Harry Reid wants Chuck Schumer to succeed him as Senate minority leader
Errol Louis: But some on left want to block Schumer's rise to leadership post
Louis says Schumer is tuned into middle-class voters, could create new Democratic era
Correction: An earlier version of this commentary gave incorrect dates for when Charles Schumer chaired the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee and when the Democrats lost the Senate majority. It also incorrectly listed Rodney Capel's current position.
Editor’s Note: Errol Louis is the host of “Inside City Hall,” a nightly political show on NY1, a New York all-news channel. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.
Sen. Harry’s Reid’s perfunctory announcement on Friday that he won’t seek re-election next year – leaving a vacancy for leadership of the Senate Democrats – was followed, hours later, by a matter-of-fact statement in an interview with The Washington Post: “I think Schumer should be able to succeed me.”
That would usher in a whirlwind of activity on Capitol Hill in the next year as New York’s senior senator prepares to seize the reins of power – and retool the party as a center-left powerhouse that can win and hold a majority in 2016 and beyond.
Left-leaning activists have begun scrambling to block Chuck Schumer’s rise. The progressive organization Democracy for America is calling for Sen. Elizabeth Warren to seek the leadership post, and the left-leaning Daily Kos website is circulating a poll seeking other challengers and denouncing Schumer as too close to the “Wall Street wing” of the Democratic Party.
With more than a year to go before Senate Democrats will choose a new leader, anything can happen. But after watching Schumer in action for more than 20 years, I’d be surprised if he gets outsmarted in a political moment he has literally been working for a generation to create.
With more than $13.4 million on hand in his campaign coffers, Schumer has more money than all but one member of the Senate – and is the only Democrat in the top 10 in that category. He ran the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee when it took the majority in 2006 – and while Democrats lost the majority in 2014, the field looks far more promising for them in 2016: Republicans must defend 24 seats, while Democrats need to protect only 10.
Schumer brings an extraordinary level of personal political skill to the leadership fight. Even among the 100-member Senate – home to a great many ambitious politicians with big egos – Schumer has long operated at a high-octane level of smarts and media-savvy brashness that impress and occasionally startle his colleagues.
Republican Bob Dole, a longtime lion of the Senate, once quipped that the most dangerous place to be in the Capitol is between Schumer and a television camera. The joke stuck – but behind the gag is a sign of grudging respect for a man who excels at the basic block-and-tackle necessities of political life.
Schumer is attuned to television and radio (growing up in the world’s media capital will do that). In fact, he popularized a practice of holding press conferences on Sunday, a slow news day guaranteed to draw reporters – and ensure him prominent placement in the Monday newspapers.
But he is also a consummate street politician: At 64, he maintains a habit of biking around New York City neighborhoods without fanfare or an entourage, quietly noting local problems and occasionally inviting himself into a block party or parade. When a reporter once casually asked him to name all 62 counties of New York state, Schumer did her one better, and hand-sketched a map of the state with all the counties filled in. (He visits every county in the state every year.)
Schumer isn’t the only politically ambitious kid from Brooklyn – before attending Harvard, he graduated from a public school, James Madison High, whose alumni include Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Sen. Bernie Sanders and ex-Sen. Norm Coleman of Minnesota (a childhood pal of Schumer’s).
But Schumer’s political climb been a long-term work in progress. He emerged on the national stage as a prime sponsor of the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994, a law that banned assault weapons; in the run-up to the final vote, New Yorkers practically couldn’t turn on television without seeing Schumer, then a congressman, on the floor of the House, waving a rifle over his head as he argued for the ban.
The higher profile served him well a few years later, when Schumer took on – and defeated – three-term incumbent Sen. Alfonse D’Amato. As a senator on the rise, Schumer attracted politically ambitious staffers who moved on to high-profile positions where they can help their former mentor.
A very partial list of those includes Howard Wolfson, Phil Singer and Blake Zeff, who went on to help run Hillary Clinton’s 2008 campaign; Ben Lawsky, who is now shaking up the world of finance as New York’s top banking regulator; Preet Bharara, who has become an anti-corruption powerhouse as a U.S. attorney; and Rodney Capel, who went on to become executive director of the state’s Democratic Party and is currently a special advisor to Gov. Andrew Cuomo.
With allies, money and the blessing of Reid, Schumer is in a prime position to implement the ideas contained in his important and overlooked 2007 book, “Positively American,” which lays out a vision for how Democrats should lead America.
Like Schumer himself, the book is savvy, hopeful and politically attuned to the desires of middle-class voters. Those who wonder what a Schumer Senate leadership would look like should take a look as Democrats prepare for what could well be the start of the Schumer era on Capitol Hill.