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NYT: Facing Re-election, Schumer Draws Breath

February 5, 2010

Charles Schumer, politico extraordinaire of the Left, is now facing some not so comfortable criticism here in New York.

Here’s the story from the Times:

The usually unavoidable-for-comment, if-it’s-Sunday-here-is-my-press-release senior senator from New York is being a little tetchy about going on the record.

Senator Charles E. Schumer has had a not-so-hot run recently. Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg accused him of failing to deliver enough federal health care dollars for New York, and the city’s titans of finance at a recent closed-door meeting accused him of being insufficiently pro-Wall Street; one indignant fellow stood up and demanded his donation back.

Some Democrats whisper that he plays the too-aggressive kingmaker, shoving aside challengers to Kirsten E. Gillibrand, the appointed junior senator. And a recent Marist College poll suggested that Mr. Schumer’s favorability ratings had leaked helium, falling to 47 percent.

Is this fatal to the senator as he seeks his third term? That seems highly, deeply, profoundly unlikely, even according to those same pollsters and to senior state Republicans, who prefer to place Ms. Gillibrand in their cross hairs for the fall of 2010. But a harsh wind is howling for incumbents, and Mr. Schumer, who has been running for office since just about the day he left Harvard, does not like talk of any Democrat’s political mortality, particularly his own.

So he carefully measures out his verbs and nouns for a reporter, trying not to say what he knows: It’s been a rough year.

“There was another poll this same week that had much different numbers, so you can’t rely on polls,” he says, striving for a studiously bland manner.

In truth, even Lee M. Miringhoff, head of the Marist College Institute for Public Opinion, agrees it is not the end. He has sifted the poll numbers and divines mostly agita for Mr. Schumer.

“It’s not the usual fluctuations, but neither do I think it puts him in electoral jeopardy,” he said. “It’s more that it speaks to a lack of enthusiasm in his electoral base.”

Still, for a man who might be the next Senate majority leader, and who is credited with masterminding the strategy that oh so briefly put 60 Democrats in the Senate, to see bubbles of discontent in his own state is a strange business. His Web site features a map of New York with green thumbtacks on towns he has visited in the last year, a virtual forest of green from Ogdensburg to Niagara Falls to Utica. In New York City he has appeared at 10 City Council installations, 5 firehouses, 7 schools, and so on and on.

In his version of Where’s Waldo, the answer is everywhere.

Wall Street’s current disaffection is intriguing, as Mr. Schumer served for 30 years as Horatio at the bridge, guarding against too many incursions against the financial industry. He artfully sidetracked an effort to tax hedge funds and pushed for repeal of legislation that prohibited commercial banks from engaging in risky investments like trading stocks or mortgage-backed securities. And he helped craft a bank-friendly bailout. In return, he has taken in more money from the securities and finance industry over the course of his career than any Democrat other than Senator John Kerry of Massachusetts.

Of late, Mr. Schumer has put a little flannel in his pinstripe love. He favors an Obama administration proposal to tax large banks. He has spoken out about “outrageous” bank overdraft policies.

So the prevailing mood on Wall Street is of wounded innocence: Et tu, Chuck? The Partnership for New York City, a plutocratic chamber of commerce, recently met with the senior senator. “This disappointment was very high; he’s walked away from our industry and that’s unconscionable,” said a member, who nonetheless did not feel so emboldened as to want to be identified.

Mr. Schumer, by this account, took umbrage at their umbrage. Do you, he asked, really think it’s better to be rhetorically pro-Wall Street or anti-Wall Street? Be realistic. Financial institutions did much wrong, he suggested, but cautioned against getting vindictive.

“Chuck has been a champion for our financial industry and for our state,” said Kathryn S. Wylde, the partnership’s president. “But it’s a quarrel in the family with unrealizable expectations of unconditional love.”

A few, including that fellow who rumbled about desertion, talked privately of funding a challenger to Mr. Schumer. As Mr. Schumer could become Senate majority leader, and therefore the third most powerful Democrat in the nation, such militancy struck others as daft. “What are you going to do for a new king?” asked one.

Some have seized on a passive-aggressive way of torturing the senior senator. They want to finance a Democratic primary challenge by Harold E. Ford Jr., whom they happen to admire, to Senator Gillibrand, whose patron is Mr. Schumer. Mayor Bloomberg, who was not pleased that Ms. Gillibrand edged out his choice, Caroline Kennedy, appears not unopposed to this turn, as his former pollster and campaign manager are advising Mr. Ford.

And yet, and yet, if Mr. Schumer were a racehorse, you’d be hard put to find anyone willing to place a bet on his losing. Republican leaders tend to view Lawrence Kudlow, the conservative television commentator and champion of Wall Street who has talked of running, as a highly verbal and entertaining lamb to the slaughter.

And Park Avenue cannot offer a plurality to anyone.

“Let me get this straight: The public is infuriated with the banks, so the way to beat Chuck Schumer is to run a right-wing, pro-Wall Street economist against him?” said Bob Master, political director of District 1 of the Communications Workers of America.

Mainly, primarily, Democrat after Democrat warned that questions about Mr. Schumer’s putative weakness seem likely to accomplish but one thing: to push Mr. Schumer, whose love of press conferences and taste for the most remote corners of New York is inextinguishable, to travel and talk and travel even more.

“He has only one reaction to this stuff,” says a former staffer with some evident affection, as well as relief that he no longer labors there. “God help him, but mainly, God help his staff.”

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