Oct. 29, 2004
Campaign's a cruise for New York's Jewish senator


With the end of the campaign just days away, most senators up for re-election would be working 16-hour days shaking hands, kissing babies and urging voters to make the right choice at the polls.

Sen. Charles Schumer, who is up for re-election to the U.S. Senate from New York, is doing that, too-just not really for himself.

Facing a virtually unknown Republican opponent and with polls predicting an overwhelming victory, Schumer has been spending much of his time on the campaign stumping for other Democratic candidates in closer contests. On Sunday, Schumer was in Ohio campaigning for Sen. John Kerry. Earlier this month, the Jewish senator from Brooklyn went to Florida to convince Jewish audiences that Kerry would be good for Israel.

Schumer had a rare day in his hometown of New York City on Wednesday, but he spent almost as much time promoting other Democratic candidates for Congress and state senate as he did campaigning for himself.

In a state that has grown accustomed to expensive, high-profile and often nasty Senate races, Schumer's constituents don't seem to be complaining.

Political observers say it's for good reason: Schumer has worked hard to advocate for New York, and his lead in the polls-at more than 70 percent, he is poised to surpass Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan's record victory in 1988 with 65 percent of the vote-is evidence of that.

"He is tireless, he's a great advocate for New York, he's a great public servant," said Henry Sheinkopf, a Democratic political consultant. "Nobody works harder than Chuck Schumer. He's non-stop. The reason why he's having an easy time getting re-elected is because the Republicans can't come up with anybody who can beat him."

Schumer's Republican opponent is Howard Mills, a representative in the New York State Assembly, one of two legislatures in the state. Little known outside of his hometown of Goshen, in New York's Orange County, Mills admits he has had a tough time gaining traction against the Democrat.

"Sen. Schumer's got almost $24 million and we are doing everything we can to get our message out, but we don't have nearly the war chest that he has," said Caroline Quartararo, communications director for Mills' campaign. "I would have liked to have seen the media take this race a little more seriously."

Recent polls show Mills getting less than 20 percent of the vote. Another challenger, Conservative Party candidate Marilyn O'Grady, is polling at under 7 percent.

It's not just the approximately $24 million in campaign cash that has deterred potential Schumer opponents, but the senator's indefatigable approach to doing his job, political observers say. Even those that mock the senator's penchant for publicity-Schumer has gained notoriety for his endless flood of press releases and press conferences-admit that it has been coupled with hard work. Schumer might spend a Sunday morning in front of a TV camera railing against the rising price of beef, but in the afternoon he could be delivering a key report on security against possible terrorist strikes at the nation's ports.

"Chuck is a guy who's constantly on the go, constantly thinking," said William Rapfogel, executive director of the Metropolitan Council on Jewish Poverty. "Sometimes, being a publicity hound is not such a bad thing if you're doing a lot of good work out of it. He uses those press conferences in a way that's useful to constituents."

Schumer also touts his accomplishments on Jewish issues, often referring to himself as the "shomer of New York" in a play on the Hebrew origin of his name.

"He's always been very solid in terms of Israel and the Jewish people," Rapfogel said. "More importantly, on domestic issues he's been clearly interested and involved in things that we do."

Schumer, who served 18 years in Congress before running for Senate, even has won over some political opponents.

Six years ago, Jeff Wiesenfeld served as a key aide to Sen. Alfonse D'Amato, Schumer's Republican opponent in the 1998 Senate campaign. Known as the "pothole senator" for his outspoken and often coarse advocacy for his constituents, D'Amato was an 18-year-veteran of the Senate popular among Jews for his work on Holocaust restitution. The campaign was close, expensive and nasty, reaching its low point when D'Amato called Schumer, then a congressman, a "putzhead" in a private meeting with Jewish supporters.

Now, six years later, Wiesenfeld offers cautious praise for Schumer.

"All the things they say about Chuck-it's dangerous to be near him when he's near a TV camera, he seeks publicity at all costs-at the same time it's equally true that in terms of constituent service, if there are five women meeting in an aisle in Key Food, he'll be there," Wiesenfeld said. "People cannot fault him for lack of hard work."

By some measures, Schumer has been running his re-election campaign since 1998. He's made a point of visiting every one of 62 counties in the state every year since he was elected to the Senate, and he has been able to temper his rivalry with New York's other, more famous senator, Hillary Clinton, to win more federal dollars for New York.

While Schumer argues that he has been good at securing federal funding for the state, Mills takes pains to point out at every opportunity that New York gets less federal funding per capita in homeland security dollars than does Wyoming, America's least populous state-hardly a stellar record. Schumer ignores that criticism, running his campaign as if he has no opponent. Indeed, in the two debates with his opponents, Schumer explicitly said he would not respond to their attacks on his record.

More than a few political observers say Schumer's approach to this campaign is part of a larger strategy to position himself for a run for governor in 2006. They say Schumer knows the Democratic Party likely will lose seats in the Senate this year, which would further limit his effectiveness as a Democratic legislator. In the governor's seat, by contrast, Schumer would have free reign. Schumer denies this, though he is careful never expressly to rule it out a run for the governorship.

New York's current governor, George Pataki, has not yet announced whether or not he will seek a fourth term, but political analysts say it's doubtful New Yorkers would let him win if he did.

"Getting a fourth term in New York is a big hurdle, because New Yorkers, rather than always appreciating experience, especially an incumbent that's done a good job-they get fatigued and bored and want somebody new," said Wiesenfeld, who worked for a time as Pataki's liaison to the Jewish community. "Notwithstanding the fact that Chuck's been a good senator, my prediction is that he'll be the next governor."