After almost four decades in Congress, Chuck Schumer’s political evolution may be nearly complete.
With Senate Democrats favored to win control of the chamber on Nov. 3, the 69-year-old Schumer is poised to make history. He'd be the first Jewish Senate majority leader and the first New Yorker to hold the post. And no one would have served in Congress for longer until reaching the top; the man Schumer is trying to replace, Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), did it in a brisk 30 years by comparison.
Yet the Schumer of today is a far cry from the Reagan-era liberal who won election to the House in 1980 and then embraced the mantle of a "law-and-order Democrat" when he ran for the Senate in 1998. The self-described "angry centrist" is no more. Once derided for being too close to Wall Street, Schumer aides now boast that he has stood up to the financial services industry. Schumer is still distrusted by some on the left, but the New York Democrat insists his views have shifted to reflect a different constituency, as well as the more progressive Democratic Party of the Donald Trump era.
“A good elected official looks at the needs of the people he or she represents and does everything he or she can to help solve those needs, and the world changes,” Schumer said in an interview when asked about his evolution since coming to the Senate. “And the problems that existed, say in the '90s, are different than the problems that exist today.”
Schumer said his priorities for the next Congress include many of the top issues favored by progressives: “income and wealth inequality, climate [change], racial justice, health care, and improving our democracy,” along with the ongoing response to the economic and health-related fallout from the coronavirus pandemic.
But even if the election goes as Democrats hope, Schumer will have only a small — and ideologically diverse — majority to push that agenda through the Senate. Whether he succeeds will not only shape a Joe Biden presidency but his own future in a party moving quickly to the left.
If Schumer ultimately wants to enact the type of change he’s calling for, he’ll likely need to eliminate the legislative filibuster, a legacy defining move that would fundamentally alter the nature of what was once known as the “World’s Greatest Deliberative Body.” That would further polarize an already bitterly divided Senate, with Republicans sure to vow retaliation when they next have the majority.
Schumer says he hasn’t made up his mind on what to do about the filibuster, although he will come under heavy pressure from the left — and possibly Biden, Schumer’s old Senate colleague — to scrap the hallowed tradition if Democrats control the White House and Congress in January.
When asked about getting rid of the filibuster, Schumer has repeatedly said, “Nothing is off the table.”
Since becoming minority leader in 2016, Schumer has kept Senate Democrats united to a striking degree: through the Obamacare repeal battle of 2017, repeated government shutdowns, Trump's impeachment trial earlier this year, and the fight over the $2.2 trillion CARES Act in March, where Schumer and Democrats won major concessions from Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and the GOP majority.
Trump’s incendiary behavior and rhetoric makes it much easier to rally Senate Democrats in opposition — as does the sense that victory may be only months away. But Schumer has also made outreach to all corners of his caucus a priority, including by expanding his leadership team far beyond what he inherited from his predecessor, Sen. Harry Reid (D-Nev.). That group now spans a wide ideological range, from Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) to Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.).
Schumer also frantically dials his colleagues’ phones each day, speaking to as many as 15 to 20 Democrats in any 24-hour period. He even finds time to speak to Reid once a week; the former senator is “Number 23” on Schumer's speed dial.
“Chuck Schumer has an impossibly difficult job, and he does it extremely well,” Sanders said in a statement. “In a caucus with a very wide range of political views, Chuck has maintained strong party unity and has brought the caucus together in a progressive way to take on Trump and the right-wing extremism of the Republican Party.”
Schumer, though, has a long history of embracing policies that have infuriated the left, and some progressives lamented his ascension to Democratic leader following Reid’s retirement.
Schumer voted for the Iraq War in 2003 and opposed the 2015 Iran nuclear accord. He voted against gay marriage as a House member in 1996, only to reverse his position 13 years later as New York Democrats shifted on the issue. Schumer closely aligned with the financial services industry in his home state by backing repeal of the Glass-Steagall Act in 1999, and he raised tens of millions of dollars from Wall Street as the Senate Democrats’ campaign chair during the 2006 and 2008 election cycles. In 2006, Schumer supported a border fence between the United States and Mexico, and on other occasions, he’s called for a national ID card to reduce illegal immigration. Two years ago, Schumer offered Trump $25 billion in border wall funding in exchange for providing young undocumented immigrants a path to citizenship, a move criticized by some pro-immigration groups.
