them.”
In 2016, “he” voted for Trump and “she” for Clinton, Schumer said, but this election, they are both voting for Democrats.
“He was always asking, ‘What would the O’Reillys think?’ ” said Eric Schultz, a former spokesman for Schumer. He doesn’t ask that anymore, but that’s because in 2007, Schumer wrote about the family and decided their name needed to be a little more national. Now he’s always asking, “What would the Baileys think?”
“To be clear,” Schultz added, “he doesn’t only talk to imaginary people.”
No, in fact, he talks to everyone. All the time.
“I probably got more phone calls from Chuck in the first week of him being leader than I got from Harry Reid in four years,” said Sen. Chris Murphy from Connecticut.
“He understands the need of every individual member of the Senate,” said Sen. Brian Schatz from Hawaii. “He doesn’t need a spreadsheet; the spreadsheet is in his head.”
His ability to balance the needs of a caucus that includes moderates such as Sen. Joe Manchin III and progressives such as Warren has endeared him to his members. Republicans might like to call their opponents “Schumer’s puppets,” but the truth is that he rarely twists anyone’s arms too forcefully.
It can make him look like a weenie to some.
“Schumer should not be the leader of the resistance and cannot be the leader of the resistance,” said Rebecca Katz, a progressive consultant who used to work for Majority Leader Reid. “It’s kind of a problem.”
Or, as the Onion so bluntly put it: “Chuck Schumer Relieved He’s Never Taken Stance Meaningful Enough to Have Someone Mail Him Explosive.”
In 2007, Schumer might have had the same criticisms about the job he’s doing now.
“We will need to be clearer, bolder, broader and more specific,” he wrote. “I saw that it is just not possible by consensus.”
How does that square with the way he runs the caucus now?
“I guess I evolved,” he said.
Evolution comes with time. Schumer’s ambition now is to fill the stage with more Democrats, not push them away. It’s possible that Schumer has fallen into the same trap as a decade ago, back when he said the Democrats’ best ideas would often “drown in a sea of consensus.” Perhaps Democrats need a resistance leader who can tap into the energy, the anger and the passion of the left.
Or perhaps it will turn out that the best antidote for a government ruled by an unyielding president is a party that at least appears to seek unity.
“It’s the hardest job I’ve ever had, fighting Trump without all the cards,” Schumer said. “Maybe we’ll have more cards in November — God willing.”