ROSLYN HEIGHTS, N.Y. — An increasingly influential figure in Washington, Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) is poised to lead Democrats in the Senate next year — either as majority or minority leader, depending on how things pan out.
Back home in New York, Schumer is cruising to his own reelection victory and is set to easily trounce his Republican opponent, Wendy Long. His odds are so good that Schumer doesn’t even employ much of a campaign staff. Virtually all of his public events are considered “official” Senate events, designed to score him earned media on the airwaves and in local newspapers — a subtle way to remind voters he’s still on the job and looking to win six more years.
On a recent morning in this Long Island suburb, staffers showed up about 20 minutes before Schumer to set up a “United States Senate” podium on a grassy knoll overlooking eastbound traffic on the Long Island Expressway.
One by one, local television cameramen showed up and conferred with the aides about the best way to position the podium to take advantage of the natural light. Ultimately, a dozen reporters showed up – three New York City TV stations and two Long Island news channels. That’s a good turnout for a Schumer event.
At issue that fall morning was Schumer’s calls for the federal Transportation Department to mandate that all commercial trucks of a certain size install automatic speed controls. Dozens of Long Island residents have died in recent years in highway crashes, several of them involving big rigs.
Schumer showed up at the event a few minutes late and immediately started glad-handing the local reporters.
“Hello Alfonso, I haven’t seen you in awhile,” he told a local reporter. “You’re looking pretty spiffy today.”
As the event began, commercial trucks and buses barreled down the highway behind Schumer, who lamented shamelessly that drivers too often “give it the gas” and whiz by other drivers. He said it was time for federal regulators to “give the gas to a new proposal.”
“We’ve got to push the feds to accelerate its adoption,” he said again, with no hint of irony.
Sensitive to the size and reach of the New York television market, he noted that high-speed truck accidents have also happened recently on a major interstate in Westchester County; on the New York Thruway that runs through nearby Orange County; and on the Brooklyn-Queens Express that runs through parts of the city.
After taking a few questions about the proposal, Schumer darted across a service road to stand in a median overlooking the highway. With cameras in tow, he turned and gazed at the speeding traffic — then back to the cameras before staring off in the distance. He turned back to the traffic. Then back to the photographers.
“You got what you need?” he asked. “I can wait another minute.”
Later in the day during an interview at a Manhattan diner as he spooned through a bowl of cut fruit, Schumer said that he knows that “effete intellectuals” generally dismiss his made-for-TV moments, but “I believe I have to show people I like government. I have to show people government can work for them. I go on TV and I talk about things that matter to people.”
Events like his highway press conference embody the pillars of Schumer’s service, what he calls “the three P’s: Policy, politics, press. You need all three to get things working.”
The event in Long Island shows “people that government can help them and be a force for good, which is what I want to try to do as majority leader,” he said. “That in a small way is what I’m trying to do in a big picture.”
Schumer said he imparts a few pieces of advice to Democrats who are mulling running for the Senate.
“First thing I tell people, be sincere. Be who you are,” Schumer said. “The voters can tell a phony a mile away. And I tell them this: I’m from Brooklyn. Sometimes it helps me, sometimes it hurts me. But I know one thing: If I tried not to be from Brooklyn, I’d be worse than whatever I am. So you have to be yourself. And if you’re not in touch with yourself and exude that you know who you are and are comfortable with who you are, that’s bad for a candidate.”
Sure enough, at his next event at a seniors center in New Rochelle, N.Y., constituents quickly proved that his strategy works.
“When you get on TV, you say something,” an elderly lady told him.
Schumer pumped his fist in the air.
He beamed as another woman told him, “I see you on TV. I like what you do.”
“You’re more handsome in person,” a receptionist told Schumer on the way out.
“That’s a problem,” the senator said. “If I’m more handsome in person that means I’m not as good-looking on TV.”