“He doesn’t have any core beliefs or core policy views,” Waleed Shahid, communications director for Justice Democrats, said of Schumer. “Progressives are definitely wary of him and no one considers him a progressive. But that said, he has been making concessions and moving because he knows that’s where the party is going, especially in a state as blue as New York.”
When asked about a potential primary challenge from Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) or another progressive in 2022, Schumer, though, didn't express any concerns.
“Look, throughout my career, I do the job for my constituents and for my country and it always works out,” Schumer said.
Schumer is known for crisscrossing New York state obsessively in small chartered planes to make sure voters never forget who their senior senator is. He is famous for his Sunday press conferences focusing on hyperlocal New York issues. Schumer’s elderly parents still live in Queens, and he visited them every weekend up until the pandemic made such contacts risky.
“In almost all of my career, even when I started in the New York State Assembly, I haven’t had a grand plan like, ‘I’m going to be here 10 years from now, here in 20 years.’ I do my job well and then the next thing sort of falls into place,” Schumer added.
When he was elected to Congress in 1980 — and even more during his 1998 Senate race against Republican incumbent Al D’Amato — Schumer positioned himself as a “tough-on-crime" Democrat. With New York City and the nation suffering from historically high levels of crime during that period, Schumer took a hard line on criminal justice issues, as did an overwhelming majority of lawmakers in both parties.
Schumer was one of the architects of the 1994 crime bill that Biden has lately been criticized over, using a subcommittee on the House Judiciary panel to help draft the legislation. Schumer pushed for longer prison sentences for criminals and sought to expand the use of the death penalty.
The New York Democrat has also supported increased government surveillance, both before and after the 9/11 attacks. For instance, Schumer backed "roving multipoint wiretaps" without warrants when proposed by the Clinton administration in the mid-1990s. Schumer voted for the Patriot Act in 2001, along with nearly every senator. In 2004, Schumer suggested the threat of a terrorist nuclear attack could warrant the use of harsh interrogation techniques.
"Take the hypothetical: If we knew that there was a nuclear bomb hidden in an American city and we believed that some kind of torture, fairly severe maybe, would give us a chance of finding that bomb before it went off, my guess is most Americans and most senators, maybe all, would say, 'Do what you have to do,'" Schumer asserted. Schumer, however, has also voted in support of multiple anti-torture measures.
Yet the great dichotomy of Schumer, the enigma the New York Democrat presents progressives, is that he balances these positions with dramatically liberal views that were often far ahead of their time. Schumer came of age during the Vietnam War, a defining moment for the American liberal movement and for him personally. Schumer sees himself at heart as a liberal reformer, just not with the purity that the younger generation of progressives demands. Schumer's own official biography say his goal is "finding common sense solutions to national issues."
One of the first bills Schumer co-sponsored as a House member in 1981 called for a federal criminal investigation into the murder of Black children in Atlanta. Schumer has long fought for public housing, going back to battles with the Reagan administration over funding cuts. Another early Schumer proposal called for a tax cut for renters, a major issue in New York and other big cities. The New York Democrat pushed through a tax credit for middle-class families in 2009 to help pay for college. Schumer and future-Speaker Nancy Pelosi introduced legislation in 1989 to provide housing for AIDS victims. The 1994 crime bill included an assault weapons ban, something gun control groups can only dream of implementing today, and the New Yorker remains a staunch supporter of new legislation to curb gun violence.
Schumer has also been a strong advocate for abortion rights throughout his career, and he was a key player in passage of the Violence Against Women Act. The New York Democrat voted against both NAFTA in 1993 and the revised United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement this year. Schumer's first big legislative victories focused on consumer rights. And Schumer has been a hawk on Chinese trade and currency manipulation for decades to the delight of organized labor.
“Chuck stands up for our caucus every day,” Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), another member of his leadership team, said in a statement. “I've seen up close and personal how hard he fights so that we can make real progressive change for working families.”
In an interview, Reid — who came to the Senate as a pro-gun, anti-abortion Democrat only to end up voting the other way after he became party leader years later — said he understands the difficulties Schumer faces, particularly as the party shifts.
“I think that people who are locked into legislative positions or political positions make a mistake, they don’t get anything accomplished,” said Reid, who gave Schumer his first big step into Democratic leadership ranks.
Schumer has won loyalty among his members not just through his constant communication with them. In interviews with a series of Democratic senators, several recalled the lengths Schumer went to fundraise for them and help them get elected.
"When I first ran [for the House] in 2006, he campaigned for me, he went to my red, red district for me, he did events for me, he went to fundraisers for me," said Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.). "He was extremely generous back then, and I didn’t know him at all."
Schumer has even dialed down his well-earned reputation as a media hog, often stepping back to push other colleagues in front of the TV cameras.
“People would say ‘Watch out, if there’s a microphone Sen. Schumer is going to be there,’” said Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.), a member of leadership, “That’s what used to be said, and I think he understands that [in] his role as leader, it’s his job to make sure that others can get to the microphone.”
Schumer has been able to work closely with his one-time rival Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), a former roommate on Capitol Hill. Durbin, the Senate Democratic whip since 2005, was once seen as Reid’s successor. But Schumer leaped over Durbin with Reid’s support. Both men say there’s no animosity between them now.
“There were differences, I’m not going to gloss over them, along the way,” Durbin acknowledged. “I look at him and what he’s doing and think there are many parts that I could do, but there are parts of it that he does so well that I really can’t do as well. He is a much better political analyst. He's a substantially better fundraiser than I am. I told him from the start, ‘I’m part of your team, I’m going to be working with you,’ and that’s exactly the way it’s done.”
Schumer and Biden had a good relationship when both were in the Senate. The New York Democrat says the former vice president once predicted that Schumer could become majority leader. Schumer added that the two speak frequently amid the campaign and that they’d be strong partners if given the chance to govern.
Schumer’s work with Republicans is typically more pointed. He’s routinely attacked by Trump, who refers to him as “Cryin’ Chuck” or “Fake Tears,” and Schumer fires back just as aggressively. For Senate Republicans, especially McConnell, Schumer is better to deal with than Reid, although he’s also seen as a serious threat and not to be underestimated.
“He’s a tough guy and he’s pretty ruthless, but if you kind of understand what you’re dealing with, you can find some areas to work with,” said Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas), who has collaborated with Schumer on several pieces of legislation, including patent litigation reform.
But McConnell remembers as well that Schumer dumped millions into the 2008 Kentucky Senate race in a bid to knock off the Republican leader, a payback of sorts for the GOP’s successful effort to defeat Senate Democratic leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.) in 2004. And Schumer voted against McConnell’s wife, Elaine Chao, to be confirmed as Transportation secretary in early 2017, a shocking breach of senatorial etiquette between party leaders that took McConnell a long while to get over.
That relationship, of course, will be altered dramatically if Schumer is in charge of the Senate and McConnell is forced back into minority leader, a role he had for eight years before the GOP took over the Senate in 2014 and where he frequently thwarted the Obama administration.
“I think Schumer's gonna sit down with McConnell, or whoever is the [Republican] leader and say, ‘OK, here's the things we have to make progress on, are you willing to work with me?’” said Sen. Chris Coons (D-Del.), who is also a close Biden ally.
“I think at that point the ball is in the Republicans’ court. If McConnell says, or whoever their leader [is] says, ‘You know what, no, I have no interest in working with you, go to hell,’ then Schumer will ask a group of us to go work with our friends and colleagues in the Republican caucus and see if we can find a group that is willing to buck their caucus leadership.”
And if no such group exists, even in a post-Trump GOP, Schumer will have to decide whether to blow up the filibuster once and for all, or watch his ambitious agenda stagnate.